Why Snapchat is making mobile games like Bitmoji Tennis

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Over the past eight years, Snap has made one of the world’s most popular social chat clients with Snapchat. And lately, the company has been giving its users more things to do, including playing instant games.

I spoke about Snap’s game efforts with Will Wu, head of Snap Games and director of product; and John Imah, global head of game Partnerships. They showed me games on a mobile phone within the Snapchat client, including a new one that is launching today: Bitmoji Tennis.

The multiplayer games on Snap Games may not look like much compared to console games or even other high-end mobile games. But they could have a broad reach, considering Snapchat had more than 186 million users in February, and it reaches 90% of all 13-year-olds to 24-year-olds in the U.S.

I played a little Bitmoji Tennis with my fingers on a touchscreen, and it didn’t take long to get the hang of it. You tap to serve the ball, and you move your player left or right. The character swings at the ball automatically. In June, Zynga also launched its own Snapchat game, Tiny Royale.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Snapchat gaming leaders Will Wu and John Imah.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GamesBeat: I heard about the Zynga game.

Will Wu: Yeah, we’re pretty excited about that one. I was playing that this morning. Our CEO Evan just texted me on the way over here, and he was playing it too, having a lot of fun.

John Imah: How familiar are you with Snapchat?

GamesBeat: I use it a little. My daughters certainly use it tens of thousands of times.

Wu: That’s pretty good. There’s a score that represents how many snaps you’ve sent and received. I have one of the highest in the company, 146,000.

Imah: My God. I’m at 2,000. That’s pretty weak. I feel weak. You should check your daughters’ scores, if you have them on Snapchat.

GamesBeat: I’m at 91.

Wu: That’s not bad! You’re almost at 100! Just nine more snaps and you hit a very important milestone. Obviously we open with the camera. I don’t know how familiar you are with our messaging features, but everything to the left of the camera here is where you send snaps and where you chat. I’ll go into chat with John here. What we’ve done is redesigned this screen. This is part of what we launched about two months ago at our Snap Partners summit. You can see John is present.

We’ve put this rocket icon here. If I tap that I see a pretty simple list of different games that I can play. These are all part of our Snap Games launch. Most of these are out or in soft launch. There are some unreleased games in here. Let’s show Bitmoji Party. It’s all HTML5. As soon as John starts playing, I get a notification. We spent a lot of time focused on the loading experience, making it as fast as possible to dive in and play.

Above: Bitmoji Tennis lets you play tennis with your Snapchat friends.

Image Credit: Snap

This is a game we made ourselves with our first-party studio. The cool thing about making a game ourselves is we could invent this new 3D bitmoji technology specifically for use inside of games. You can see I get to play as myself, and I see John. This game is a series of quick mini-games that you get to play with your friends. If I hit play, we immediately start dropping into some mini-games.

It quickly shows me my current standing for the day, and then you can see down here, this is an important of the core game experience. We brought our core chat experience, our bread and butter, close communication with friends, front and center in the games themselves. We can have a back-and-forth conversation. I can even tap a microphone here. It’s like when you’re playing on Xbox Live and you have the headset on. When I tap my microphone, my voice gets piped directly to everyone I’m playing with. If John were to tap the microphone, then all of a sudden we’re having a two-way conversation.

This is Bitmoji Party. We spent a lot of time focusing on making something that looked high-quality and polished, and that can facilitate interesting interactions between you and your friends. Here we have this photo booth where the camera in the game takes a photo of us. You get a nice screenshot of a moment. The rounds are 30 seconds and then you’re immediately into the next mini-game.

This one’s called Zombie Escape. We’re playing with other Snapchatters. You’re the zombie, so now you have to go chase other people around. You drag your finger around and try to catch people. You have to stay next to them for a few seconds, and then they get turned into zombies too. Now she’s a zombie. This round is going pretty quickly. You have to seek out the humans who are still hiding somewhere. That’s one right there. But now the time limit runs out, so they won.

