San Francisco mobile games developer JuiceBox Games shut down in March 2016 after three and a half years following the failure to attract enough players to make money from its second game.
Speaking at Games First Helsinki 2017, the studio’s CEO Michael Martinez, who now works as studio GM at EA, offered a candid talk about how he and two co-founders grew the company but ultimately failed to keep it going.
Founded in 2012, the trio of founders had all worked together at Zynga for three and a half years prior on hit games such as Poker, FarmVille and FarmVille 2.
The studio had plans to build mobile games targeting the midcore audience. To that end, after convincing investors like Kristian Segerstrale to back the team’s vision, the developer raised $2.5 million in funding, with Segerstrale also joining the board.
“It’s kind of weird to ask someone for a million dollars, and weirder when they say yes,” said Martinez. “But it’s awesome.”
Despite having startlingly ambitious plans to ship three games in its first two quarters, JuiceBox launched its first game in February 2014; the free-to-play RPG HonorBound.
The project was its own take on titles like Rage of Bahamut and Blood Brothers with the idea to take inspiration from games like these in Asia and take them “to the next level” for a Western audience.
It worked to a degree for the first game. HonorBound peaked as the number 31 grossing game in the US and brought in $8 million. This meant the studio could continue developing and hiring new employees – it worked with over 36 staff at its San Francisco base.
When it launched its second title StormBorn in October 2015 though, Martinez said the team knew after just three days that the developer was in trouble and would probably have to shut down. The called the speed of that realisation "terrifying".
JuiceBox had bet the company on the second game’s success. Despite generally better KPIs, StormBorn had 10% of the installs of HonorBound, which proved unsustainable.
What went well
Martinez discussed the numerous lessons he learned from his time with JuiceBox, how it succeeded and where it failed.
When it came to what the team did well, he cited the team’s commitment to success. Whether it was working in the CTO’s dining room in the early days from nine to five, or quickly finding an office space and getting to work. This, he said, made it easier to speak with investors.
On the flipside however is he said you have to “be kind of crazy” to believe your studio is going to succeed. In his mind, there was no way things wouldn’t work out – his worse case scenario was selling the team down the line and making millions of dollars. A thought he labelled as “dumb”.
Another thing that went well was the team’s focus on what’s next. “There are a lot of company milestones you hit,” he said, but added that as soon as it would him them, it’s “kind of shocking” how they can become meaningless.
Obviously team’s want to celebrate success, he noted, but you can never rest on your laurels.
He also stated that he team, despite its ultimate closure, did what it said it would do in its early days. It met early milestones on time with a core value of “just do it”, which helped bring about the initial investment.
What went wrong
Despite generating $8 million from its first game, Martinez said the team “never built a great game” – one that could serve as a revenue engine for the company. He felt that while HonorBound had decent metrics, the team wasn’t able to unlock user acquisition spend profitably.
Secondly, JuiceBox was ultimately too late to market. He believes had the studio launched its games earlier in 2012 it would probably still be around toady.
Perhaps most importantly – he said a reason why the developer failed was because it bet the company on each game, “which is a terrifying place to be”.
While he felt the team’s strategy of applying its learnings in the same genre was sound, when it’s second game didn’t succeed, there wasn’t much it could do after.
For Martinez, one of the key lessons from JuiceBox’s success and failures was figuring out distribution is key. If someone asks you what your distribution strategy is, you can’t say you’ll build a great product and everyone will know about it because it’s great, he said, “it’s not sufficient”.
He added that stating you’re going to have featuring on the App Stores is good, “but it’s not going to make your business a success. Don’t rely on that”.
Another lesson when founding and leading a studio was to trust yourself, as there will be lots of hard decisions to make when building a company. You have to embrace these to keep the company moving forward, he stated.
Despite the studio’s closure – Martinez said that he still holds the life philosophy to always jump in, and had some encouraging words for others thinking of starting their own company.
“If you’re thinking about doing something like this, do it,” he stated.
“Don’t think ‘oh I’ll be more comfortable with risk two years from now, three years from now’, because those three years will go by in the blink of an eye and you’re not going to be more comfortable with risk later on. That’s not how it works.
“In the future you won’t look back and think 'I wish I didn’t take that risk', you always say 'I wish I did it'.”
He concluded with a quote from a speech by former President of the United States Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”