Find here the China Paradigm 86 and experience the game industry in China with Vincent Gossub, a company that specializes in adapting and developing games for the Middle East from China.
Full transcript below:
Matthieu David: Hello everyone. This is China Paradigm, where we, Daxue Consulting, interview seasoned entrepreneurs in China. Hello everyone. Today, I am with Vincent Ghossoub. I met you in Hong Kong at an event for tech startups and I thought I had to interview this guy because you are in between China and the Middle East. I’ve interviewed many people who were in between the US and China or Europe in China, but you’re in between two parts of the world we rarely talk about and still, there’s a lot to do. You’re in an industry where China is playing a big part. It’s China’s game industry.
Tencent and many other studios are developing games for the world. That’s something I discovered through research we did for one of our clients. One-third of the top 100 apps in India are Chinese. Now people understand how China can be big in apps when we talk about TikTok. But so far it has been a bit unknown how big it could be. So, you have co-funded Falafel games. Maybe, you will tell us more about your co-founders later. You co-founded Falafel Games in April 2010 and you are still the CEO up till now. So, for close to 10 years, you’ve been adapting and developing games for the Middle East from China. I’m sure you’re going to correct me about what you do exactly, but you are adapting and developing games for the Middle East from China and you are also pushing them, doing some marketing, and contributing towards the acquisition of this game in the Middle East, and further than Middle East—Arab-speaking countries, if I’m correct.
You have raised money. You have raised several million. My number is 4.7 million so far from very actually interesting investors such as the Irish SME Association, Middle East Venture Partners, and twofour54 which is an Abu Dhabi-based incubator. And again, that shows me how the links between the Middle East and China can be. One more number: you are attracting, on your different platforms and games, more than 2 million users. And in one interview, we found out that you have been able to monetize on average $0.50 per day per user. Thank you very much for being with us. So, what do you do exactly? What’s your business model? Who are your clients?
of all, thank you very much, Matthieu, for having me. You did a great
presentation and introduction explaining what I do. To answer
specifically, the clients of Falafel games are basically end-users mostly based
in Arabic speaking countries as you mentioned. And half of our revenue comes
from Saudi Arabia.
Matthieu David: Okay. When you say that your clients are the users, does it mean that you develop games for the Middle East from China? It’s not what I understood initially. I understood that you were taking games from China or from wherever in the world to adapt them to Arabic speaking countries.
Vincent Ghossoub: We do have this line of business currently. So, basically, we publish games. We find games that perform well in China’s game industry that are just about launched and the KPIs are okay. We approach the developer and we offer them the opportunity to promote the game in new markets such as Arabic-speaking markets and now increasingly Persian-speaking markets. So that’s one line of business. We do also develop our own games in parallel. And we have a live streaming platform from China also.
Matthieu David: True. I remember when we met, you actually insisted on your live streaming platform from China mainly initially. Would you share a bit more about the size of the company now? I mentioned $4.5M raised so far as investment and 2 million users. I don’t know if it’s daily or yearly users. Would you mind sharing a bit more numbers, your offices, the size of the team, or the size of the company? Can you share some revenue numbers and confirm the numbers I just mentioned?
Vincent Ghossoub: Yes. So, your numbers are not too far off—maybe they date since our last discussion. In fact, from the Arabic-speaking markets, we have 3 million cumulative users. This is the number of members of users who have installed any one of our games. And our games are focused on the mid-core category. So, the mid-core category is generally speaking very lucrative per capita. But in terms of volume, it’s quite niche. So, 3 million installs out of a market of, let say, 50 million people in Saudi and GCC, which we specifically focus on as a specific target market in the whole Arabic-speaking market. I think it’s quite an okay penetration. In terms of company size, we have sales of a few million. We have about 28 people in most places between China and Beirut, Lebanon. Yeah, as you said, we raised $4-5M over the course of the years. Yeah, generally speaking, this is the outline. We have launched six or seven titles so far.
Matthieu David: So, thank you very much for clarifying the size and what you do. More precisely in China’s game industry, you are talking about a niche of games or apps. What’s the name of this niche you’re targeting?
Vincent Ghossoub: Most of us in the industry call it mid-core. So, it’s between casual and hardcore. I’ll try to simplify it with as few parameters as possible. It’s basically the time commitment needed by a user to spend on a game. And the attention needed to put on a game while playing is more or less what defines the whole continuum from casual to mid-core to hardcore.
Matthieu David: I see. Are there some examples that people can know?
Vincent Ghossoub: Yes, of course, instead of being too abstract with the definitions. So if you were to spend, for example, both hands on your phone screen on a game and 100% of your attention over the span of one hour and a couple of hours every day and over a few months, this is a lot of time commitment, especially that your full attention is taken when you’re playing the game and both hands are taken. So, this is hardcore. But if you are, let’s say, to spend one or two hours a day over a few months also, but with much less attention when you use it… let’s say you open the game, you do a couple of turns, you switch to email and nothing happens, you have a discussion, you have a call, you come back to the game, and you readjust your situation on the game and then keep going. With sessions of say, 30 seconds and maybe 30 sessions a day, this is mid-core. And then casual is like you can play in a minute and then you don’t have to commit for days or months.
Matthieu David: So, one example that everyone knows is Tetris. Will Tetris be casual, mid-core or hardcore?
