Before YouTube, before even MySpace and the subsequent onset of social media, there was Miniclip, the ground zero for meme culture that together with Newgrounds inspired a punk-like attitude to game development. Richie Shoemaker picks up the story from president and co-founder Rob Small as the company celebrates a 21-year journey from Flash to mobile.
When you started Miniclip, was there any thought of surviving – let alone thriving – over the next 20-plus years?
The idea of Miniclip came to me shortly after I had graduated from university in the late 90s. The internet was an incredibly exciting new frontier, and I wanted to take a risk by creating my own dot-com business.
As a recent graduate with a substantial amount of student debt, I needed to come up with a business plan that didn’t require significant financial investment. Together with my business partner, Tihan Presbie, we started researching the possibilities of creating an internet company that would focus on the hit-driven category of entertainment.
One of our overriding principles was to make sure our product was highly accessible and had global appeal, so we decided to make everything free. This was a huge risk at the time as we had no clear revenue model and 100% of revenue in the games market in 2000 was driven by console and PC sales. One of the first titles we created was called Dancing Bush and starred US president, George Bush, disco dancing in a nightclub.
Filmed in Tihan’s apartment, with Tihan acting as the body double, we created the game in a week and shared it with 30 of our friends and family. To our disappointment nobody even acknowledged we had sent them anything. About two weeks later though, our IT team called us and told us our servers had gone into meltdown, more than 5,000 people were trying to access the website to play Dancing Bush and in the end, the game was played more than a billion times around the globe.
Like many business successes, our key was timing. We released Dancing Bush just before George Bush announced he was running for president, which led to us being approached for an interview with Fox News who wanted to know whether George Bush had funded the game. It was this interview that helped to put Miniclip on the map, and propel us over the next two decades to become one of the world’s largest games companies, with more than 50 million daily players.
Are you surprised at how far Miniclip has come?
From the early days of Miniclip, we’ve stayed true to our original goal of unleashing the gamer in everyone by making things highly accessible, with huge global appeal. This became even more important as we entered the world of mobile games. We all live increasingly busy lives and are exceptionally time-poor, so anything we create needs to be easy to pick up and play. It’s this focus that has led to us achieving more than 50 million daily active users and hitting the milestone of four billion downloads on mobile.
Our rapid growth over the years has been supported by our focus on talent and culture. They say that 80% of company culture comes from its founder, and we’ve always made sure that culture permeates out. A strong culture isn’t something that just happens, it needs a lot of constant work. As a result, we have an incredibly diverse employee base of over 1000 people all over the world, which is vital when it comes to tapping into new potential markets. We believe that it is critical to have local knowledge within Miniclip so that we can ensure our games are culturally relevant.
There’s obviously been a huge change in how people consume games and gaming content. How have you managed to ride those changes?
The games market is constantly evolving and is almost unrecognisable now from what it was more than 20 years ago. It moves quickly, with new trends emerging daily. Monitoring and reacting to trends is a vital part of mobile games development, and helps us create experiences that we know players will enjoy. To do this, we’re constantly monitoring wider industry trends both from our competitors, and of course across social media more broadly.
Following a very successful ten years of web based games with Miniclip.com, we made the decision to enter the mobile games industry in 2009 when we opened our first studio in Portugal. The development of some of our biggest games takes place there, including 8 Ball Pool, Agar.io and Carrom Pool.
Mobile gaming has become a key space for our audience. Over the last 21 years Miniclip, and the industry, has undergone an incredible transformation. Our players have made it clear that they want us to maximise our efforts on mobile, so this is where our focus remains to deliver the best experiences possible.
What has been the biggest highlight of the last 21 years?
The growth of 8 Ball Pool has been our proudest achievement. Having started life as an online flash game on Miniclip.com in 2010, it quickly went on to become the biggest game on the website, so we knew it would be a hit on mobile. We adapted 8 Ball Pool for mobile in 2013, where it became the most downloaded mobile pool game only a short time later in 2014.
Since then, 8 Ball Pool has gone on to become our biggest game, with more than a billion downloads and a Guinness World Records title for the most downloaded mobile pool game. We’ve always ensured it is accurate in its representation of the actual sport, which has been key to its enduring appeal.
What was the most challenging period for the business and how did you overcome it?
One of our greatest challenges was pivoting Miniclip from being a games website to becoming a mobile developer and publisher. It was an extremely painful transition, which almost put us out of business, but thanks to the immense hard work and dedication of our teams we successfully reinvented ourselves on mobile, by leveraging our brand name and IP from the web.
Can you say why it was such a painful transition?
During the late 2000’s we started to observe a massive shift in consumer behaviour as players migrated from the web to smartphones. Web revenues declined sharply, in line with users moving away from the platform, so we shifted all our chips across the table to bet on our mobile business. At the time, this was a huge gamble, as none of us knew how big the mobile market would become, but we had no option. The transition required us to go from being a publisher of predominantly Flash games on the web, to becoming a developer of mobile games. This was an enormous change for the business and funding it almost put us out of business.
Miniclip was among the first companies to receive a major investment from Tencent. What did that investment allow and how has it changed the company and its fortunes?
Miniclip was one of the first European mobile studios to receive a majority investment by Tencent. Our experience of working with them over the last seven years has been a career highlight for me and many of my team.
Tencent is the world’s largest games company with stakes in Riot, Epic, Ubisoft, Supercell and many more incredible studios around the globe. As a game developer themselves, they know how important it is for any studio in their group to have a strong culture and sense of identity. They see their role as supporting and encouraging studios, allowing them to retain everything that has made them successful, rather than trying to optimise costs or integrate them.
We have learned a huge amount from them about how to manage acquisitions, which is why Miniclip has acquired more than eight game studios in the last few years and grown our company more than ten times bigger under their ownership.
How have you managed to maintain growth and not become akin to the MySpace of gaming?
Like many successful businesses, luck has played an important part, but we have also stuck closely to our purpose of unleashing the gamer in everyone.
Our most important success measure has always been audience growth, and we have been patient about how we monetise our games in order to provide our users with the best possible experience. That focus has helped to ensure that our players remain loyal and that our franchises live for a very long time.
We are also cautious about jumping on the next big thing, which is particularly challenging today with NFTs, metaverse, AR, and VR creating so much buzz. We are very comfortable being late to the party with a very high-quality offering, than first with a half-baked product.
With the lead more into mobile, does it feel like the end of an era?
We built the foundations of our business on browser-based games, and while the focus of Miniclip has shifted more towards mobile, web-based games will always be an important part of our history.
We’ve got a long heritage of publishing some of the most popular web-based games in the world, Club Penguin, RuneScape and Agar.io to name a few, but our core focus since 2010 has very much been on the development of our mobile games portfolio. From our first viral hit with Dancing Bush on Miniclip.com back in 2001, to our most popular game on mobile, 8 Ball Pool, our expertise spans multiple platforms and genres, and we’re using this experience to accelerate the growth of the business today.
How will you be celebrating this landmark year?
After a challenging few years due to the impact of COVID-19, not just for Miniclip but across the whole world, we’re looking forward to getting back together in our newly refurbished offices to celebrate our successes and the upcoming evolution of Miniclip.com. We’re looking forward to sharing the legacy of where it all started, and thanking our players and Miniclippers, past and present, for helping make the company a success.
What are you doing to ensure Miniclip’s best years are ahead of it?
We continue to do what we have always done, which is to do the best job we can for our players, by improving the experiences in our existing games and investing heavily in our future product pipeline. We are also expanding our product focus far beyond multiplayer sports to a much broader range of genres through organic development and further M&A.