That’s the gist of Bitmoji Party. This is a game we made with our own internal studio. We actually acquired a little game studio in Australia with some of the folks that were behind — they used to be at Halfbrick. They were the original creators of Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride, some really successful mobile games. We’ve had a lot of fun working with them to invent what the first bitmoji games feel like.

This one is what we launched at the Snap Partners summit two months ago. We’re going to give you a sneak peek at one that’s not launched yet. This is our second bitmoji game, called Bitmoji Tennis. It’s due to come out at the end of the month, something like that. We’re still figuring out the exact time.

GamesBeat: How many games are already in Bitmoji Party?

Wu: Bitmoji Party is one game that has six mini-games right now. Bitmoji Tennis is a separate game. If I go back our game drawer, these are all the top-level games. Bitmoji Party was our launch game. That’s a collection of mini-games. We wanted to give people a varied sampling of different experiences. Bitmoji Tennis, though, is a totally separate game. That’s because the gameplay it provides has a bit more depth. There’s a lot of dexterity and strategy that comes into play. We’ve been having a lot of fun with it.

GamesBeat: Are you selling these, or are they free?

Wu: No, they’re free. That’s important. But they do have advertisements that I can show you. As part of this, we’ve been working with some third-party developers. We’ve been working closely with them throughout the entire production process. Some of the partners we’ve been working with for a year and a half to two years. We’re working closely together to define various characteristics of the platform and understand their needs. We’re trying to mesh creatively and figure out if we can share ideas.

This is our up-and-coming game. You can give it a try. This is the first time I’ve ever let someone try this game. It’s pretty simple. You tap to move around and it automatically hits. You don’t have to tap to hit. It’s just about positioning. That was a tough serve, John.

Bitmoji Tennis

Above: Bitmoji Tennis is a casual game for mobile users.

Image Credit: Snap

Imah: I’m trying to take it a little easy.

Wu: There was a pop-up that got in our way. The secret behind this game — nice shot! But you can tilt the phone right before your character hits the ball. If you tilt it left or right, that angles the shot left or right. Try tilting it slightly that way and see what happens. Yeah, yeah, like that. You angled it left, and then he sent it right. The combination of being able to tilt back and forth….

Imah: One of the things I love about the games on our platform is they’re so easy to pick up and play. Anyone can play them. A lot of the work that’s gone in with our third-party devs, we wanted to make sure we ensured that. Each of the games that we have on our platform have been designed and engineered exclusively for Snapchat. You can’t find them anywhere else. We want to make sure that the experience reflected that. All the games have realtime multiplayer. They’re graphically beautiful.

GamesBeat: What’s the total number of games in the works?

Wu: Right now we have six total games. Some of them are still in soft launch in some small countries. Others are rolled out worldwide. Bitmoji Tennis will be our seventh, and then we have some more slated for future release.

The most interesting thing about the whole Snap Games platform, like John mentioned, they’re all realtime multiplayer games. It’s a little different, in my mind, compared to some of the other messaging and HTML5 game platforms we’ve seen, which have been more focused on asynchronous, turn-based, or even single-player games. We’re focused on creating realtime shared experiences between close friends. That’s what Snapchat has always been about. It’s about communicating, expressing yourself, and living in the moment with your friends or family. We realized that games could be an amazing way to form deeper relationships with those same people, the people you talk with on Snapchat every day.

Imah: The best analogy Will gave me when I first started was re-creating the experience you and your friends had playing on the couch together.

Snapchat's tennis game

Above: Snapchat’s tennis game

Image Credit: Snap

GamesBeat: How much usage have you seen? What’s the goal on that front?

Wu: It’s still really early. We still consider this a closed beta. That’s part of why — this is not an open platform like Facebook Messenger Instant Games. We want to work with just a handful of preferred or select partners to make sure we nail the experience. It’s still too early to comment on any numbers or anything like that. We’re focused on the core experience. So far we’ve been floored by the positive reception from our user base.

Imah: And even from our devs, as we talk to them. They’re very excited and pleased by the results that they’ve been seeing so far. We’re excited about that. And as Will was saying, a lot of this is just making sure that we understand our users in terms of what they want, and our developers as well. We want to build a great product, and that’s what the teams have done.