Vincent Ghossoub: Yeah, Tetris is casual.
Matthieu David: It’s casual.
Vincent Ghossoub: You can play it for a minute or a session and you can drop the game for six months and nothing happens. Then you come back and you can still play.
Matthieu David: What would be a well-known hardcore game? Will Final Fantasy be a hardcore game?
Vincent Ghossoub: Final Fantasy is quite a heavy-duty, mid-core game. For a hardcore game, you need to have your full attention focused on it. So, for example, the recent Call of Duty does require full attention over 30 minutes. You cannot get distracted while you’re playing. Call of Duty Mobile released based by Tencent Studios basically is something I would call hardcore. Now, a lot of people in China’s game industry or anywhere else would agree with me on how this is defined. Generally speaking, those two defining parameters—time spent per session and attention spent per session—are something we all agree on.
Matthieu David: I see. By listening to what you said before, I feel that I overstated, in fact, the link with China’s game industry because I feel actually you develop your own games, you develop games for the Middle East from China or the live streaming platform from China. I’m not seeing the link with China as obvious as before except that you have an office in Hangzhou.
Vincent Ghossoub: The gaming business is a global business and our presence in Hangzhou is in China. And our foundation is in China. So, I founded the company in China. The company had spent six years in China before establishing anywhere else—seven years even. So, the presence in China has been essential in a few ways. So, we have employees in China. We have talent in China. We learn best practices in China’s game industry. And we do find games and partners who have games in China which we could promote outside. So, both for the games we develop, for the games we publish, and for the talent we need, China is always a part of the recipe.
Matthieu David: I see. I see. So, I understand now that China has been the place where you founded it. So that’s why actually you have a link with China; because you were there. I think you were at that time studying at CEIBS for your MBA in Shanghai or maybe in other cities because it should be Europe and China Business school. I understand that it’s by that circumstance that it started in China. And then you learned from this environment in transformation with digitization. It’s so big and so advanced in China and especially in Hangzhou. Okay. I get it.
Vincent Ghossoub: Beyond digitization, there were some very specific trends that made it make sense to set up in China. At that time, China’s gaming freemium model (free-to-play models) were extremely nascent in the West while it was growing and becoming dominant in Asia (Korea and China) for many reasons. Mainly the Koreans started implementing it because of the situation in China where piracy was rampant back then because people wouldn’t pay to buy a box game. They would want it for free. They were used to free content back then. And then Chinese companies kind of perfected this art way before it was adopted and completely embraced in the West—in the US and Europe. So, at that time, China’s gaming freemium model which was emerging made very much sense for the Middle East because it shared a lot of similarities with the environment in China. Piracy used to be rampant back then in the Middle East also. And the internet had just come of age whereby you could actually play a game on the internet while just a couple of years before that, you had to buy it on CDs as box games. So, we shared the same attributes in terms of piracy and in terms of the need for free content and no fluency at all with buying paid content and the emergence of acceptable internet infrastructure. So, it was sort of two very similar markets except for the language difference obviously. So, beyond just digitization, very specifically in the games business, China was a good reference and model back then.
Matthieu David: What has changed? What has changed that China’s gaming freemium model now is not the mainstream and then you can have a premium? What has changed that now people can pay? Now you are monetizing like $0.5 per user on average per day. It’s a huge number for me. When you multiply it by 360 days and by 2 million, it seems huge. So, what has changed?
Vincent Ghossoub: We don’t make $0.50 per day per the millions.
Matthieu David: Yeah, I calculated it. It’s like $300M.
Vincent Ghossoub: Yeah, hopefully soon. But basically, if I have like a hundred users enter my games today or are active today whether it’s their first time or their nth time, I make 40 to 50 cents per these users per day. So, it’s not over 2 million. Hopefully soon. We have tens of thousands of users, a few thousands of daily active users, basically.
Matthieu David: So, the question is what has changed?
Vincent Ghossoub: Do you mean what has changed from premium to freemium or China’s gaming freemium model being bashed these days and turning back to premium?
Matthieu David: You said that similarities were between China and the Middle East and that China’s gaming freemium model and the willingness for people to pay were low. And that freemium then became more mainstream and it had to be freemium if you wanted people to use the games. So, people want to use the games. But now it turns out that in China’s game industry, and I don’t know if it’s the case in the Middle East (you know it), people pay for games. People pay to be VIP clients of QQ email. Just because you have a bigger box, you pay for that in China. So, they accept to send small money to KOLs. What has changed in China and in the Middle East if the similarities continue to be built? What has changed that now you can ask them to pay?
Vincent Ghossoub: Yes. So, first of all, there’s a disconnect and this behavior these days between China and the Middle East. Chinese users have become much more willing to pay outright for content. While this hasn’t happened yet in the Middle East, they still expect free content and try to do their best to work around getting free content. But, of course, you can monetize them well in different ways. So, certainly, China has gone very fast through this transformation of going from ‘we want all the contents free’ to ‘we are happy to pay and even at rates much higher in some cases and in some categories than the West (paying outright for content)’. Just thinking of it, generally speaking, I don’t think much has changed. I just think the natural evolution of things is taking place.
