Siqi, from Serious Business, discusses making the hit social game Friends for Sale
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Interviewer: Great. I’m at Engage Expo and with me today is a special guest. How about you introduce yourself?
Siqi: Hi, I’m Siqi Chen and I’m the Founder and CEO of Serious Business.
Interviewer: What does Serious Business do?
Siqi: We make social games on Facebook, like many other companies.
Interviewer: What games have you done?
Siqi: So, the one we’re probably best known for is the one called Friends for Sale. It’s hot or not with a market economy, buy and sell people to be your pets, hit on hot girls, and in turn they ask for you and other people to buy them.
Interviewer: When you first came out with that, it was a huge big deal. What inspired you to come up with that idea? And what were the challenges as you were developing it?
Siqi: Well, it still is a big deal. It’s actually bigger than it’s ever been.
Interviewer: Congratulations on that.
Siqi: Thanks. What inspired us to come up with it?
Siqi: So, this story is long and complicated, but I was in Las Vegas with a friend of mine. We were at Tao for our two year anniversary. I was broke at the time, and my friend was loaded so we managed to get a table that night. We’re in line at a table from the club, and I was looking around the line and I was like, wow, this line is just full of guys. This sucks, right? The club is going to be full of dudes, and you paid how much for this? $500,000 bucks?
Siqi: My friend was like, chill out. So, he points like to the front, across the room in front of Tao, and there is like 40-50 ridiculously hot girls, right?
Siqi: And the bouncer went, let a few guys in that bought tables. The only way to get in at the time was to get a table as a guy. They let us in and we’re at a table with 12 hot girls. That’s beautiful. So, it’s good to be a rich dude or a hot girl, and I thought, OK, how can I make that into a game?
Siqi: So, my friend and I turned it into a game called Friends For Sale where it’s really good to be a rich dude or a hot girl.
Interviewer: Before that, you did some other games on Facebook. What inspired you to keep going because I know it was something where you weren’t too enthusiastic about it at first. In fact, you even did like a Mafia game, ironically.
Siqi: I did. I think it was the first Mafia game on Facebook. I’m pretty sure it was, actually. It was the month after the platform came out. Well, what started me to do social games is the week the platform came out I was playing the game Diplomacy with some of my Y-Combinator startup friends. And we’re just sitting there and every turn took four hours. And I thought, this is a game where you play with your friends, and this would be great on Facebook.
I sat down and I was thinking about it. I was like, you know what? Facebook is the first time in history where you have access to any given person’s complete social data. Who your friends are, right? Therefore, the biggest game, the biggest company on this platform will eventually be the EA Games of Facebook. That will be the biggest company. In hindsight, I was right.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t right about what would work on Facebook? I thought it would be games, especially where you play with your people or your pieces are people and they are your friends. It turns out that people are pretty satisfied with largely single player RPG experiences and they monetize extremely well.
Interviewer: Sure. Going back to Friends for Sale, when you released it, what was the response and what happened?
Siqi: Oh yeah, that was crazy. It just kind of blew up all on its own, immediately. We built some metrics beforehand to tune it, but after we tuned it, we can’t do anything. The only thing we could do was try to keep the site up.
So, immediately, we were getting Saudi Sheikhs messaging us, can we please buy some money? For the first two months, we weren’t selling anything.
Interviewer: Oh really.
Siqi: We were happy making money off of ads.
Interviewer: Oh wow. So, you actually had banner ads on there.
Siqi: We had banner ads, and we were like, “This is great. We’re making an incredible amount of money from the ads”. And then, you know what? So many people have messaged us and asked to buy [coins]. Then we said, why don’t we sell [coins] to them. That was like, whoa, now we have a business.
Interviewer: And that’s when you put in the virtual economy.
Siqi: Yeah, yeah, that’s when we put in the virtual goods in.
Interviewer: For two months then, were you even thinking about balancing the economy or dealing with inflation issues? Was that even on your mind then?
Siqi: It was. It was constantly on my mind. The flaw with the mechanic is that prices only ever go up, and very little money gets taken out of the economy. And we didn’t fix that for a whole year. It was really hard to come up with a good solution for that one without pissing off all of our users.
Interviewer: And what was the solution then?
Interviewer: OK, sure. What were some of the other challenges once you actually started? Did you think that it would be a fad, or it could grow more? Now, you say that you have more users now than you had before. What can other developers take from your experience in terms of actually keeping users coming back?
Siqi: I think we’ve always believed it as a sustainable product because what it is is kind of user-generated content where the content is people, right? And meeting new people and maintaining those relationships through the only connection that you have which is Friends For Sale is highly retentive. And meeting new people and dating people and asking people out and flirting is never going to get old. That is evergreen.
Interviewer: What would you say are the three biggest challenges or learnings, like surprises, that you’ve had with this whole experience?
Interviewer: Aside from the virtual economy thing then?
Siqi: Yeah, inflation. Biggest surprises? I can’t think of any. Well, I think the biggest surprise… I can’t name three. I think the biggest surprise for me is just how much the X Wars genre has taken off. It’s still big now, but at the time when it first came out… Mafia Wars didn’t exist a year ago. Very few people remember this.
Siqi: It’s only been a year, and that’s made Zynga? So, Mob Wars. When I first saw Mob Wars, I didn’t think it was a very good game. It’s not fun. It didn’t fit into my idea of what a social game was supposed to be. So, that was my biggest surprise. Obviously, we paid a dear price for not investing in that genre very, very early.
Interviewer: So, where do you see now the future of social games going? Do you feel that the space is already set? All the things have already been determined?
Siqi: I think empirically, obviously not, right? Farm Town came out of nowhere, and it’s one of the largest games on Facebook. Obviously, Farmville is much bigger. But if you look at Farm Town DAU, a couple million, maybe, three million users which is no joke. That’s a really meaningful business, and it’s like 100-200 employees right there.
Interviewer: Do you think, though, the space is just so different than normal traditional game space because you look at Farm Town that actually has live chat, and then you look at Farmville which has no chat in it. It’s three or four times bigger now.
Siqi: I think how large Farmville is compared to Farm Town doesn’t necessarily correlate with it being a better product although it’s different and certainly better in some ways. But I think Zynga has gotten user acquisition and retention down to a science, and it’s reflective of those learnings and those technologies.
Interviewer: So, aside from game play then, data metrics is probably the most important thing in social games.
Siqi: I think I read, as I was driving here, Mark Pincus said that they consider game development a science not an art which makes sense, which is why Farmville is 10 times bigger now than Farm Town.
Interviewer: Any last words then for other developers looking to get into social games?
Siqi: It’s early. It’s still a young space. It’s not too late. Come compete with us.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.