Birds aren’t the only animals that can make a top-grossing mobile game.
Pocket Gems, one of the handful of mobile game developers that has recently taken funding from a top-tier venture capital firm, just passed 28 million downloads with its casual, free-to-play title Tap Zoo leading the way. While the company has five apps out, Tap Zoo is one that’s been a fixture at the top of the charts for virtually all of its seven-month existence.
The game, which lets players manage a virtual zoo by buying and breeding animals, has been in the Top 10 grossing games for 27 out of the last 31 weeks. It’s the #1 highest-grossing app today in the U.S. (The company isn’t disclosing other metrics like MAU or DAU.)
“We like to think about games that are going to have a universal appeal,” said chief executive Daniel Terry. “They have to be easily accessible and attract a huge audience with a lot of diversity.”
There are a couple factors that have led to Tap Zoo’s success. First, it’s a free game that monetizes with in-app purchases of virtual currencies, meaning the game’s downloads are probably at least ten times what they would be if Tap Zoo were a paid app. The game doesn’t use in-your-face pressure to get its players to buy currency with invasive interstitials. But there are a number of animals and items that a player simply cannot get without having “Stars,” a virtual currency in the game that they can only get through in-app purchases or downloads of other apps. Pocket Gems constantly refreshes the content with new animals. Plus there are other unique features like cross-breeding, which leads to entirely made-up animals like ligers and more.
Pocket Gems was one of the earlier mobile developers to use a Tapjoy offer wall, which rewards players with virtual currency in exchange for downloads of other apps. Initially, Pocket Gems only earned income through Tapjoy, before it began to use in-app purchases. The two companies have close historical ties; in fact, an early Tapjoy investor Riz Virk helped jumpstart Pocket Gems’ first title financially. Terry wouldn’t disclose what share of the game’s revenue comes from incentivized installs versus basic in-app purchases. At the beginning of the year, the company said it was earning at least $2 million a month, but it’s not saying how much that number has changed since.
Pocket Gems also uses pay-per-install networks to buy a certain number of downloads, engaging in a classic behavior we’ve seen on the Facebook platform where a developer will pay to acquire users at a cost that’s lower than their potential lifetime value.
“We’re sophisticated about acquiring traffic,” Terry said. “But the most important piece is about continuing to engage users. If you’re acquiring users and they’re leaving after a day, that’s a terrible model.” Terry said the company aggressively monitors retention data through metrics like the share of users who return after 3 days and 30 days.
Tap Zoo has some social features: players can visit friends or neighbors and save sick animals on their zoos. They can also share the game with friends on Facebook or through e-mail and SMS. But those channels are so far not a huge driver of traffic, at least compared to the game’s high ranking and visibility in the app store.
On the back of the game’s success and the funding from Sequoia Capital, Pocket Gems has hired twenty people this year. Pocket Gems nabbed Playdom’s Ben Liu as chief operating officer. He oversaw the City of Wonder franchise. It also picked up an art director from Electronic Arts, Jeff Hunter, a director of product optimization, Niels Hoven, who was a senior producer at Playdom, and a former studio director at Electronics Arts’ Pogo, Rich Cooluris, who is now creative director. Aside from that though, the company is mostly picking up engineers out of schools like Berkeley and Stanford who don’t necessarily have a gaming background.
Since announcing the $5 million round back in December, a number of competitors have raised much more sizable rounds. Rovio Mobile picked up $42 million from Accel Partners and Atomico Ventures while TinyCo raised $18 million from Andreessen Horowitz. Terry said the company wasn’t actively pursuing any more funding.
“We think we’re in a great place financially,” he said. “We have great insight into our economics and that’s not a concern.” Terry said the company picked up the funding mostly to help with hiring; the Sequoia stamp of approval made it easier to convince people to jump aboard.
The company’s also in the process of building titles for Android, which recently launched in-app billing after months of delays.
“Android’s obviously huge. We’re very excited about payments,” said Terry, although he didn’t want to commit to a specific timeline. The company’s busy testing its games to make sure they work across a myriad number of devices. (Fragmentation, as always, is an issue.) An iPad version of Tap Zoo should be out shortly soon.
The company isn’t planning on bringing any of its titles to Facebook the way a couple of other mobile developers like Rovio Mobile and Glu Mobile are doing.
As for the future, there are other titles in the pipeline but Terry said he liked to think of Pocket Gems as an entertainment company, not necessarily a pure gaming company. In the near-term though, Pocket Gems will be laser focused on free-to-play simulation games.
“We call the stuff we build now games. They’re definitely casual, immersive games though,” Terry said. “It’s not about getting a high score. It’s about creating your own little world.”