When Big Viking Games launched in 2011, it was a tiny four-person company in London, Ontario, headed by founders Albert Lai and Greg Thomson. Lai is a serial entrepreneur – Big Viking is his sixth company – and Thomson is a pioneer of free-to-play games, particularly those on Facebook.
It was a natural partnership and just five years later, the company has more than 100 employees between its offices in Toronto, where there are 25, and headquarters in London, where there are 75. The two set up shop in Ontario because of the province’s high level of technology talent, as well as the province’s corporate tax credits and grants. They decided London was where they wanted to start up shop and created their first studio there, soon ramping up to 15 employees who were working on Fish World, a virtual aquarium game on Facebook.
Since then, the company has made a series of acquisitions, including YoWorld (originally called YoVille) from Zynga. In December 2015, it acquired Gallop Labs, a Toronto-based data-science and marketing startup.
“The Gallop Labs team added a much needed focus on data science and will give us an edge in our already successful titles as well as new ones,” said John Gardiner, who manages the company’s Toronto operations. “We are proud to be the only company to acquire a title from Zynga.”
They’ve also been creating plenty of new games, while their original games continue to operate and grow month over month in terms of revenue.
“I think our biggest claim to fame would be those two titles on Facebook, but we also have a heavy research and development component that’s building games in HTML5,” Gardiner said. “The concept is you can play our games on any browser on any mobile device and you get the same experience, in real-time with no install to your device. It’s incredibly powerful, and we believe is the future of mobile entertainment.”
So how does a free-to-play game developer make money? By selling items to the players in the game.
“Our games are more content-driven than a game like Candy Crush, which is why they have the legs that they have,” Gardiner said. “In YoWorld, you have a home you can decorate and a character you can dress up. We sell everything from decorations to new outfits and hairstyles. Anytime there’s a holiday, we have seasonal packs of costumes. The game has thousands of items so people can customize their character or — in the case of FishWorld — their fish tank. It’s an evergreen property because it’s content driven.”
Today, the company has more than 500,000 monthly players who play at least one of its games every month. Those players come from more than 200 countries around the world with 55 per cent coming from the U.S.
The other revenue stream, outside of players purchasing items within the game, would be through advertisements.
“We could show ads for other people’s games or products, which we have done in a couple of our games, but on average, 95 per cent of our revenue comes from in-app purchases.”
Over the years, the company has had support from EDC and has also accessed funds that support Canadian exporters who want to go to industry conferences.
“We’ve used a lot of the networking opportunities and things that come up when certain businesses from Asia or Europe come into Canada looking for partners,” Gardiner said. “We’ve met with some very interesting people through that process as well.”
Policy is another area that the company is focused on moving forward. “Our industry is very new. Over the next year, we’ll be looking for more support on what government policies look like, knowing that this industry isn’t going away anytime soon,” adds Gardiner.