“Our sweet spot going forward is really leveraging the Chromebook mobile developers,” Bill Karamouzis tells TheWrap
After languishing deep in Viacom’s portfolio for several years, Addicting Games, the game website that introduced many players to online computer gaming in the early 2000s, is back.
The company was re-acquired by its founder, Bill Karamouzis, in 2018, after Viacom began offloading subsidiaries from its Defy Media brand. Karamouzis said he jumped at the chance to revitalize the Addicting Games brand, despite having a steeper challenge than before, with players increasingly choosing free-to-play games on PC and console over browser-based gaming.
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Karamouzis told TheWrap that instead of attempting to capture the original Addicting Games audience (millennials who spent their elementary and middle school computer classes sneakily playing games behind the teacher’s back), the company is targeting a new demographic that’s much younger than its original base.
Many students, as young as four years old, are being given Google Chromebook laptops at an increasing rate as Google pushes its educational initiatives, and that number is rising as students nationwide are forced to learn remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic. Karamouzis said many of these new gamers are being introduced to online games on Chromebooks years before they even lay hands on a smartphone, and noted those audiences are Addicting Games’ main target over the next three-to-five years.
Addicting Games bought indie browser game Mope.io in September for an undisclosed sum. The company plans more acquisitions to build out its growing slate of games. The Addicting Games site still hosts some older games, remastered to work on the new HTML5 software, and operates the Shockwave platform, which caters to the loyalist online gaming crowd with older titles.
Karamouzis spoke to TheWrap about rebuilding the Addicting Games brand and his vision for the company’s future in a recent interview. What follows has been edited for length and clarity.
What happened to Addicting Games? When did the site leave public consciousness and why?
I bought the domain name in the early 2000s, and it was essentially just a domain that linked out to other websites that had games. So I bought the domain name, and then we built this infrastructure around it where you could host games and submit games. That was acquired by Atom Shockwave, it was called at the time, and after the acquisition, it was rolled out to create Atom Entertainment. Then Atom Entertainment sold to Viacom for $200 million, I think that was in 2005. And so then Addicting Games and Shockwave kind of lived under the Nickelodeon umbrella for a number of years.
Everything was going good, and then, as Viacom priorities shifted, this new entity called Defy Media came into existence — and Defy Media was, from my understanding, essentially a roll-up of a bunch of different properties from big telecom companies like CBS, Viacom, and they created this thing called Defy Media, and had things like Bridge.com, Addicting Games, Smosh and other YouTube channels. So Addicting Games lived under the Defy Media umbrella.
That was a period of decline because the fight was really about YouTube and about content creation. It wasn’t really about games; Addicting Games was kind of a cash flow. They kind of just used it for that purpose. And it really declined, like the content pipeline really stopped. They stopped getting games; it really was a terrible period of time. And combined with [Adobe] Flash Player being discontinued, that’s when it hit a steep decline.
So how did you get involved with the company again after selling it?
I reached out to the people who owned it, who were actually based in LA, just randomly, and said I’d noticed the site was not responsive and just going down into the gutter. I expected not to hear back but, unknown to me, Defy Media was willing to sell Addicting Games. So we bought the company back, we bought the games and Shockwave website back in 2018 and then started the journey of converting some classic Flash titles and then also rebuilding the pipeline to get really good at HTML5 games.
At the same time, I had no support, no one to help us. Luckily, a lot of the systems they were still using were systems we had actually built way back in the 2000 or earlier. So it was really fun from a personal perspective. We announced in 2018 and from that point on it was a story of, how do we rebuild it; how do we make it relevant and make sense with what is out there today?
Why – and when – did browser-based online gaming fall out of favor with gamers?
When mobile kind of came into prevalence and [Adobe] Flash couldn’t couldn’t make that transition, it went through this period of decline in probably 2012 to like 2016 where there wasn’t really a good answer for how to make games on the open web. And so as HTML5 came into its own and was kind of brought up with the Facebook Games platform and other platforms, it just breathed life into having it be not just a way of playing games but as kind of one of the platforms people could find (new) games on. And then you had multiplayer games really push that to the next level, and those are kind of typically called IO games. Those games have amassed tens of millions of players working across everything, typically off mobile. So it’s this kind of new phenomenon, that kind of really gave life to browser-based gaming.
What’s the main focus of Addicting Games now?
Our sweet spot, I think going forward, is really leveraging the Chromebook mobile developers. Remember back to the early iPhones, they weren’t really taken seriously. It took a couple years for them to really become really noticed. And I think Chromebooks right now are being distributed in record numbers because of learning from home and many other things. We want to be a gaming company that uses that device.
We want to make it so if you’re on a Chromebook or a low-end device, you can play something that gives you the same value as a big game even if it might not look the same graphically, but we get the fun levels to be close enough. That’s our big ambitious goal with what we’re developing.
For us, it’s like the first experience gaming, that’s your first experience on the internet. Most kids are getting laptops before they get a phone. We just want to get them at the right age with the appropriate content, and then we can hopefully grow up with our players.
What are some challenges to developing games for Chromebook?
From a really fun developer’s standpoint, it’s a very hard device to make great content on, and our team is really engineer focused and really just loves the challenges of making something work on the worst devices. How do you make something look good on a device that doesn’t have its own graphics card? That’s a challenge.
How do you make (gaming) work on the four-plus-year-old Chromebook that someone has? Right now, the solution is they just have a bad experience or they don’t game or use tons of content on it, and we think we can change that.
What do you look for in a game when deciding whether or not to buy it and add it to the Addicting Games roster?
We look for in those cases, how is the YouTube creator presence, how is the streamer presence. So we really want to see the creator behind it is community-driven, and that drives us on the IO games side. The really special games have communities around them that are following and passionate about it. And if we do anything wrong, our community will let us know.
When it comes to the Flash games, we do rely a little bit more on metrics. There’s the classic metric, like retention, things like that, and (overall) time played. But it’s also, is it still relevant? There are some Flash games that looked good back in the day that no longer are, times have changed and gamers’ tastes have changed. But there are some that have maintained that fun-ness.
Tell us about Mope.io, the game you recently bought.
Mope.io, it’s a great game, I mean, people are fanatical about it. There’s 40,000 people on its sub-Reddit. Content creators are making videos. There’s YouTube videos of Mope.io with 5 million plus views. It’s one of those deceivingly simple games. It has 5 million installs on mobile, so it’s still popular there. But we’re going to leverage what we can on the browser as much as we can.
What is an IO game, exactly?
Early on, people didn’t know what they were. And essentially, the definition of the community is going to come around is: No instructions to play. They’re browser-based and instant loading, and they are real-time with real players in a massive world. So you understand how to play it at an instant level and anyone can go and just play.