Big data analytics can help gamemakers be 'next Angry Birds'

Singapore startup ZelRealm Interactive says its big data analytics technology, Sogamo, can help game app developers understand players' unique gameplay traits to boost monetization strategies.
Written by Jamie Yap, Contributor

Singapore startup ZelRealm Interactive believes the game apps space is fertile starting ground to push its big data analytics platform called Sogamo, with the aim of making it the "gold standard" in helping game makers achieve better monetization by understanding players' game history, behavior and psychology.

"There's no point in doing Sogamo" if it cannot gather and crunch lots of data quickly to help game developers and publishers with monetization decision-making, said Elvin Li, the 30-year-old founder and CEO of ZelRealm Interactive.

The Sogamo platform--which stands for social games analytics, monetization and optimization--is targeted mainly at both social and mobile games, including those created by independent app developers, Li said in an interview. Games form the bulk of the most popular apps at app stores, and social game developers are also moving from Facebook to the mobile space, he added.

The startup also works with some of the "big guys" of the games world to build powerful analytics systems, in a manner analogous to how "Apple devices have Samsung parts in them", he added.

According to Li, the startup wants to expand its customer base "from these big guys to smaller guys" who make game apps, and a key factor of app success is analytics and marketing which can only come from knowing users' game behavior to entice them.

Developers spend a lot on advertising, but what they earn from players is not enough to cover those costs, Li said. "[This is a case] of negative LTV (lifetime value), which means during the entire period someone is playing your game, he pays less than what you paid to acquire him."

In short, the company wants its analytics tool to "help companies become the next Angry Birds".


Birth of Sogamo
ZelRealm Interactive currently has 13 employees. It was founded in 2008 by Li while he was studying computational biology at National University of Singapore (NUS). He graduated in 2010.

The company initially did not set out to analyze gameplay as its business. When Li started it with three other co-founders, who all left after a year, the original intention was to be "an eBay [marketplace] for virtual goods". But the idea did not take off as the team could not raise money, Li explained.

"So we pivoted to making plug-ins for virtual item shops. While doing that, we noticed most game developers tended to want to look at data of virtual item purchases, and realized nobody cares for the shop [selling the goods]. This is about analytics, not e-commerce," he noted.

Hence the idea for Sogamo was planted in 2011, and it took a couple of iterations and plenty of experimentation. Big data technology was not as popular then, and few people had the technical knowledge about technology that could quickly "gather huge data and analyze on the fly", Li said.

Core development for Sogamo only began around the middle of last year, and the company plans to start marketing it later this month, starting with the Game Developer Conference (GDC) in San Francisco.

Last November, the startup received US$500,000 in seed funding from IncuVest and National Research Foundation (NRF) under the Technology Incubation Scheme (TIS).

A lot of the US$500,000 fund went to research, and a part of it went to promotion and networking efforts, said Li who described his company as "very tech-heavy and tech-savvy". Among the total headcount, 9 employees are IT specialists, and 4 are in sales.

Reading the player
The Sogamo platform is currently available through two products. The first is the Sogamo.com site which offers a free, basic analytics service, a concept similar to Google Analytics, Li said. After creating a Sogamo.com account, a game developer can integrate the free software with his or her own game and start seeing "the simple stuff, such as charts, graphs and aggregated data like who your top-paying gamers are and which countries they are from".

The second is Sogamo x10, which offers predictive analytics, meant to advise developers on how to best monetize players based on knowing the latter's game behavior and psychology. The name "x10" is homophonic play on the word "extend". It will be available as software-as-a-service (SaaS) with a monthly subscription fee, though the company is still working out a figure, Li said.

While users can sieve out granular insights from the free Sogamo.com database, they have to spot those patterns by themselves from looking at the data, Li explained. "[With Sogamo x10], what we're charging for is predictions. If I'm a game developer and I know these are my top 1 percent payees, now it's about how to entice them [to pay], not just from a business point of view [on how much to charge], but also from a design, promotional and psychological standpoint."

For instance, if a particular gamer's past history has shown him to be very sociable with other players and has a tendency for using certain virtual items, the analytics software would recommend a promotional strategy where this player to exchange specific virtual goods with other players and get a reward.

"Understanding a user profile is something you can't get from graphs or charts. It is only [possible] by understanding user behavior, based on certain parameters," Li said.

Funding the main challenge
Asked about the biggest challenge he faced since founding the startup five years ago, Li said it was getting funding, especially in the early stage of setting up the company. "In Singapore, as a young kid without any industrial knowledge, trying to go out to raise funds is difficult [since you] don't have the credentials."

Another challenge was getting skilled talent. "You want the best people [but] these guys prefer to work for banks. People want stable jobs and stable salaries," he added. "But startups don't become successful within a day or two. If people don't see results within a few months, they want to move on."

The startup scene in Singapore has changed significantly since. "Five years ago, you were probably forcing your good friend to quit a stable job and give [the startup] a try. Today is different, with more success stories and people more interest in startups. And the government is doing a great job in making startup scene vibrant," Li said.

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