Comment & Opinion

Who is A Thinking Ape?

Will Luton says weird is better

Who is A Thinking Ape?

Will Luton is a designer, author and former consultant who has worked for the likes of SEGA, TinyCo, Nexon and the BBC.

He is currently Product Lead at A Thinking Ape in Vancouver, BC building an ambitious new mobile title.

When I talk to people in the industry about A Thinking Ape most don't know who we are.

Those that do think we are a weird company: weird because we do little press; weird because we opted out of the Valley; and weird because we make hardcore games that are sometimes about living in a college dorm.

Yet six years since the launch of Kingdoms at War, our first title and our first to hit the heights of the top grossing chart, we are still here and we are still growing our revenue and our teams.

I want to talk about what I believe this quiet success is down to: a unique mission from the founders, the talent that we manage to attract and the level of autonomy we provide all our staff.

Finding Community

In 2008 the company founders left jobs in the Valley to develop a chat app called Chatterous as part of Y Combinator.

What they discovered was interesting: people used Chatterous as an extension for games.

The implication was clear: Chat could amplify the social mechanics of any game, allowing for deeper inter-player strategy and lasting social connections.

A Thinking Ape co-founder and CEO Kenshi Arasaki at a recent all hands

Kingdoms at War was derived as an experiment for this amplification theory, a game to be wrapped around Chatterous and prove the chat engine's power for mobile games.

The deep, often confusing, MMORPG mechanics led to some deep strategy and complex emergent behavior.

The founders studiously watched and analyzed the game through data and their own hardcore play and started to grow the team to deepen and strengthen what they saw as working and improve on what was not.

The Kingdoms at War mechanics were applied across multiple reimaginings, the most successful of which is the oddball Party in My Dorm.

A title with incredible viral reach and a unique culture that is unlike anything else I've ever seen, driven by a youthful, non-gamer community that sling memes and caustic wit with friends year after year.

Yet more recently our game portfolio has expanded into casino, city builders and gacha-fusion puzzle titles.

The success of these new titles come from thinking about how we build communities and have them interact in passionate ways.
Will Luton

The success of these new titles, and the aggregate growth of our titles under live operations, is down to more than just chat. It's about thinking of how we build communities and have them interact in passionate ways through the mechanics of games.

Our games create rage, love and lasting friendships, becoming a daily hobby for tens of millions of players.

And this is the point that we start with in all of our games: how people interact, what drives them to fight, to help and to form bonds with each other, then we provide the means for them to interact in these ways.

And what we see over and over is interesting human interactions will drive greater revenue and retention than even the most carefully crafted reward schedule or monetization mechanic. This allows us to create sustainable franchises with loyal player bases over and over.

However, creating theses in-game interactions is far from easy and there is another fundamental belief at A Thinking Ape that lets us achieve what we do: Hiring great people and getting out of their way.

Finding smart

Our move from the Valley to Vancouver, Canada was to this end: to avoid what our CEO, Kenshi Arasaki, calls "mercenaries", the job hoppers that jump from startup to startup collecting stock options.

Instead the company has built a talent pool more slowly through a screening and interviewing process that could be considered excessive, but is undoubtedly thorough. This has allowed us to filter for raw intelligence, motivation and outlook rather than experience or industry stature, allowing us to cast our net beyond the small pool of industry veterans.

Vancouver is one of the best cities in which to live and work

The knock on impact of this talent quality is that we can give people a huge level of autonomy, where each game team operates like it's own startup with its own culture that is managed by the leads of each discipline: product, engineering and art.

This lets us move quickly without heavy people management and is strengthened by common and encouraged dissent where ideas and assumptions are challenged by everyone regardless of pay grade or title.

Whilst our structure is more formal than what Valve purports to have, it can still be equal parts freeing and scary to new hires who have no set hours, manage their own tasks, can execute with the tools they see fit and pitch and challenge ideas openly.

The net positives of an empowered, smart and motivated team far outweighs the risks.
Will Luton

If you are used to being closely managed then joining one of our teams can be a culture shock and an incorrect fit can have a large disruptive impact across the project, which makes our strict hiring practices so important.

Yet the net positives of an empowered, smart and motivated team far outweighs the risks and slower growth. It also provides us with a great culture.

And I don't mean culture in the sense of the superficial perks like beer fridges and foosball tables, but in the sense of how everyone in the company is treated and supported by everyone else. This creates an environment that makes staff productive and happy and is evidenced by our Glassdoor page

However, neither our culture nor our mission means that we have everything figured out. Everyday, me and my coworkers have to face and solve huge problems that are difficult and complex, but have the opportunity to transform games forever.

We are weird

So, whilst A Thinking Ape might be weird and relative obscure in the mobile games industry, I believe it is our differences that are our strengths, have provided us our success and allow us to grow.

And these differences come from a single defining thought: We find and enable people, be they players or staff, to do exciting things.

A Thinking Ape is hiring in dowtown Vancouver, BC in all disciplines from UA to HR.

If you would like to apply you can find open positions here regularly posts content from a variety of guest writers across the games industry. These encompass a wide range of topics and people from different backgrounds and diversities, sharing their opinion on the hottest trending topics, undiscovered gems and what the future of the business holds.