Our journey with BetaDwarf
Today, our portfolio company BetaDwarf announced the close of their $6.6M Series A funding round.
We are privileged to have played a part in this and to have worked with the guys for the past two years, and we are hugely proud of what they have achieved. This is the story of how we first connected with BetaDwarf, the potential we saw, and the path to early signs of huge success.
When we led BetaDwarf’s first funding round in April 2018 it was our largest investment to date. You might therefore conclude that they were the pitch-perfect, finished article. But in fact, they were quite the opposite: a diamond in the rough. So much so that we were alone in the Seed round, hence it became our large investment at that time. A year and a half later, with one of the largest Discord communities of any game, the most downloaded game on Discord and a frequent appearance in the Steam top 100 CCU – not to mention achieving sustainable profitability – there is no longer any question of the value and potential. We are thrilled that Makers Fund led this round, joined by 1Up Ventures and Everblue Management, with us doubling-down super pro-rata.
We are conviction investors, who love engaging early with great teams, and we want to use this opportunity to talk about our journey together so far.
In April 2017, during the Danish Games Meetup event, we had a number of quick studio visits scheduled, including one with the Danish PC and console developer BetaDwarf. We hadn’t heard of them before finding them on the event organizers’ list of studios open to visits, but some quick research gave the impression that they were the real indie deal, and unusually working on a PC free to play (F2P) title, which we found intriguing. In all honesty, they looked to be far too niche and non-commercial to be investable, so we were not expecting more than meeting some nice and capable guys, who might in five years start or join something interesting.
Arriving at the somewhat insalubrious offices in a far-flung corner of Copenhagen, CEO and co-founder, Steffen Kabbelgaard, ran us through a well-rehearsed deck, filled with rockets (symbolising the games they would release). There were small rockets, medium rockets, then multistage rockets that would fire along with a range of small and medium rockets! It was a long term branding strategy for a small indie developer... even having a branding strategy was impressive. But all these rockets - games - left us confused and worried. Working on too many small games might keep everyone busy, and might even make sense at some stage in a premium model. But it definitely does not make sense for a small team trying to learn F2P with service heavy designs.
In short it felt like they needed to focus on far fewer rockets to make a decent bang.
However, as Steffen finished the deck, he turned the meeting into an interrogation. He began hammering us with detailed queries around F2P games and game-as-a-service (GaaS) operations, and asking a stream of extremely insightful questions around event types, sales, promotional efforts and community management. Doing our best to give advice based on our experience from F2P social games on Facebook and mobile F2P, we gradually realised that these guys knew and had delivered so much more than their presentation suggested. Somehow they knew what to do. Not because they had worked in established gaming companies and been taught what to do, nor from discussions with investors and picking up the right buzzwords; it was from pure instinct and engagement with their audience and current trends. we quickly cancelled our following meetings and for the next few hours we dug into their history, plans and thinking.
A LEARNING CULTURE
BetaDwarf has a crazy bootstrap story, having squatted, hiding in plain sight in unused rooms at the university where they previously studied, and working on their first game… until they finally got caught and kicked out. This story helped them hit their funding target on Kickstarter and led to one of the most viewed images on Imgur (see here). Their successful Kickstarter provided cash to rent a workplace to compete the game, but they needed to take personal bank loans to cover the last few weeks.
Their game, Forced, was released in October 2013. Playing it, we are amazed how ambitious they were for their first game: a deep story, complex combat, lots of NPCs and online co-op. Wow. Not what we would recommend as a first game, but they delivered nonetheless. The game brought them short-term profitability, but they soon realised that the community expects and deserves ongoing bug fixes, content and feature updates, communication and much, much love post launch; and on a premium model, for a new company with a new IP, that is extremely hard to deliver. So they quickly stepped to their next design, this time with DLC in mind. Again a successful Kickstarter brought the community along, and by early 2016 “Forced - Showdown” their testing ground for various forms of DLC, was released. Again, BetaDwarf was profitable, but it didn’t feel like premium plus DLC was their scalable model.
So only months later, having enjoyed a path of incredible self-directed training, the company moved fully to F2P. Using existing assets they quickly released an Early Access version of “Minion Masters”. At the time of our first meeting, the game was still very early in development and somewhat put together with “string and sticky tape”. But what is truly impressive was how fast this team learned, and how natural it was for them to move away from what they already knew to search for something better and bigger. Their design for their first F2P game was also very reassuring and impressive: a Clash Royale-like game, with a deep card economy and great game play. A high LTV game is a great place to learn F2P operations.
