What It Takes to Build a Hit Game: Lessons from Matatu

By Daniel Okalany  |  April 10, 2014


In June 2011, we submitted Matatu to Google’s subsaharan developer challenge. It was one of two apps my team had submitted, the other being a check-in app. It had taken us about 2 months to learn how to write Android apps, and to use that knowledge to create an almost market-ready product. Back then, there weren’t many Androids in Uganda, and I had never seen one at that point. However, we had been hearing that Huawei Ideos was going on sale in Kenya for 300,000/- UGX ($120). We all wanted to have one, and therefore, we guessed that everyone would want to have one. We thought it would be worthwhile to develop an android app that translates a popular local card game on the mobile device. We made it to the finals of the competition and almost one year later, it became our full time commitment. Here are some lessons we have learned along the way:

Build something people want
When we set out to build Matatu, we knew the card game was incredibly popular in the physical form, as people were always playing it. In fact it’s so popular I’m yet to find a Ugandan who doesn’t know how to play it. When we hooked our first players, they were addicted! We hadn’t even published it yet and we were just distributing the APK via email, because we were receiving so many requests. Basically, we built something people were already craving.

Keep it very simple
Our first version of Matatu was very simple. It didn’t even have a menu, so you’d launch the game and it would go straight to game play. Still, that didn’t stop it from getting 1,000 downloads in a very nascent market. In fact, it took us 3 months after in order to hit the play store to add a menu and 2 player modes, and another 3 months to add the Joker mode (which includes more power plays). Even today, we still refuse to add almost 90% of the features we want to add. We want to keep it as simple and focused on the game as possible.

Rely on almost free advertising
When we published Matatu, we made sure to talk about it and encourage people to download at every event we attended. These were usually tech events, and therefore the percentage of Androids was much higher than that for the general population. We posted links to download the game on our Facebook and Twitter accounts, and we talked to a few of our blogger friends to get the word out. It didn’t take long before we had more reporters and journalists asking for interviews.

I can’t overstate the value of this. If you’re starting a company, chances are you’ve had several million ideas. And everyone you talk to about your startup will have millions of ideas on how to improve your product/service. Some will want you to help them build their own product. What we do at Kola is we track every possible action, and then remove the least used features. We then add the top ideas we had until we reach some equilibrium where every feature is used quite often. If we added every feature that was requested, our game would be unusable by anyone.

It helps to have some work experience, because that way you’ll know some people to hire when you start out. When picking co-founders, you should pick friends you’ve worked with on a different project. The easiest way to know how well someone works, or how well you’ll work with them is if you’ve worked with them before. It helps to have complimentary skills, but those skill should be either skills you can’t afford to pay for (yet), or extremely rare skills. Don’t cofound with someone whose complimentary skill is something that can be done by almost anyone. Also, working from home (by any team member) is a horrible idea. It creates communication overhead, and when you’re a team of 5, everyone is handling many things, and they’ll be interlinked. You need everyone to be able to access a fellow teammate within seconds. Working separately will also drive team members apart. Some decisions are made on the spot, with no email communication or anything, and if team members are not present they will feel left out. If any member insists they work from home, it might be a sign of a much bigger problem. It might work for huge companies, but I don’t think it does for startups.

Prepare to hustle
When we started out, a number of experienced people told us it would be hard. We thought we were special, and it’d be different. And it felt that way for the first few months until the savings run out. A few months in, we needed to pay more for hosting, we had to hustle to fix glitches quicker, expand to more platforms, deal with unproductive employees, look for actual revenue from clients, etc. But all of the hard work pays off, and it’s a high I have never felt before. If I tried to explain it to you, it would be like throwing you into a pool of chocolate to explain how chocolate tastes. I still remember the day we signed our first contract.

Spend like you’ll never make more money
The thing with needs are, they seem elastic. More money, more needs. There is always the temptation to buy things that you don’t actually need. Not yet at least. When you run out of money, you are under enormous pressure to raise more. Raising investment takes a tremendous length of time. You need to have some money to run on while you raise more, or while your revenues catch up.

Have a mission
At Kola Studios, we are trying to preserve different cultures through our games. This is really important for us. You might not even notice if the country you’re from makes 34% of the Apps on the App Stores, because perhaps all the games you know have already been ported. But imagine if Poker or Black Jack or Monopoly or any of those other games weren’t digitized. Would you not be worried that a great portion of culture and history was going to get lost soon when software “eats” the world? This is a good starting point for a mission. It needs to be something you all agree is important.

There are many other lessons we’ve learnt, some of them are personal, like the best time to get to the office (turns out to be ~9am for me), and some of them can be considered general knowledge.

Have any ideas? Additions? Reply in the comments, or reach us: theguys at kolastudios.com. Or me personally: daniel at kolastudios.com

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