Some startups focus all of their energy and time on marketing their products and trying to gain investment. While gaining initial capital is no doubt important, reassigning resources can reduce the amount of work that goes in to the actual product itself. Despite being relatively unknown in its home country of South Korea, DevSisters is a mobile game startup which has seen great success internationally. Visiting their office in Seoul, I met with CEOs Jihoon Lee and Jong-Heun Kim to find out how the company had done so well in the global market of games.
From the moment you step into the startup’s multi-storied open space office, it feels more like a startup company that you would see in the US or Europe. A bike rack sits in the center of the room, a monitor displays a live feed of a download ticker, and colorful soft toys and game art line the walls. A sheltered outdoor area at the back of the building provides another place for employees to have meetings, eat lunch or use exercise equipment. While most Korean startups also have a casual and fun atmosphere, it was clear that Devsisters offered a place which employees could really consider their own.
Devsisters was founded by three members in 2009 before the iPhone was even released in Korea. The company saw potential in the rapid growth of smartphones overseas and began to publish games on overseas markets in several countries. While many other companies around the world were also developing games and trying to create “hit” apps, Devsisters focused its efforts on quality and user experience, something which can clearly be seen in their popular games such as Ovenbreak and Alice’s Adventures.
The company’s most popular and successful game series Ovenbreak is cute and simple, making it addictive and easy to control. As a gingerbread man tries to escape from a fiery oven, the user collects jelly beans and dodges obstacles in its path. Not only does the game get more intense as the level increases, but the graphics are also nice to look at, with backgrounds and objects changing with each level. So far the app has racked up a massive 10 million plus downloads and has hit the number one spot on 20 different app stores around the world.
Devsisters has recently struck a deal with Skittles, so that all the jellybeans in Ovenbreak are replaced with the popular brand’s candy. While partnering with such a major brand name is big deal for the startup, Kim says that they wouldn’t simply accept any product placement.
“If we accept other product placement in the future it has to match our company’s image and product in some way. For example we wouldn’t accept a deal with Samsung cars because it has nothing to with us.”
The company received its first investment from top Korean mobile game company Com2uS in 2010. Lee explained that while receiving investment came along by chance, it was their initial success which led to to it.
Devsisters is now moving into more social games and has even developed its own social game platform named Devscake, so that other friends playing games can be found easily through one’s location, social networks or just at random. One of the social games recently released was “Fishing for Mish” where users raise their own fish and decorate their aquarium with various objects which can be bought with coins. Aquariums of other players can also be visited through the Devscake platform and users can comment on each other’s walls. In the future, more of Devsister’s games will make use of the platform to connect of its gamers together.
“After Ovenbreak was released in December 2009 it continued to stay in the top 100 paid games and at that time there were not a lot of Korean mobile game startups. Additionally, there were not many other Korean companies which ranked in the top 100 games on the US App Store. In April 2010, Com2uS contacted us and we met with them for the first time. Their management liked our game and team, and we looked up to them as well. After meeting up and talking, things went well and this led to a quick investment. It must have taken less than a month from the first time meeting until closing the deal.”
For a company with nearly no focus on marketing, the initial success of the company is definitely a rare and incredible feat. Co-CEO Kim says that the company did not do this intentionally.
“We didn’t purposely avoid interviews or PR opportunities but were just so focused on our product that we didn’t really think about it. Instead, sometimes we actually get people coming in off the street after seeing our office sign saying that they like our apps and that they didn’t know we were a Korean company.”
Whether intentional or not, the strategy has seemed to have had a great effect on the quality of the company’s games which is top-notch. Kim says that quality is ensured by keeping all development for every part of their products completely in-house, giving them full control.
“Everything is created here, we have talented artists, graphic designers, sound engineers and even our own QA team to ensure that the app meets a certain standard.”
With 55 employees and an average age of 29 years old, Devsisters has a young, relaxed vibe. The company steers away from hierarchical Korean business culture and is even more liberal compared to other Korean startups.
“We don’t have a company culture with restrictions and orders but we like to focus on freedom, and being responsible with that freedom. Many of our employees have lived overseas and although we are based in Korea, we don’t consider ourselves a Korean company but a global one.”
Devsisters plans to build on its success with several apps being developed for release later this year. Ovenbreak 2 and Ovenbreak 3 are in the works along with a Medieval themed simulation game named “Oh! My Lord” where users can become kings and control castles. Lee says that the company’s Ovenbreak series will be released on Android in the near future, followed by its other games after this.