Games are a fundamental part of life, not just as a form of entertainment, but as a way of bonding and building community. As technology advanced, and computer and console gaming became popular, it heralded new immersive and interactive experiences, yet mobile gaming is still in its infancy. We spoke with Alexander Mistakidis, the Founder and CEO of Gamelynx to understand how his gaming studio is building compelling competitive mobile games, and how his roots at the University of Waterloo led him down the winding entrepreneurial path to where he is today.
“For me, it started at the co-op program”, notes Alexander, when reflecting on how his startup journey began. Having had six co-op work terms, from the first time he worked as a developer at the university’s marketing and undergraduate recruitment office, to seeing a fitness app grow from 10,000 users to millions at PumpUp (a startup once based out of the Velocity Garage), to later working at Riot Games on League of Legends, the most popular game in the world, Alexander learned a lot. Working with entrepreneurs at early stage teams was fascinating, but Alexander knew that it wouldn’t scratch his startup itch unless he got to do it himself, so in his last year of an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, he lived in the Velocity Residence and that’s where he launched his startup, Gamelynx.
“When I went [to live in the residence], I said to myself, if I’m going to live there, I’m going to start a company.”
Alexander first collaborated with co-founder Carter Minshull at Hack the North, Canada’s biggest hackathon, as they worked on a project to help people understand what events were around them locally. They also knew each other as residence dons, so when he was putting the Gamelynx team together, Alexander reached out. “Carter was the only person where I said to myself, we should work together. We’ve spent so much time together that it’s almost weird. It’s been clumsy at times, but we’ve always been honest with each other and I think that’s what makes it really natural for us.” Finding the right people to work with is crucial in the startup world, something Alexander ruefully laughs about when talking about his early experience of trying to meet and find other team members to work with.
“For me, it was difficult to try that out with people I didn’t know. I wouldn’t do it again. Even if you can partner with someone who has a lot of experience, you minimize some risks there, but if your perceptions are wrong, it can be really difficult to reconcile things in new relationships. I think it’s way better to work with someone you already know and like, regardless of whether they’re the most impactful person they can possibly be in the field that you’re endeavouring in.”
Gamelynx’s first milestone was winning $5,000 in funding at the Velocity Fund $5K Qualifiers after pitching the idea of a website that allows you to play digital board games on your phone with other people. The team moved into the Velocity Garage startup incubator and later won a further $25,000 at the Velocity Fund Finals. In 2016, Gamelynx explored everything from board games to event experiences trying to find their way. Gamelynx offered a live riddle challenge to participants at TEDxUW, of which Alexander had been on the organizing committee the year before, and it was the first time they started to get some real engagement for the gaming platform they had built.
“That was the first big event success we had and it made us realize how flexible what we built was. At the time we were fighting to find any path that would give us enough data and money so that we could continue on and feed ourselves doing it. Looking back, you could consider all that as wasted effort but ultimately we learned a lot every step of the way. Even though we’re not doing anything with board games or events at this time its still very relevant because it comes down to our core understanding of community and what it means for people to have fun together.”
Community is something that Alexander frequently talks about, noting that “through our work as dons, we really cared about communities, and a lot of the hurdle with that is getting community participation. It’s a simple action, but just encouraging people to come and hang, even if it’s just meeting the people on their residence floor – the value is huge. We just wanted to make it easier to do that in a broader way with Gamelynx, by applying our love for competitive social gaming.” In that same vein of thought, Alexander competed in the Problem Pitch Competition, where students identify important problems that need solving, and pitched the problem of how screen time is going up, and with it, technology isolation, which negatively impacts mental health. Through Gamelynx, Alexander wanted to bring people together in person as a way of helping people connect with their physical communities.
“As a kid I was super socially anxious and was always on my computer. For many years some of the really impactful, memorable, social interactions that I had were through online video games with my internet friends. When I came to university, it was working in residence that rescued me from that tunnel vision, and enabled me to expand how I have fun with people and spend my time.
But that idea of community permeates everything I’ve done, from donning, to digital board games with friends, to the team-based eSport game that we’re building now. It’s all about those social experiences, and for me, the impetus for what we’re doing now is making sure that new generation with their mobile phones, which isn’t going to get that desktop gaming computer, still has that ability to play those games with their friends.”
After working out of the Velocity Garage, Gamelynx was accepted into Y Combinator, but they realized they had a problem, people enjoyed their digital board game, but they weren’t sticking around to play it long-term. “People were loving our product and playing our game for 2 hours straight in a session, when the game only lasts 15 minutes. But when I talked to my customers and asked what happened, and what they liked… they were really happy with our product but our retention was 2%.” So Alexander and Carter scrapped the board game idea, took a step back, and the thing they joked about as a pipe dream became the focus of their attention, to build the type of indie game that they love and play on their computers, but tailored towards a mobile phone environment.
“We don’t really like many mobile games today, but we have always been fanatical gamers on PC or console. We started to notice that PC-like competitive games on mobile were a huge trend in China and in an increasingly mobile world, this is a very important trend to get right. Because if people don’t capture the magic on PC that people love here onto mobile, then there will be this new generation that never gets to experience that. There’s more to mobile gaming’s future than micro transactions and gimmicky games that just try to manipulate you.”
The Gamelynx team are now focusing on what makes a really fun community game for mobile, without abusing micro transactions and nagging push notifications. Alexander draws a lot of his inspiration from his experience at Riot Games, a company that breaks the status quo and has a relentless focus on the gamer experience, without sacrificing it for cash flows through annoying monetization practices.
Alexander shares his belief that most mobile games don’t appeal to competitive gamers because of the way they’re designed, which is to create addictive games for the few people who will spend a ton of money through practices that alienate competitive gamers.
“It’s not like the gaming companies have all made a mistake. I think it’s a bigger problem with the landscape that’s emerged for mobile gaming as whole. With the distribution monopolies that the app stores present and the increased reliance on paid user acquisition via things like Facebook ads, you get stuck needing to maximize the lifetime value of the player so that you can spend more, to get more people and get more money to survive.”
As Alexander looked back on his journey, he reflected that “entrepreneurship is this kind of like a staircase step function, where things just don’t go well or plateau, and once you push past being completely out of gas , then all of sudden something great happens, and then you find the energy to keep going. It happened for me many times consistently, and a lot of it was Velocity’s support that allowed us to get through those times in the beginning.”
“I try and keep that in the back of my mind, which is that if things are getting really hard, it probably means that we’re getting close to something great <laughs>.”
If you’d like to follow Alexander’s thoughts on startups and life going forward, he blogs weekly at https://amist.co.