To us this team represented the best of the industry in a microcosm. The transition that the general industry was struggling to get through had all happened, quickly and painlessly, inside BetaDwarf:
They had turned to crowdfunding early on (doing it twice!);
Learned that community building is more important than just chasing cash – working closely with their community to prioritise features and adjust their roadmap and keep them constantly updated and in the loop;
Realised that releasing a premium title on Steam for a new team with a new IP, is a tough model – in a crowded marketplace, you get one big shot at revenue with your release: bugs and issues can tank any momentum, while the community still expects you to operate the game as a service, even if the model has no ongoing income to cover service costs;
Realised that a DLC model requires that to be part of the design from the beginning. Then tested functional vs cosmetic DLCs. And finally to then realise the limitations on the DLC model vs free to play; and
Throughout, relied on close, direct cooperation with influencers to get the word out, and in doing so building deep experience of how to manage these types of campaigns and incentivize influencers, as opposed to traditional marketing.
Steffen and the team didn’t have fancy words for all of this, they didn’t include it in their pitch, it just felt logical and natural to them to operate like this. They knew that the product they sold was not simply the minutes people spent inside their game, but rather the full entertainment and participation: in forums, on Kickstarter, as backers, as early play testers, through viewing update videos, making tutorials, streaming and playing.
We still didn’t count on this becoming a breakout game, feeling that the IP universe could limit the potential reach, and therefore it would likely be a training ground in which BetaDwarf would master F2P. But their multiple project (or rocket) strategy would have been a complete no go for us as it would be very hard to focus all resources around those single meaningful bets needed to break out. A small team needs to use their size to their advantage, and one of those potential advantages is the ability to get the whole organization focused on just one thing, and then be able to adjust course fast as learnings tick in. Key to this operational agility would be metrics tracking, and we recommended they improved their metrics systems.
Then we leaned back, while monitoring them closely to see how they developed:
if our assessment about the unique learning potential of this team was correct they would soon see the potential in GaaS heavy F2P titles and automatically reduce the project slate. And they would enjoy the immediacy of feedback and metrics that a live game offers.
8 weeks later we received an email full of charts for numerous metrics, based on a new event model they had implemented. Debriefing with them we realized they had not only implemented a tracking solution, but gone out to find benchmarks, build metrics into their core decision making model and specified future scenarios based on target metric ranges for Minion Masters, to set resource allocations or even a kill decision. And the slate had been reduced to one title, Minion Masters, until metrics showed it wouldn’t make sense to keep the whole team on it, then move to the next large F2P game. This was wildly impressive.
On our side, we still had to overcome the issue that we could not expect the current game to be a breakout. Working on anything that does not have sufficient ROI potential can lead a new game team into a lot of trouble – it makes the company unattractive relative to the best performing startups out there, and would serve them a large disadvantage in raising capital and hiring the best talent – but by now we fully believed in the team and their ability to learn and improve amazingly fast. So we were confident they would deliver, assimilate, and make the next leap forward as they have done through every game they have launched and operated so far.
This is the kind of diamond in the rough that we as seed investors dream of finding. Raw talent that we knew we could accelerate through exposure to our network and experience. It became our largest seed investment to date with a $1.5M check.
RELEASING MINION MASTERS
To our mind, the game plan was to get Minion Masters fully released, maximize learnings, then fundraise based on learning and build the next game with a far larger budget to a design and IP that had broader appeal. But the BetaDwarf team continued to over-deliver. Minion Masters metrics steadily improved from good to great. The game was chosen as part of the Discord store launch and became the most downloaded game on that platform. They built a super active community on Discord with one of the top 25 largest discord servers of all games.
As we started to plan the full release on Steam and Xbox, we also started to work on the future vision and pitch for their Series A. The team had always been about shared experiences, with a focus on co-op play. They had all grown up as hard core fans of Dota, but were getting to a stage in life when it was hard to find time for games like that. They knew they wanted to focus on that generation of gamers. Auto Chess is just the latest example of that trend addressing an unmet need. As the team dug in and considered how co-op, guilds and other social play change as you get older, they began to realize the scale of loneliness in our time, and the opportunity this represents for someone working in their space of the market. A mission for good. A cause. A company that will focus on making games that makes you friends. BetaDwarf found their “X”.
Minion Masters came out of Early Access in May 2019 and has of course done far better on all sorts of metrics than we hoped - even begging the question of whether to raise further funds at all. However you don’t raise for the money alone, but also the positioning and strength to execute.
Minion Masters continues to grow, even exceeding the redoubtable Brawlhalla for some days at the start of their most recent season. I called them that day, but they were busy discussing those results to see what lessons to draw to improve it next season. What a team. They are such a pleasure to work with and it is our privilege to associate ourselves with them and play a small part in their journey. We can’t wait to see what the next 12 months, let alone five years, will bring for them. If you want to work on games in Denmark, we propose you call them soon.