Uken Games, Toronto
Employees: 45 | Age: 25
Chris Ye likes to stay ahead of the curve. Sometimes, he admits, a little too far ahead. "I bought the very first iPhone on eBay for $1,000 when I was in university," recalls Ye, 25. "But I couldn't access 3G because it didn't exist, and no data networks supported it because the phone wasn't even available in Canada. But I used it on Wi-Fi and I loved it."
Ye's penchant for jumping on the next big thing might have its drawbacks, but it has helped shape Uken Games, the digital game-development company he co-founded with partner Mark Lampert, 30, in 2009. Uken was one of the first to offer cross-platform games, which allow users to continue playing the same game as they move from device to device. Today, Uken builds games that run on the iPhone, iPad, Android and BlackBerry platforms, as well as on Facebook, and Uken has created a number of top-ranked titles among social and mobile gamers, including Forces of War, Crime Inc. and Dark Galaxy.
"Our users love to play our games in a seamless fashion," Ye explains. "Whether they're using their phones on a train or loading up Facebook on their home computer, they have the ability to access the same player account."
For those game-changing achievements and more, Ye has been named FuEL Entrepreneur of the Year as part of the second annual FuEL Awards, which honour Canada's Future Entrepreneurial Leaders.
Of course, timing is everything in business, and Ye jumped on the first big opportunity he saw: the opening of Facebook to third-party developers. In 2008, Ye, who was at Toronto's Schulich School of Business at the time, and Lampert, a computer science grad, created a Halloween-themed Facebook app that allowed users to play "Trick or Treat" at their friends' virtual doors while generating sponsorship revenue by giving users the option of handing out virtual Kit Kats, Coffee Crisps and Smarties. The app picked up a million active users in just two months.
The popularity of the partners' inaugural app faded almost as quickly as it began, but the experience taught Ye and Lampert some valuable business lessons. "We saw how powerful game mechanics could be," says Ye, "and that's why we decided to move into games."
Ye believes that building a great game is an evolution, like making a great TV show.
The creation of Uken's first true game was another learning experience, especially for Ye, who had next to no computer programming experience. But, after four months of nonstop design work, he had built Uken's first product, Superheroes Alliance, which launched on Facebook. Uken monetized the free offering by giving players a chance to purchase premium game characters and additional elements. "The game didn't have as many users as the gifting app, but it was definitely a more solid product," says Ye. "And, over the next six months, we were iterating on it, tweaking it, improving on it in different ways."
Rather than jumping into developing more games, Uken raised seed funding from a venture-capital firm and concentrated its efforts on turning Superheroes Alliance into a "game engine"—a stripped down framework that facilitates the development of subsequent games in different genres. All seven of Uken's current products were developed with this engine.
About the same time, in early 2010, Ye and Lampert decided to launch Superheroes Alliance on iOS, the operating system for Apple devices such as the iPhone and iPad. But instead of rewriting the game from scratch for the new platform, they used HTML5—a relatively new coding standard then heralded by Steve Jobs as the future of web content—to create a "wrapper" that would allow the original Facebook game to work on mobile devices.
"We basically built a game engine that supported cross-platform play," explains Ye. "After we launched on iOS, we were able to launch quickly on Android and on BlackBerry and on iPad. So, our users were able to use one device, then switch to another device seamlessly, and it would just work. That really gave us a leg up."
With Uken's game engine in place, the firm was able to crank out its next six cross-platform games in a span of about a year.
With so many tech companies to choose from, Ye admits that attracting and retaining talent is a challenge. But Uken has managed to grow from four staff in early 2010 to 45 today with a combination of above-average salaries, flexible hours and a company culture that is built as much around having fun as it is around hard work. Meanwhile, a rigorous, three-stage hiring process helps minimize the risk of a bad hire.
Ye believes Uken's commitment to creating high-quality games also has helped keep staff turnover to a minimum—the company has lost only four people in four years of operation. "What great designers, developers and artists want is to build great games," says Ye. "Working within a few set guidelines, we give them the artistic freedom to do that."
With seven games in circulation by the end of 2011, Uken posted almost $3.5 million in revenue that year. The company didn't launch any new titles in 2012, but is still on pace to reach 2012 sales of between $8 million and $10 milllion. That growth is a testament to the enduring appeal of Uken's games and its ability to attract new gamers and keep old ones coming back.
Ye says that whereas most game companies see the launch of a new game as the end of the development cycle, Uken sees it as the first opportunity for developers to see how gamers will actually interact with the game, and to get feedback from end-users on how to enhance the experience.
"One analogy I like to use is that building a great game is not like making a hit movie," Ye explains. "It's more like building a hit TV show. Because, with a TV show, you are building a much longer-term relationship with your customer, and you have the chance to improve the product over time and make it as good as it can be."