The Inc42 & AWS series — Scaling From 1 To 10 — kicks off with a deep dive into online gaming platform MPL.
Thanks to the Jio revolution, internet usage in India has spiked to levels rarely seen elsewhere around the world. Within a short span, Jio has emerged as the largest telecom operator with over 340 Mn subscribers and ushered India into the 4G era, where data prices have dipped sharply and consumption has skyrocketed.
This steep rise unleashed a huge untapped market for Indian companies, and the high data consumption as a consequence was a boon for media and entertainment services, including gaming platforms. No wonder then that India’s mobile games market is estimated to hit 628 Mn users and be worth $1.1 Bn by 2020, up from $290 Mn in 2016. Even though it’s only a fraction of the global market, among emerging markets, India is the largest in terms of downloads with over 2.8 Bn game downloads in the first half of 2018.
Among the Indian gaming companies that have earned success in this data-rich environment are the likes of Dream11, Octro, Nazara, Junglee Games and others. Bengaluru-based Mobile Premier League (MPL) also joined the bandwagon in September 2018 and quickly became a by-word for skill-based mobile gaming platforms in the country.
Founded by serial entrepreneurs Sai Srinivas Kiran G and Shubham Malhotra, MPL claims to have acquired over 27 Mn users since its launch last year. Kaustubh Bhoyar, VP of engineering, MPL, said that this surpassed all expectations.
“When we started, we made a target to achieve 100K users by the end of December 2018. And, we had a million-plus users in December. We have outdone ourselves and we try to keep doing that.”
As part of the Inc42 & AWS series — Scaling From 1 To 10 — we caught up with Bhoyar and MPL team to understand the design thinking behind the tech platform, the company’s work culture, growth story and more.
Bhoyar began his career at software company Capillary Technologies in 2011, where he met Shubham Malhotra, one of the cofounders of MPL. Not only has he been part of the MPL journey with the cofounder, but he also worked with them at other startups. After Capillary, he joined them at streaming hardware startup Teewe and then moved on to Creo, which was acquired by Hike.
Having known the cofounders long enough, Bhoyar readily agreed to join them on the MPL journey. “I have been a gamer myself. The idea of creating a gaming platform excites me and I saw it as a great opportunity of developing a platform fully dedicated for gaming. I have been here since day one and have seen the company grow to where it is now.”
MPL Enjoys The Platform Effect
From Octro to Nazara and Dream11, along with the likes of 99Games and Zapak, there was no dearth of competition when MPL arrived on the scene. Other platforms have also come up since then thanks to the success of Dream11 and the likes. Naturally, many of the rivals had the first-mover advantage. So how did MPL manage to achieve growth and acquire games in the face of such competition?
Bhoyar said, “At MPL, none of the games are developed by us. Since day one, the focus was on making games as fast and user-friendly as possible on our platforms. We see ourselves as a skill-based esports gaming platform, where developers can join and create games based on our ideation.”
He reasoned, “Unlike many others, we are a platform. If you start building your own games, it takes lots of effort and time and you will still be limited to a few games. However, we have been able to cater to a varied segment of gamers. For instance, people are now looking for multiplayer games and we are providing that. There is a great variety of games on our platforms.”
In India, the company has 40+ games on its platform — which is one way to ensure a steady flow of users and increased engagement time. One of the reasons for MPL’s growth and user success in such a short span is the platform approach, which means users aren’t restricted to just one game when they download the MPL app. This also means MPL is able to attract audiences across genres, when compared to titles such as Dream 11 or PUBG or Candy Crush, which have a very genre-specific audience.
Bhoyar told us that the effort is to bring as many variations and games as possible. Most of MPL’s users play multiple games in a single session, which backs this approach. The company’s objective is to have an average of 3 games played per user, regardless of which game it is. And to deliver this, it uses a dual reward system.
“We have two currencies — real cash and tokens. You can’t purchase tokens but you can bring in your own currency. You are awarded tokens only against certain tasks in the game. You can bring in real cash and based on that you can play the game to win real rewards. You also get bonuses for wins.”
Growing Beyond India And Entering Southeast Asia
Bhoyar said MPL currently has over 27 Mn users in India and a good chunk of them come from Tier 2 and 3 cities.
“We are focussing heavily on the India market. The focus is to go deeper into the Indian market,” he added, and one way to do this is bringing more and more games to the platform.
