Download the iPhone game Fieldrunners 2 only at the peril of your time and health. It's that much fun.
It's a "tower defense" game.
When you plan, an army of bad guys (clones!) comes rushing from the left side of your screen. They are trying to reach the right side. You have to build towers to divert their path and kill them before too many of them get there.
The game is so addictive, that for the two and half weeks that I played it, when I closed my eyes, I could actually see the game on the back of my eyelids.
Fieldrunners 2 is the second game from a small Cambridge-based firm called Subatomic Studios. It and its predecessor, Fieldrunners, have been downloaded millions of times at a couple dollars a pop.
This has made the games' creators, Subatomic Studios cofounders Jamie Gotch, Sergei Gourski, and Leo Montenegro, wealthier than they ever expected. Now they are using some of that money to build a business that already employs more than 20 people and can't hire fast enough.
It almost didn't happen.
Gotch, Gourski and Montenegro started working on Fieldrunners back in 2008.
Their original plan was to build it for the Xbox Arcade – an app store of sorts that Microsoft was planning to open for independent gamesmakers. Gamers would download their games straight to their Xboxes instead of buying them in stores.
But then, to Microsoft's surprise, a bunch of major studios decided that they wanted to sell their games in the Xbox Arcade.
Gotch says that Microsoft told the Fieldrunners guys: "We like what you're doing, but we know EA can deliver, so we're going with them."
So Gotch, Gourski, and Montenegro looked around and tried to figure out another platform they could build Fieldrunners for.
Around this time, Steve Jobs announced that Apple would be opening an App Store – and inviting third-party developers to build games for the iPhone.
Gotch, Gourski, and Montenegro had their platform.
They raced to finish Fieldrunners in time for the App Store's grand opening that Spring.
They couldn't do it.
At that point, "we came close to giving up," says Gotch.
"We all had day jobs. It was wearing on us. After we missed the release of the store we thought, maybe this isn't going anywhere. There were 5,000 apps on the store and we were like how are we going to be seen."
The team rallied and release Fieldrunners in October.
It sold like crazy, and the money started pouring in.
But everyone kept their day job.
In the traditional videogames business, hit games sell well for about 6 weeks and then sales completely drop off as retail locations move boxes around on the shelf to feature newer stuff.
Gotch says he and his buddies figured Fieldrunners sales would behave in a similar way.
They did not. The game kept selling. For three months. Then six. Then a year passed and the game was still a hit in the iTunes store.
Finally, Gotch, who had always wanted to run a company, decided it was time to build one around Fieldrunners.
Easier said then done. Gotch told us that at first, one of his cofounders wasn't really interested in starting a company. The other said he could go either way. Finally, he got them both on board. Then it took a while for Gotch to really figure out how to be a CEO.
Finally, almost two years after quitting their jobs and pursuing the Fieldrunners franchise full time, Subatomic studios released Fieldrunners 2 this past summer.
It's a massive success in terms of sales, selling in the millions. And lately, revenues have spiked again. Subatomic just updated the game to make in-app purchases, and sales of those virtual goods are coming in at 6X the rate of download sales.
We got on the phone with Gotch earlier this week and asked him a few questions about Fieldrunners and Subatomic's success.
Here is a lightly edited version of that Q&A.
You made plenty of money from Fieldrunners and could have made Fieldrunners 2 without creating a company. Why form a company?
JG:I spoke to a lot of developers that are successful and they decided not to create a company. The guy who created Super Meat Boy. He says it kind of scares him to have a bunch of people rely on him.
For me, I always wanted to run a company. My business partner, he just wanted to stay small and continue what we were doing. The other could have gone either way.
Is the plan for SubAtomic studios to become the next Zynga?
We don't look at ourselves like Zynga. Zynga's goal is profit, to make as much as they can. That works. Or it did work for them for quite a while.
Our goal is to be the Blizzard of mobile gaming. When there are 500,000 apps in the app store you need something to stand up. For us that's quality. We don't believe in the shotgun approach.
Our focus is on mobile and we'd like to make multiple projects at the same time. We'd like to have three teams. We're a little shorthanded right now. We have 30 or so people.
How do you mitigate risk in a hits driven business like the games industry?
It's true. In the game industry, you're only as good as your last title.
The lucky and good thing is that games take 3 and 6 months to build. Having a shorter development cycle helps. You can bounce back.
For us, we're trying to spread out a little bit. If you look at what we did on Fieldrunners 1, we put it on as many platforms as we could. PSP, dumb-phones, the Chrome store. That was in case Apple was going to someday change its policy, we had some other leads and partnerships.
With our new IP, we're exploring different business models, different ways of developing our games. That's the best you can do.
Fieldrunners 2 didn't launch with in-app purchases and it became a huge hit. Why add them in now?
This is something that was planned.
We wanted to make sure it had a solid launch. We wanted to show people that you didn't need in-app purchases to play the game. I hate FarmVille and the others where I have to buy something to play.
Why did we add it?
We do have mouths to feed at our company. We've got to do what we can to pay the bills and move and make better products. We don't require anyone to buy in-app purchases, but those that do help support our game.
When we first launched in-app purchases, we were seeing 6X the revenue generated from them then we were selling the game itself.
We've seen a ton more people buying our $40 coin pack than we thought.
When we first launched [Fieldrunners] we had a donation button.
I'm sure that there are some people out there are trying to support our development and some people want to blaze through the game. I'm not sure why people want to do that.
If you're playing the game why do you want to buy your way through it?