GC Turbo’s Instant Empire
The studio’s genius lies in its consolidated view of efficiency, efficacy, and entertainment.
Jia Shen and Tony Sun didn’t get to play many games growing up. Shen and Sun, cofounders of the modern social games studio GC Turbo, were raised by parents who took a dim view of games, forcing the two to find a covert means of satiating their hunger for them. Shen would often arrange sleepovers at friends’ houses so he could pull all-nighters on their Super Nintendo, while Sun furtively swapped floppy disks of the latest PC games with his school friends to play later.
It wasn’t until their college years that the two were able to fully and openly indulge in their passion, though Shen may have made up for lost time a bit too quickly: he almost failed his first year because he played so much Starcraft with his friends. Sun also fell in with a games crowd at college, and developed a love for games such as Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto.
Given their deep lifelong passion for games, it’s little wonder that Shen and Sun would go on to make them for a living. That their area of expertise ended up being in social games isn’t a surprise either, as games have always been a social activity for them going all the way back to their childhoods. Perhaps it’s with their childhoods in mind that one of GC Turbo’s key aims — to remove any friction that keeps people from enjoying the games they love — was birthed.
The studio specializes in a new generation of “instant” social games that load within seconds — at most. They can be played in web browsers, on social platforms, or even inside of messaging apps. And instant games have no need for dedicated hardware, nor do they require hefty app downloads. The end result is a game experience that asks only one thing of its players: to press the play button.
Shen has roots that go back to the earliest days of social networks. He cofounded RockYou in 2005, a company that rose to fame making widgets — small, focused utilities — for MySpace, augmenting the user experience. By 2007, over 50 million people had created 250 million slideshows using the company’s photo widget.
RockYou soon began developing on Facebook’s then brand-new developer platform, and quickly became the top widget maker before moving on to developing games for the social network. The common social foundation between products meant that many of the skills that Shen had learned from making widgets — e.g., how to foster user growth‚ using data to inform design — largely applied to games as well. He did notice something unique to social games, though, when compared to the games he grew up playing.
“Social games changed the overall dynamics of the medium,” he tells us. “Suddenly, games were for everyone. And new game types emerged that were more collaborative than competitive, and about nurturing things instead of destroying them. Social essentially turned established notions about games on their head.”
In the battle for attention on today’s social networks, GC Turbo believes a successful game has to accomplish several difficult things in a very short window of time. It must catch a potential player’s eye, load immediately, and then immerse them in an engaging game experience that doesn’t require a lengthy tutorial to explain how it works. For Shen, this must all happen within 60 seconds. “We want players to have as much fun as possible in the first minute,” Shen says. “If we get that part right, they’ll come back and play more often. They’ll later play with friends, and eventually with people outside their established social circles.”
On paper this all sounds deceptively simple, but pulling it off is anything but. One of the core challenges is crafting an experience that’s so dead simple anyone can jump in without having played before, but also gracefully scales in complexity over time as a player becomes more invested in it. This is a difficult thing to accomplish on its own. Factor in the informal, one-minute litmus test for success described by Shen, and the challenge grows exponentially. Essentially, GC Turbo is trying to create the Platonic ideal of games that epitomize Bushnell’s Law, which states that all of the best games are easy to learn but difficult to master.
The irony of GC Turbo’s day-one commitment to creating quality game experiences is that social games have often been perceived as being overly simple — to the extent that some in the traditional games space don’t consider them to even be valid expressions of the form. This was especially true in the early days of social games, and partly a consequence of the technology limitations of the time. But in a somewhat validating case of double irony, many modern traditional games embrace and benefit from the same social features and designs that Shen helped lay the groundwork for, starting with his early days making photo widgets on MySpace.
Today, the studio creates games for some of the most respected companies, brands, and franchises in the world. These include Disney, Sanrio, The Walking Dead, Pokémon, and even Taiwanese-American basketball star Jeremy Lin. Obviously, working with such big names helps its games solve for the curb appeal needed to attract players’ attention. GC Turbo’s continued growth and success points to something more notable, though: Its players keep coming back for more, they’re playing with their friends, and expanding their social circles.
HTML5 is an umbrella term for the latest version of the HTML language, along with a set of broader technologies that enhance its capabilities in creating rich web applications. First introduced to the public a little over a decade ago, HTML5 was seen by both game developers weaned on Adobe’s Flash and more traditional companies as an appealing development platform for games. It was open, worked on any device with a web browser, and could reach billions of people around the world. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t fully baked out of the gate (existing hardware at the time wasn’t optimized for it either), and was overshadowed — but not obsoleted — for years by the rise of modern mobile devices, app stores, and native applications.
The landscape has evolved dramatically since the initial release of HTML5. It’s now a mature technology that can power everything from web-based applications that are largely indistinguishable from their native app counterparts to interactive multimedia experiences with advanced graphics, and is used by companies around the world — including GC Turbo. In fact, every game the studio makes is powered by it because it enables them to create their signature experience: instant games that can be played virtually anywhere.
Moreover, HTML5 is an open, internationally standardized technology. The benefit of this, especially when deliberately designed around it, is a sort of soft future-proofing for its games. “The reality is, the ways people interact socially will continuously evolve until the end of time,” Shen says. “Accordingly, social networks will continue to evolve as well.” By using widely adopted technology that’s open and seldom sees massive changes, their games can be updated for existing platforms and brought to future ones with relative ease, keeping their community of players happy and engaged for years to come.
It also gives the work that GC Turbo does a different kind of longevity. Prior to GC Turbo, Shen and Sun had another game company that invested heavily in both Adobe Flash as well as the Unity game engine. Due to the phasing out of Flash and changing business priorities, all of the infrastructure and custom tools they built for the platforms had to be thrown out wholesale. HTML5 gives them a constant, reliable underpinning to invest their efforts in, and is evidently efficient from a business standpoint, hinting at Shen and Sun’s engineering backgrounds, a discipline where efficiency is crucial (both studied computer science in college, with Sun having a doctorate).
If there’s one thing that open technologies like HTML5 offer GC Turbo that transcends everything else, it’s the space that multifaceted people like Shen and Sun — they’re entrepreneurs, technologists, and game makers — need to innovate. The two have already shown that they can leverage web and social technologies to dramatically improve the player experience; imagine what’s possible when they apply the same thoughtful, player-centric thinking to business models that harness the unique properties of blockchain, another open technology.
Altogether, GC Turbo intimately knows how to build captivating games that can be played anywhere, and by anyone. This deep understanding is enhanced by the team’s long history empowering player communities through meaningful social interactions and, naturally, resulted in their player-first mentality. This distinct combination of invaluable skills and principled perspective means GC Turbo is conspicuously well-equipped for the marathon towards the next era of games, as well as the sprint.