So when you think about it, if I want to go out with my friends today and watch a movie, let’s say, we’re going to spend ¥100 or ¥200 per person, basically, we’re watching a movie and spending time together while increasingly we are spending time together online, separate physically, but spending time online and we can get that same movie for ¥2 or for a ¥20 subscription or ¥30 VIP subscription on some video-on-demand platform or something. So that’s online entertainment. It’s the same thing for China’s game industry. If we were to go out to a bar or play tennis or something, we’re going to spend a couple of hundred RMBs also, while we might spend ¥2-3 per hour if we’re like having fun online. So, it’s just normal. Online entertainment is still by far the cheapest form of entertainment on a per hour basis.
So, one thing that really changed and made people realize that it is actually quite cheap to have fun online is maybe the increased penetration of payment systems such as WeChat and Alipay. So, they’re used to buying. We’re more used to ordering online and transferring money all with our phones. So, it’s really one click away. It completely removed the friction from seeing, let’s say, a movie online for ¥2 or for a ¥20-30 subscription and paying for it. But that pricing had always made sense. In fact, I think if you look at how much disposable income goes online, it’s still a tiny portion. I think we can still spend much more online than we are today.
Matthieu David: So generally speaking, we know that users moved from China’s gaming freemium model to a little bit of premium which is $0.5 per day when they are active, as you said, on average. What do they pay for?
Vincent Ghossoub: It’s a bit less than $0.5 in our case. And in our case, it’s still China’s gaming freemium model. So, when I tell you it’s $0.4-5, it’s the average. If I take today’s revenue and divide by the daily active users, it’s $0.4-5, but only 1% of these users paid and they subsidize the remaining 99%. So, it’s still freemium. As you mentioned, you can pay for a lot of things online like the outright content subscriptions, premium games, and items inside of games. So, specifically, for items inside of games such as our case, basically you can categorize what the payers pay for in three categories. First of all, it’s utilities. Utilities are, for example, making my experience of the game easier. Let’s say you want to send two coins or one unit of stamina to all of your friends in the game. With one button, you can send it to all of them and that’s going to cost you a few gems. And the gems convert to dollars. They are bought with dollars. Instead of sending to all of them one by one, it just makes the experience smoother. We remove the ads if you pay a small amount. That’s utilities.
The second category is cosmetics. It’s just cosmetics. You just want to make your avatar look nicer. You want to add skins. You want to make your gun brighter. You want to have a crown on top of your icon. It’s things like that, that don’t perform in the game experience, but just look better. And when you spend enough time on the game, you might want to say, “It’s time for me to put my signature on the game”. The third category is performance items. So, for example, sometimes in strategy games. You mentioned Final Fantasy in games. Similar to Final Fantasy, you need to upgrade your heroes and find the items for your heroes and upgrade the items and go to battle. And you have very few stamina points for the battles. So, for all of these, for the waiting, you can accelerate it. For the finding, you can increase the chance of finding. For the battle, you can battle more by getting stamina. So, all of these bonuses—less waiting, more chance of finding, more battles—are paid for with gems.
Generally speaking, it varies with the markets. But in our case, a fraction is the performance. So, people just want to perform better in the game. And we can discuss a little bit of the psychology behind that. Cosmetics and utilities are a couple of percentage points of the overall spending of gems. Now, why do people want to perform so well? You have different kinds of gamers. You have the gamers who play on their own. They just want to feel they’re achieving. What is the Olympic slogan? Higher, further, stronger or something like that. So, they’re happy with beating themselves time after time. So, they might want to improve their performance from time to time. You have the killers—those who really want to compete. They want to perform better than others. So, you have leaderboards for them to compare. Sometimes, there are direct confrontations between them. So, someone wins and someone loses. You have the socializers who just want to spend their time lubricating the system and doing alliances and chatting and messaging with each other. You have the explorers who are just curious about finding out more and more hidden corners of the game.
Generally speaking, the killers are the most lucrative in the performance. That’s at least in our category of games. Now you would say we have killers who pay thousands of dollars a month. Now you can say, why do these people spend so much? And I can make the case why this is actually, first, a very proportion of their disposable income. Second, it’s much cheaper than all of their other entertainment options. But most importantly, what you do when you’re a leading killer is you’re basically showing status. You are getting a certain puff of psychological satisfaction by being the leader, by being the number one. And here, I can showcase a few situations why this is still taking place outside of games. And it’s much healthier inside of games.
So outside of games, you can go to the hottest mall in Beijing and check the cars parked by the gate. So, these cars are the most luxurious cars in the country and they’re parked there at the front of the gate. Why are they parked at the front of the gate? They’re parked right at the gate for two hours because it’s to a very large degree, one utility, but most importantly a status symbol. And that car was expensive compared to the status symbol you can get inside of a game, especially that only a few hundred thousand people are going to walk in and out of that mall and see the car while tens of thousands are going to see you for over an extended period of time inside of an online game.