GamesBeat: How many people are inside working on the games now?

Wu: It’s hard to delineate exactly. We’ve been ramping up over the past two and a half to three years. We acquired a company called PlayCanvas, an HTML5 game engine. That was the first key to unlocking the technical ability to provide these games. Then we acquired that game studio, Prettygreat, in Australia. We’ve been building up our core team.

It’s hard to draw the lines, though, because it’s such a cross-functional effort, in collaboration with all these different teams. Those 3D Bitmojis, for example, the Bitmoji team is amazing. They’re not part of games per se, but we had to work super closely with them throughout the conception and technical development, creating thousands of pieces of artwork and testing it all within the games, making sure that they would run in a performant way. There are all these instances like that. It feels like a huge company effort. It’s multidisciplinary.

Imah: The nice thing about Snap Games is a lot of my friends that have kids have been playing with their kids. It’s another way they can share a moment with them, whether they’re at work and their kids are at school, something like that. It’s cool.

Snapchat's Bitmoji Tennis

Above: Snapchat’s Bitmoji Tennis

Image Credit: Snap

Wu: My dad wants to play with me all the time. It’s funny. He just retired about a year ago, so he has all the time in the world as he settles into retirement. In Snap Games, every time you start playing it automatically sends a push notification to the other people in your chat. It says, “Will is playing Bitmoji Party!” So I get those throughout the day from my dad. Sadly it’s hard for me to find the time to play with him. I try to do it at least once a week. It’s a good way to reconnect with people that you’re close to because when you enable the audio chat, it really feels like you’re sitting next to each other playing around a big screen.

Imah: The conversation, especially for me, evolves beyond games. We start to talk about life or whatever like we’re right next to each other.

Wu: The CEO of one of our game developers — their game is called Snake Squad, and they have some other very successful HTML5 games on other platforms — he wanted to jump on a call with me, and he says, “Oh, let’s just have a Snake Squad conference call.” Rather than just talking over the phone the traditional way, the ability to jump into this virtual space as yourself, because their game uses Bitmoji, and then be able to talk, it’s a much deeper form of personal interaction in some ways. It’s been really interesting.

Tiny Royale is the most recent game of ours. This is the Zynga one. It’s a much simpler battle royale game mechanic.

Imah: I think it actually may be the first HTML5 battle royale game.

Wu: Zynga’s focused on really quickly getting you into a match. You see we just hit play and we’re getting matched up with real people playing right now, immediately, inside of Snapchat. They simplify the controls so you have these two thumbsticks at the bottom and weapons here. The mini-map here shows me that blue dot is John. He’s trying to shoot me, but there’s no friendly fire.

Imah: I thought you were the enemy for a second!

Wu: But now we can work together against these other squads inside of Snapchat. For all you know your daughters could be playing in this game with us.

Above: Snapchat’s Bitmoji Tennis

Image Credit: Snap

Wu: Nice, nice. That’s the gist of it. The one that’s caught on the most with my friends so far is Snake Squad, the one I was mentioning where we take conference calls inside this games. You can see here John is flying around as himself. We’re both in space trying to eat other snakes to get longer over time, kind of like the classic slither.io mechanic, except we turned this one into a team-based battle royale.

It’s all free. You just tap. The most amazing thing about these HTML5 games is there’s no installation required. It’s changing the distribution model. We’re letting people put these games into an existing social context where people are already interacting with their friends every day and letting them dive in together to have this shared experience.

I’ve been working at Snap for five and a half years, not always focused on games. Games has been the last two and a half, three years. Before that I spent a lot of time focused on creating the original Discover, the whole right side of our app. Focusing on letting media companies like CNN and the Wall Street Journal publish polished editorial content to our userbase. Then I moved over to focus on everything messaging-related, creating chat and every subsequent version of chat with calling and Bitmoji and all that stuff.

Imah: I’ve been at Snap for four and a half months. I help lead our gaming partnerships effort. I’ve been in the industry almost a decade now, working for platforms like Twitch. I got the opportunity to team up with Will, which has been a great experience.



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