Written by Andrew Seale
In less than a decade, Chris Ye and Mark Lampert have quietly built a social and mobile gaming empire under the Uken Games brand. But talking to Ye, you’d hardly know it.
The entrepreneur is humble and in-touch with his founder roots, quick to acknowledge his oversights, beginners naivety, and the continuous learning experience that come with building a company in a constantly evolving sector. Today, Uken has 95 employees spinning out blockbuster games for mobile phones like Kings of Pool, Bingo Pop, and Jeopardy! World Tour (a partnership with Sony).
“Simple is actually a lot harder to achieve than complex,” says Ye. Good games – good simple games – are impossible without thoughtfulness. “We’ve learned that through a lot of different lessons… it hasn't been a straight path for us.”
Uken Games was always meant to be a product-based company. “Ultimately what we want to do is build culturally impactful products.” He points to something like Pokemon or Minecraft. “They've influenced a generation of people.”
But he’s realized in his career of building Uken that you can't just go out and manufacture a hit. “I think we were naive at the beginning because we had a lot of success with our early games,” says Ye. “(But) there are a lot of pieces you need in place in terms of talent, structure, and support, in order to develop the ingredients for something like a Minecraft.”
The pair launched Uken out of Lampert’s house in the Ossington and Bloor. Ye was living downtown so he’d right the subway up to Lampert’s place. “(I’d) make sandwiches for us for lunch,” says the founder. “We had a great time back then.”
They’d met at a Facebook camp shortly after the social network, which was relatively small with 80 million users worldwide, had launched its third-party platform. Ye was in his third year at York, studying finance, “but was always very interested in tech.”
“I watched Google go public and remember reading their founder letter – the beginning sentence was ‘Google is not your typical company, we're not going to act how the other companies act and we have a long-term vision,’ ” he recalls. “I was very intrigued by that approach, it was so different than what I had seen, so I continued to follow the success of YouTube and MySpace and the other things going on as they started to pick up from the dot-com bust five or six years earlier.”
Lampert and Ye collaborated on a simple app where you could go trick-or-treating at your friends’ virtual houses. It was a gifting app, the first type of games really active on Facebook. They gained steam, over the other gifting holidays, eventually growing to over a million users by Christmas. Then, Nestlé got involved.
“They had some experiential marketing budget at the time so instead of just gifting our drawings of mummy arms and tombstones and weird things like that you could also gift Coffee Crisps and Kit Kats and Smarties,” he says. “Over a million of those were sent on the platform through Halloween and Christmas, so that's how we made some revenue.”
In what could be construed as absurdist theatre, a 12-year-old girl out of the Midwest ended up taking down the app by writing a script to send 100,000 gifts the day before Halloween.
“It was an eye-opening experience to the power of leaderboards,” says Ye. Shortly after, they started to push into the free-to-play sphere, launching their first title Superheroes Alliance in 2009.
The next three years were focused on “mid-core” games, games based on progression but with a lot of depth of play. They shifted focus from Facebook to mobile. “When the app store launched, it took us a few months but we got something out there as quickly as we could and we started coming around to the fact that mobile was where the future was,” says Ye. “Not a lot of companies had done it at the time, they were focused on one or the other – that allowed us to scale to 20 or 25 people.”
They were able to take a lot of their learnings from mid-core to move into the casual and trivia space where they’ve seen the greatest amount of success. It’s allowed the company to scale, while still staying true to that original, humble vision.
Ye says that’s one of the reasons he likes mentoring startups and entrepreneurs.
“I've spent time with the Next 36 and other incubators and it's really great to see the support that exists around building a company,” he says. “I wouldn't say it's any easier or harder – it's just different than 10 years ago.”
Part of what makes Uken so successful is Ye and Lampert’s razor-sharp focus on the medium; that new space that’s going to come along and disrupt the gaming world. They’ve never been afraid to try new things.
“We have some interesting experiments in the augmented reality space,” says Ye pointing to Kings of Pool, which allows gamers to spawn a virtual pool table in any open space. “We just launched a new update where you can play with a robot called Scratch, who has a lot of different emotions.”
For Ye, it’s about reading the platform shifts. “There's been an over-investment in (AR) where the technology hasn't reached maturity… but I think it will develop over the next few years,” he says. “Research and experimentation is a big part of our culture.”
Photo Credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)