So basically, I’m selling you the psychological puff, that satisfaction, without selling you the metal, wheels, alloys, and all the pollution that goes along with it. Basically, it also goes down to the question of what are you buying when you buy a pair of jeans? Why was your pair of jeans more than ¥1000? Tell me. What’s the reason? Why wasn’t it ¥50? Why that premium? That premium is basically a puff of emotional satisfaction. So, I’m selling you that puff without selling you the denim and for a much more extended period of time. So, it completely makes sense. If you’re willing to buy a ¥1000 pair of jeans, it completely makes sense to spend ¥500 on a much better level of satisfaction inside of an online game. In fact, let me go even further. There were Imperial colonial wars waged on colonies. Let’s say Holland in Indonesia or France and other places just so that a person in Paris drinks a cup of coffee and gets that satisfaction. That cup of coffee, let’s say, was sold for 5 Francs in some Parisian cafe and maybe the ton was bought for 5 Francs from the colony. So, the coffee shop was not selling coffee beans. The coffee shop was selling that puff of emotional satisfaction.
Matthieu David: Interesting. So, what you are saying is one of the reasons for paying is social status. You believe that people want to compare to others. They want to be the first. They are competitive. As a killer, the psychology, as you said, is to be above all the others. Actually, we moved a bit further in your core business and how people convert from China’s gaming freemium model to premium. Actually, before that, I wanted to talk about the beginnings of Falafel Games in China. I believe Shanghai and Hangzhou because you have been studying in Shanghai at CEIBS and you have your office in Hangzhou. Could you tell us more about how you started and with whom? Why games? Are you a developer yourself? Why did you start this business? How did you start to develop games for the Middle East from China, with which money, and with whom? I need a bit of understanding of how it started for people to get a better sense of what the start was.
Vincent Ghossoub: It’s a long story. I like to say I started it when I was three years old, ever since I could hold a controller because from whenever I was three years old until I started the company after my MBA graduation, there had always been a very obvious lacuna in the Middle East market. And there were not many games with authentic Arabic content. And that was not like, ‘Oh, such a discovery’. It was so obvious. It turns out when I was doing my MBA in CEIBS (China Europe International Business School) in Shanghai, it was the time when the trend we just discussed—the growth of China’s gaming freemium model and the maturity of the internet infrastructure—was taking place. And I had a few classmates also who had been in China’s game industry. It just clicked in my mind—the fact that now you can make a game that does not need to be pirated, that is free, and that can still make money in areas where the internet is just coming of age and solving the problem of lack of content. It just made perfect sense. Now, it’s really a no-brainer. It’s a very simple proposition.
Matthieu David: I take myself as an example. I’m French. I grew in France in a very French family and environment. I didn’t know what I didn’t have. Suddenly, if some movies were not translated in French or games weren’t translated in French, I just couldn’t know them. But I believe that your ability to assess that there were more games in English that were not in the Arabic language is because you have been educated in a very international environment. Because when I go on your LinkedIn, I see that you have been at the American University of Beirut. You have been in Toronto. And you have been at CEIBS. So, from the very beginning, you had an international mindset in order to be able to compare with other countries, behaviors, and so on. Am I correct with that?
Vincent Ghossoub: Now, you’re asking me to come out of my shell and look at it and analyze. Maybe. Maybe, but I don’t think it’s so extreme really. I think I wouldn’t attribute so much the realization and the articulation of the opportunity to, let’s say, my experience in living in many places and international outlook. I just used to play games.
Matthieu David: Okay.
Vincent Ghossoub: So, imagine you loved watching movies when you were a kid in France and all the movies were in English. Let’s say that was the case. I know that this was not the case, but let’s say that was the case. Then you don’t need to be like Marco Polo to realize that it would be nice to have a movie in French—or at least to have it translated to French or dubbed. So that was my trigger. It wasn’t like so much international outlook. I used to play games and they were in English. What can I do? And you don’t need a lot of languages to be able to play the game. But the actual lacuna I noticed is content, not language. So, it’s not just about a matter of translating the shape of the heroes, the story, the narrative, and all of that. So, that’s one, but I think that’s in terms of articulating the opportunity.
But I think in terms of execution, this is where the international outlook really helped me. So, just in terms of context, I also lived in France during the Lebanese civil war for a couple of years during my childhood and in North America and the Middle East, in Lebanon, in Iraq, and in China. So that’s like three or four continents and four or five countries. It just made things easier. I didn’t see the barriers like doing cross-border business of like negotiating with my first Chinese partner. For me, it was just like some dude. He’s a guy. There’s a lot of them all over though. I didn’t see a big barrier in doing that. The travel needed, the cross-language communication required, and all of that including my international outlook maybe made me reckless. It gave me a reckless attitude toward it, which in a way can be good as long as it’s not too reckless.
Matthieu David: So as far as I understand, you had an understanding but also a passion for games. And it was obvious to you that you would do something in games. I mean there was basically an attraction to games. And you were in China studying at CEIBS. Because you were studying in China, for you, it was a laboratory to see what’s happening, digitally speaking, with China’s game industry. And maybe, Korea as well as a laboratory for you. And you started that to get inspired to learn the best practices and so on. It’s a bit counter-intuitive for me because what I get from most people in the development and online businesses is that China is expensive. China is not a place where actually developers are cheap. It’s not a place where you can find developers easily. It’s not a place where they can develop for the world because it’s very China-centric compared to India for instance. So that’s why for me, it was a bit contrarian. How do you react to that?
Vincent Ghossoub: Yeah, I always get that. So why are you in China? Is it because of the costs?
Matthieu David: That’s not the case, right?