MPL also plans to expand to other geographies with a similar growth story as India in terms of internet adoption and smartphone usage. It has already launched in Indonesia where it claims to have a great demand and a lot of untapped potential.
In March, MPL launched its platform in Indonesia as well. With a small team operating from Indonesia, it has approximately 300K monthly active users in the country. Since MPL is available on Google Play as well Apple App Store, is it possible for people outside India and Indonesia to play on MPL?
“No,” said Bhoyar. He explained, “The app login is possible only through an Indian or Indonesian mobile number. The reasons include limited payments partners, OTP partners, support services etc. However, the biggest reason is, right from the start we wanted to give our full attention to the Indian market.”
Localisation is another issue that is essential while foraying into a Southeast Asian country. For instance, in Indonesia, the games at MPL are localised and names are changed. This is why the platform has fewer games in Indonesia. “Even if somebody else is developing the games, it’s us who leads the ideation. This is also because we want to keep our games compatible with all the affordable smartphones. We work closely with the developers to get more local games and ideas.”
The localisation aspect has been another success factor for MPL. Too often, games in the Indian market fail because they are global in nature, even though the basic concept might be solid. To win in the Indian market, localisation is a must, as shown by multiple popular games — even PUBG has customised its interface and features for Indian users.
MPL’s Backbone – The Tech
Being a platform, MPL needs to support users on multiple games simultaneously, with no server lag and no downtime. This obviously means that the tech platform is the backbone of MPL, and there’s a great amount of scrutiny in the tech talent that comes on board.
With over 100 employees in Bengaluru, Pune and Indonesia, MPL does not have a huge team given the scale it has achieved in just a year. “We acquired more than a million users in just one month of operation. So, to create and maintain the speed of growth and quality, as part of policy we don’t compromise on our hiring. Thus, hiring was always difficult. We also looked into whether the candidate has the same passion towards gaming as we have.”
Once onboard, members in the tech team are assigned to a group or pod, each of which has autonomy in terms of deciding the structure and the workflow. Bhoyar said that with a smaller development team, this structure has worked well for MPL. “We have given freedom to the people to come up with their own architecture. Given the pod structure, it is usually the pod leads who look at the work. We currently have approximately 30 members in the development team. Right now, we are not an open platform for developers.”
Another crucial aspect in supporting the user growth for the tech team is to solve for issues such as service disruption, downtime, server overloads and more. No wonder then that cloud solutions and cloud computing have become indispensable for scaled-up operations.
“We chose AWS because of the familiarity with the platform. When we started, it was a seven-member team — three backend engineers, two Android developers and two game developers. We wanted to grow as fast as possible. And, in such a circumstance, since everyone was familiar with AWS completely, we decided to go with AWS.”
One of the benefits of going with AWS is the flexibility that it offers businesses as they scale up and the capability to support any number of users since AWS works with some of the biggest tech services, companies and businesses in the world. Alternatives in the cloud computing space don’t offer businesses this freedom, Bhoyar said, often as the number of users increases, the internal tech team has to scale up those services on the side, which detracts from the core effort.
AWS services are also easy to integrate for a small team with big ambitions, which wants to control every point in the user journey.
Bhoyar added that working with AWS has not only saved months of development and operational work, but it also allows integration with the other crucial aspects of the platform. “Our databases, internal messaging, our cash layer, everything is integrated which saves a lot of time and allows you [the business] to focus on your work as speed is the most important factor for startups.”
Data Privacy For A Gaming Platform
Cloud storage and computing platforms not only solve problems for companies scaling up but are considered as a best practice in the tech industry for data security. While smaller startups and early-stage companies may not be able to afford dedicated data security personnel, these come as standard with the AWS solutions.
“Data privacy is really important to us. We take it very seriously. We don’t store any data that is not required. For instance, we save only the users’ mobile number and nothing else. AWS (Amazon Simple Storage Service — Amazon S3) makes it very simple for us to store any data locally. All our data is stored in Mumbai”
The power of the cloud is not just that it delivers services instantaneously to millions of users, but keeps businesses that use its power focussed on the core vision, operations and innovation. This frees up a lot of resources and helps startups focus on the growth they want, rather than whether they have the infrastructure to support it, just as MPL has shown with its growth story in the past year.