Vincent Ghossoub: Costs are very high. Yes, of course, there’s a lot of competition from most multinationals and from a lot of software companies to get the talent. And despite the big volume of talent supply, in fact, if you divide it by the number of companies competing on that talent supply, it’s quite competitive. And it just jacks up the salaries basically but there are a lot of reactions. There are a lot of justifications for that. First of all, it’s the best practice developed. So, China is a bloodbath in terms of China’s game industry and it’s leading in terms of competition.
Matthieu David: Would you mind sharing two examples of the best practices? What best practices have you learned from China?
Vincent Ghossoub: It’s just doing good game design. So, if you look around the whole world, teams that could do good game design develop a game efficiently. There are very, very few places. And China is one of them where suppliers are big enough or large enough. And if you compete, if you are able to acquire, you can come up with something. So, let me boil it down to you to a very simple equation. You want to make a game in China. You want to make games in China. So, let’s say you have a certain cost; let’s say $1M to make the game. So, your cost per game is $1M divided by one. You spent $1M to make a game. If you make it elsewhere, it might cost you $500,000, but you’re not sure you’re going to get a game. So, it’s $500,000 divided by zero. You end up with zero games and it’s practically infinite costs. So, per human resources, it might be cheaper elsewhere. But per game, you might end up with no games.
I’m not saying it’s only China that can deliver that. Of course, there are other places that are still much more expensive than China. Northern Europe, the US, and Canada can deliver good quality games. And there are even developing countries. It’s not like it’s the monopoly of advanced places. But the idea here is that you need to get a good game so that you can compete. And then you stop asking about the cost of your human resources, especially that your cost of human resources is practically not the cost of goods sold. It’s not like I’m buying cheap and selling slightly with a markup. In games, if you think of the cost structure, the development team is a fixed cost. You have to pay for the salaries every month. And then the revenue is variable. So, it’s very high operational leverage. The revenue can grow ad infinitum in theory. It can grow infinitely in theory without much growth in your fixed costs. I’m not mentioning here the variable cost of the marketing.
Matthieu David: Yeah, that’s the beauty of it.
Vincent Ghossoub: Yeah, exactly. So, if you’re in a situation like this and you’re chasing the utopia whereby you get high revenue compared to the fixed cost, then you will accept to have a fixed cost that’s still okay and relatively high because the revenue is so much higher. And if you try to save a little bit on your fixed costs, let’s say bring it down by 20-30%, you might be killing the chances of the game even breaking even on your fixed costs.
Matthieu David: So, we understand that there is an investment.
Vincent Ghossoub: Yeah.
Matthieu David: Initially, you need to invest for a period of time to develop games for the Middle East from China. How did you invest? Was it your own money? Did you raise money from the very beginning?
Vincent Ghossoub: A bit of everything. So, early on, we just discussed the proposition. The proposition is quite simple. And if you look at the Middle East market, generally speaking, it’s around 400 million people, a homogeneous language or quasi-homogeneous religion, a lot of common cultural norms, they have a young population, and they are well-connected. So, it’s a good opportunity. So initially, I put in some of my money. I was able to convince a couple of friends to put in a little bit of money. And most importantly, I found a whole team because, in games, you need multiple skills.
Matthieu David: What skills do you need?
Vincent Ghossoub: The art, engineering, game design, and management. You need to glue them all together. And then, of course, a few sub-skills within these. You need them all. You cannot have one link missing.
Matthieu David: Designers.
Vincent Ghossoub: Yes, design. Game design. So, I was lucky to find a game development company based out of Hangzhou which agreed to partner with us for equity to go after the opportunity and put in their own team.
Matthieu David: Wow.
Vincent Ghossoub: And I had the option to bring that team in-house and I did exercise that option. So, I don’t have the exact numbers in my mind. We needed a few hundred thousand dollars to come up with that first game. And we only had tens, maybe a couple of hundred thousand, in cash commitments early on. But along with the team that was working on it for equity, we were doing progress and this allowed us to raise our first institutional round.
Matthieu David: How much time did you take to develop your first game for the Middle East from China? Did you talk about two months, three months, six months?
Vincent Ghossoub: No, no, no. A lot of time. Generally speaking, our category of games has a very variable production cost. In our case, it’s about 15 people over 15 months.
Matthieu David: 15 people over 15 months. I see.
Vincent Ghossoub: Yeah. So, 225 man-months. But you have similar games in the same category that might cost tens of millions of dollars—10, 20, 30 million sometimes just because it’s so easy to spend bottomless pits of money on, let’s say, perfect art, more art, and more stages. And you always have a critical decision of when you should launch and start harvesting or collecting money. When you’re at 50% or 99% or 150% of the development progress in the game, it’s something that affects your upfront investment. But generally speaking, now more and more, the upfront investment in developing games for the Middle East from China, whether a few hundred thousand dollars like our case or a few million dollars like many cases or even tens of millions in very few cases, is generally not the main upfront investment. The main upfront investment eventually turns out to be the user acquisition spend.
Matthieu David: But this is like less of an investment and variable cost because you should cover your cost after the acquisition, right?
Vincent Ghossoub: Yes. So, I mean it also depends on policies cause it’s so variable. You can spend $100 on user acquisition per day or you can spend $10,000 per day. You can spend millions per day. It’s extremely variable. Essentially, it boils down not only to that, but an easy parameter is a cost per install. So, you put your target installs and then you know your budget needed per day. And that can be extremely highly variable. Let’s say you have a policy of like 90-day-payback on your ROI or your ad spend. So, you have this initial trust that you have to go through and you need the cash balance for it. Some companies go for a 360-day-payback. So basically, the idea is if I spend, let’s say, $100 on Facebook ads today, from the cohort of users that get acquired from this $100, how long do I need to earn back the $100? So, I keep optimizing my targeting and my budget allocations until I need a certain payback target. So, if my payback target is 90 days, depending on the game, the game quality, and the advertising quality, I might reach a high volume of players or a low volume of players. But the longer my payback target period target is—I know some companies who have 440 days payback period target—then your cash balance needs to sustain all that trust. That valley is huge.
Matthieu David: I think another question that many people who are listening to us are asking—and I am myself—is how were you able to connect with this Chinese company to convince these Chinese company to work with you and to actually work well with the Chinese company when you are just an MBA student or you just got out of the MBA? I think those three items—how you found, how you convinced, and how you worked with them—are kind of a mystery for us right now.
Vincent Ghossoub: It’s kind of a mystery to me too. The secret word here in my case in how I found this Guanxi. I’m sure you have like 50 podcasts where you discuss Guanxi. It’s a friend who knows a friend who knows a friend and then it’s a chain of favors. And then, things get done. I was very lucky that my MBA gave me sort of like a soft landing in China and I was able to build a small network of well-connected businesspeople in China. But you have to push through. The first layer of your Guanxi is never the one that gets you the connection. Then you have to ask one person for the next and build trust. Then they ask the next for the following and build trust. And you don’t know in which branch of your Guanxi network where you can eventually get the click where there’s a good synergy for good business.
So, I had a friend basically. I have one of my alumni who was into gaming too. And we were going around looking at opportunities in games and going to conferences. And then he remembered that he had that friend who had a development company who does things that I might be interested in. And then we discussed that. He was interested in my market and my proposition and he agreed to put in his team. Another thing in games and software, in general, is that you could, to some degree, build one cell infinitely many times. So, from the perspective of our first development partner who entered for equity, they could build our games skinned for us once and reskin it infinitely many times for other markets. And that was their idea. So, they had actually every skin of our very game in the Chinese market for themselves.
Matthieu David: I see.
Vincent Ghossoub: Let’s say his investment in nine months was $500K. But that $500K also went into his own games.
Matthieu David: I see.
Vincent Ghossoub: So, the margin of cost he had for us was not so much. It was like tens of thousands. So, that’s how we found it. How we worked was much more difficult. And I think luck and perseverance were big factors because I completely moved to Hangzhou. I stayed on top of it. I knew we were not going to understand each other. They barely spoke English. We barely Chinese. So, our proposition was bringing Arabs with Chinese together and develop games for the Middle East from China. I can barely work with Arabs. I can barely work with the Chinese. Now I have to work with both and let them work together. So, it needed a lot of perseverance, I think. And one of the mottos I had is whatever the problem is, consider it a cultural gap problem first. Put that off the table. Sometimes, it’s coordination. Sometimes, it’s bad code. Sometimes it’s implementation not as per requirements. I didn’t start like this, but I got to the point where whatever this problem is, let’s see whether it’s a cultural communication? Should we just sit and cross the cultural bridge and put it out of the way? And then if I make sure all the possible cultural gaps are not there, then it’s a normal professional problem that you handle normally and professionally. But guess what? Most of the problems were of that first category.
Matthieu David: I see. Very interesting. Very, very interesting. When did you raise your first round from institutional investors? I mean, understand it was from a partner first and then from institutional investors. Actually, I’m surprised about the investor you have. You have the iSME. I didn’t know about them—Irish SME Association. I didn’t know they would invest in it. And then you have the Middle East Venture Partners. I understand better because they are Middle-East focused. And then you have an Abu Dhabi based incubator.
Vincent Ghossoub: We might be mistaking the iSME you are mentioning here. So, the iSME that invested in me is basically a Lebanese financial entity which is a joint venture between a large loan insurance company in Lebanon and the World Bank. Half, half.
Matthieu David: I see. So, it’s not Irish at all. So, my team wrote wrong. Right?
Vincent Ghossoub: It seems it’s the same name. Maybe, I shouldn’t say iSME. I should just say Kafalat which is the name of the loan insurance company because iSME is almost like an internal name for them. It’s that small initiative. It’s just a small fund of maybe $25M or $50M or something like that which they put half and the World Bank puts half. It’s for equity investment. In fact, it’s for equity matching. They don’t invest. They match. And in my case, they matched MEVP with this venture partner which is my lead investor in a couple of rounds—two rounds, basically.
Matthieu David: When did you raise? One year after?
Vincent Ghossoub: Yeah, about one year after. Like they say in the stories and when you listen to podcasts, I got Series A or Series B, very finite, opened round or closed round… maybe because I’m in a market with very little equity financing liquidity. So, it’s like an ongoing thing with me. My round is always open. My valuation is always going up and down and those windows are not so well defined. So, to tell you how it went—this kind of like flexible, ongoing thing—I got $100,000 convertible loan by MEVP first and they had three conditions to enter with their follow-up equity round. I think it was $500,000 or $600,000. One of them was getting a co-investor. Two of them are operational. One of them was getting a co-investor. And I was really, really lucky that the game we were working on, met the branding of a TV series that MBC (Middle East Broadcasting Corporation) was working on. So, they accepted to join that round and I cleared that condition. I also cleared the other two conditions. So, they entered with an equity round then of 800 more or less. Yes, 800, including the convertible and they converted their convertible note to equity with a discount. And then the following round was also led by MEVP and followed by twofour54 and iSME.
MATTHIEU DAVID: Did you raise money because you were not profitable or did you raise money to go faster and develop new markets?
Vincent Ghossoub: Both.
Matthieu David: Okay.
Vincent Ghossoub: It went hand in hand.
Matthieu David: Are you profitable now?
Vincent Ghossoub: We are if we want to.
Matthieu David: Okay. I see.
Vincent Ghossoub: So, we are investing heavily in our live streaming platform from China. And it’s eating from profits and from the capital in our live streaming business.
Matthieu David: I see.
We have not talked enough about live streaming and we’ve been talking for one hour already. So, I’d like to take five minutes to talk about the live streaming platform from China which actually seems to be the masterpiece of Falafel games. I feel that it’s the cornerstone of it. Could you tell us more about what it is, how you monetize, how important it is, and where it came from?
Vincent Ghossoub: Yes, of course. So, today the interactive live video multiplayer platform is indeed the masterpiece of our strategy moving forward. And in fact, it’s even a separate kind of department and even a subsidiary in the whole Falafel Group. So, we have the developing games for the Middle East from China part and the live streaming part set up in two separate legal entities, but it wasn’t designed that way at the beginning. In the beginning, it started as a simple product to solve one challenge we had in the game part, which was that the cost per installs (CPIs) were rising dramatically and significantly fast. And ROIs were thinning. So, we were thinking, “Okay, where is this going and what is an approach we can do so that we dramatically reduce our CPI?”. And we found a nice category of games with experimentation. And after the experimentation, we realized how nice it is and we were able to articulate it.
It’s basically games that are not in Arabic and cannot be played by Arabic users such as word games or quiz games. A competitor from, let’s say, the US can come with the best quiz game in the world but if it’s not good Arabic content, my crappy game in comparison will do better. And people will want to install mine because of the content. It’s basically the difference between necessary local content and nice-to-have local content. Consider yourself a user and going through a journey. And I tell you to come to play this tank battle game. Whether it’s an English or Arabic or French, it’s not going to make a big difference for you. The language is nice to have, but if it’s a quiz game or a word game or crossword game, whatever, it’s a must. So, we put out a crossword game which was a really cool game by the way. And it just sucked traffic like crazy. In fact, I don’t count this traffic as part of the official KPIs I gave you early on because it was more of an experiment and outside of our core back then.
But to give you a comparison, when we launch a mid-core game, let’s say a strategy RPG game, our cost per install is $2 to $7 depending on the channel and the quality. It averages out at about $4. It’s a bit less than $4. It’s $3.5. When we launched that crossword game, it was a must-have Arabic game so there was very little competition in that category. And although, in general, Arabic-speaking people don’t like too much reading games or games that involve texts, with only $13,000, we were able to get 500,000 installs. Make the comparison. Yes. In terms of CPI, it’s very big. I don’t know; is it like $0.3 CPI or something like that? So, it’s a very big difference and we concluded that the reason was that this game is a must-have. It must be Arabic. It doesn’t have much competition. And then we stumbled upon a second problem.
We thought, “Okay, let’s go after this category”. But then we stumbled upon the second problem. It’s that text medium doesn’t monetize as good as a strategy or role-playing games. So, lifetime value (LTV) of your user is very low. Then you go back to the problem of low ROI. In the case of mid-core, it’s a high cost to acquire and high lifetime value per user with a thin margin. In the case of a quiz, it’s low CPI but also lows LTV with a thin margin. So, what are we doing? And so, now we set out to bring up the LTV and we thought, “Okay, let’s move from the quiz or text medium to the live video medium where we have real hosts who present the game”. It’s much more engaging.
So basically, it turns out like Who Will Be The Millionaire game kind of whereby instead of having one participant, everybody’s competing at the same time on a leaderboard. Everybody’s talking, chatting, and interacting with each other and especially between themselves and an audience and the host who is streaming live. And the LTV was slightly better. So, we found a good chance here—high ITV, low CPI. We can go after this. And it solved in a way another problem which we had in China’s game industry and the world’s one, which was the sunrise, sunset reality. You know, for every game, you have to launch it, you harvest for a while, and then it sunsets. Then you have to go again with new games or revise the game somehow. So, there are almost always up and downs. But the live video content is basically kind of like YouTube. You always have new content that you can put out there. So, we’re hoping and it’s starting to prove that it’s much more sustainable. It grows slowly but it’s sustainable.
Matthieu David: Sorry to interrupt.
Vincent Ghossoub: Yes.
MATTHIEU DAVID: Livestreaming platform from China. Live video. I mean Facebook, as you mentioned, is doing it well. How do you differentiate yourself from them for instance?
Vincent Ghossoub: Did you say Facebook?
Matthieu David: Yeah.
Vincent Ghossoub: So, of course, there’s Facebook. There’s YouTube. There is Twitch even. But our proposition is basically mostly interactive live streaming platform from China with a lot of different ways to interact with the game. So, we have games set up on top of overlay—on top of our live video feed—where a host or an influencer can come and set up. So now we have variations of quiz games. We have roulette games whereby the host is practically the dealer in a social casino setting. So, no cash-out. And we are releasing, I guess, what’s in the box game. So basically, the video feed technology is the same but we have a lot of gamification on top, which I don’t think Facebook or YouTube even want to do. It’s not their DNA. So, we’re a completely separate DNA from what they’re doing. And we’re geared towards maximizing revenue for hosts and influencers. So basically, our product road map is going to the influencers and hosts and telling them, “What do you want now that can help you make more engagement and more money and we’ll just do it for you”.
Matthieu David: I see. Do I understand well if I say that during a live stream, for instance, you will have someone playing with cards with an audience of people watching and they may ask some people to pay if they want to interact in the game with him? Would it be this kind of live streaming?
Vincent Ghossoub: Almost. So, it’s not only cards. It’s not only a live social casino.
Matthieu David: Yeah. It’s just an example.
Vincent Ghossoub: Yes. So, any interaction or participation will include some spending on virtual items of credits in the game. So, if you earn, you earn credits, if you lose, you lose credits. If you like the game enough, you reach a point where you run out of credits and then you want to top up.
Matthieu David: What’s the closest version in China to what you do? What’s the closest version in the US?
Vincent Ghossoub: Yes. So, there are a few attempts in China and the US to crack this system which is basically the interaction of traditional media and interactive games. Some went well and then crashed. Some are going well and some are exploring. So, I’ll name a few. The most famous one in the US was HQ Trivia and it had a couple of clones in China such as ChongDing DaHui where it’s one or two 15-minute sessions per day and there’s a cash payout at the end. So, it became really popular because of the cash payout or prize, but then it went down and people realized that they were not able to win so much because so many people were joining. And for a lot of regulatory reasons, this was stopped in China. You have other kinds of a live streaming platform from China or anywhere else which I allow myself to call soft sex cams. So, it’s basically Facebook Live but with tipping and gifting. But most of the monetization comes from quasi-nudity or at least users flirting with the host.
Matthieu David: Do you have this issue? How do you tackle this issue with your own platform?
Vincent Ghossoub: Yes. So, let me go to the third category. Then I’ll tell you how I tackle this issue.
Matthieu David: Yeah. Okay.
Vincent Ghossoub: Another one is obviously live casinos—the real money gambling. They do it and they’re doing it well. It’s probably the fastest-growing category. And you have a horde of people exploring it to which we belong and some others belong. It’s like a company in the US called Joyride. Another one is called Tele. So basically, the reincarnation of live game shows on mobile is in a much more interactive way whereby the interaction is no longer message-in or call-in or rate or poll or vote. We have all sorts of possible interactions which you can do through the mobile. Now how did we tackle the issue of sex cam business when we started our own live streaming platform from China. In fact, we did have a host monetizing crazy amounts per hour of broadcast and we had to figure out why. And eventually, it was sort of like she was pushing a certain behavior from the users. She was incentivizing them to send her a lot of gifts. So, she was using us as an appointment platform and as a payment gateway basically because the gifts are paid.
So, they sent the virtual gifts on the platform and then we’ll give her her revenue share on the back end. Now, you mentioned it’s an issue for a lot of companies. It’s the core business. If you look at the numbers, they are not so bad. So many of these companies in China are listed. Some of them are listed in the US running this as a core monetization scheme for them and making billions a year. So, putting aside the ethical issue, we didn’t even consider it for ethical reasons. Luckily, we did not have to confront that dilemma. At least, for business reasons, we thought it wasn’t sound for us to do so. We were at the same time finding in one room housewives who wanted to play and males who just wanted to flirt with the host. And this could not cohabitate. So basically, we just removed all incentives to the host to redeem revenue shares from gifts and we focused the whole experience on the gaming part. So, you come and you play the game. You don’t just do social interaction forever without playing the game. You must play the game.
Matthieu David: I see. Is the game designed by you or it’s just someone live streaming the game?
Vincent Ghossoub: It’s designed by us. So, it’s a functional overlay on top of the live video. Maybe in the future, but not very soon. We could open up an API for other people to put their functional overlay on top of the live video. But today, it’s too early. So, we’re just coming up with our own functional overlays on top of the live video feed which represents different kinds of games.
Matthieu David: I see. Thank you very much for your time. It’s already more than one hour. Actually, I had more questions. Maybe we could have one session on the live streaming platform from China part, but it was very, very interesting and instructive on how you partner with the Chinese company which invested in you at a very early stage. Thank you very much. I hope you enjoyed. I can tell you I enjoyed talking to you.
Vincent Ghossoub: Thank you very much, Matthieu. I enjoyed too.
Matthieu David: Thanks again.
Vincent Ghossoub: Thank you.
China paradigm is a China business podcast sponsored by Daxue Consulting where we interview successful entrepreneurs about their businesses in China. You can access all available episodes from the China paradigm Youtube page.
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