Acention Takes on Mobile Gaming Market
Acention is a mobile gaming platform where players compete head-to-head for real cash.
After reaching 2000 beta-players in under 2 months, Wharton-founded gaming startup Acention prepares to raise seed funding and launch for the general public this summer. I sat down with Colin Robinson, CEO and co-founder of Acention, to discuss the journey of the company and his vision for sustained growth.
Follow the money
In February, Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence made headlines for playing Candy Crush during the State of the Union Address. A comical display of disrespect towards the Trump administration; the media was quick to highlight the story. Unknowingly, they also highlighted a growing trend: the mobile gaming industry is exploding.
Global Games Market Size and Growth
Mobile/tablet gaming is now a $50 billion industry with 23% YoY growth, making it now larger than historically dominant PC and console markets. Mobile/tablet gaming is now almost half of the entire $116B gaming market. Wheras players typically spend around $60 on Console/PC games, willing players spend between $100-$120 on premium content in free-to-download mobile games. These numbers may surprise you, but it’s an easy story to believe.
Chances are if you own a smartphone, you’ve played a game on it. Maybe not regularly, but you’ve at least tried it. In the past, video games have required specific hardware (e.g. Xbox) and cost upwards of $60 before users even got the chance to play. Mobile gaming is effortless. You already own the equipment and all it takes is a simple download to start playing immediately for free. They say people love instant gratification – need I say more?
It all started with an idea
Coming into Wharton, Colin Robinson knew he wanted to pursue the mobile gaming space. “I had a list of 5-10 different ideas, but Acention was right at the top,” says Robinson. The former Accenture consultant and Chicago Venture Partners associate already had experience launching his own business, Blaster Tag, which he described as “paintball but with nerf guns.” He knew he was ready for his next project. He had worked on some thought pieces on the mobile gaming space throughout his time in consulting and knew the area was ripe for opportunity. As he describes it, “I had done a lot of research in mobile gaming and, overall, I was pretty disappointed by the games out there and the way they monetized”.
Most games monetize through a freemium or pay-to-play model that gamers are familiar with. You download the game for free but then pay for additional perks like power-ups, extra lives, etc. The way most games are designed, these “optional” power-ups eventually become necessary for success. As Robinson puts it, “at a certain point you are not meant to beat that level of candy crush without paying for a power-up.”
“…at a certain point you are not meant to beat that level of candy crush without paying for a power-up…” Colin Robinson, Co-Founder and CEO of Acention
But Robinson saw this as a broken model: “Companies manipulate players into so many $1-2 microtransactions that they end up paying way more than a console game costs; not to mention players who pay for premium content are at an unfair advantage to those who don’t in player-vs-player formats”. Robinson’s logic was that instead of making games pay-to-play, why not make them paid-to-play? That’s where his company, Acention, comes in.
Acention is a free-to-play mobile app where you compete head-to-head against other players for real money. Players are challenged to start from a single penny and can amass as much wealth as possible. When you download the game, you’re automatically credited with a penny that you can wager against another player in a winner-takes-all game. If you win, you double your wager and continue to “ascend” the game. If you lose and your account balance falls to zero, players can simply watch a brief commercial to have another penny credited to their account. Win enough games and you could be playing for some serious cash. “Double a penny 30 times and you’re looking at over $10 million,” Robinson boasts.
“Double a penny 30 times and you’re looking at over $10 million.” Colin Robinson, Founder and CEO of Acention
Here’s where you roll your eyes and think “the odds of winning 30 games in a row are astronomically low”. But the game offers flexibility as well. Players have the option to cash out any balance over $5.00 or wager a portion of their earnings rather than the full balance. Best of all, you only play with house money. Players cannot deposit their own money to play with, or pay for power-ups that would put you at an advantage against other players. This both maintains a level playing field for all competitors and keeps the games skill-based, thereby avoiding being classified as gambling.
From then till now
Through a “Founder Finder” mixer put on by Penn Wharton Entrepreneurship, Robinson met Anvith Ekkati, an ex-Microsoft engineer and current Masters in Robotics Candidate. Ekkati was impressed by the concept and agreed to come on as Acention’s Chief Technical Officer. Robinson notes this as a particularly significant milestone: “I see a lot of other students out there running around with business ideas, but if they don’t find the right technical talent their idea isn’t going anywhere.” Robinson was also lucky enough to add Peter Zhu, ex-Riot Games employee and current Wharton MBA student, to the team as their Chief Product Officer to gain some industry-insider expertise.
“I saw a lot of other students out there running around with business ideas, but if they don’t find the right technical talent their idea isn’t going anywhere” Colin Robinson, Founder and CEO of Acention
Robinson also enrolled the company in Penn’s Venture Initiation Program, an accelerator of sorts, to fast-track the company’s progress. This granted Robinson access to a broad network of fellow-entrepreneurs at Wharton and focused his development of the company’s value proposition. Through some campus innovation funds, they were able to get the initial capital needed to build of a proof-of-concept. Over the summer, they brought on 5 interns to help with the development of the product and successfully launched an alpha version to 200 family members and friends.
Building off this momentum, the company pitched to the Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures, both Penn and/or campus-affiliated VCs, that provided Acention with enough capital to continue development through this past fall and to launch a successful beta version in December. That launch was met with 2000 additional users in a little over a month.
Acention’s paid-to-play model isn’t the first of its kind. Mobile gaming startup HQ Trivia has swept the nation by storm. HQ, a twice-daily quiz show where a friendly host live streams to you 12 multiple-choice trivia questions, offers the same cash reward incentive as Acention. Each round, the questions get harder, winnowing down the participants. If you make it to the end, you and any other winners split that game’s cash prize, which can vary from $1,500 to $25,000. The company has enjoyed meteoric success: it launched in August 2017 and now is eyeing 2 million daily active users in 2018.
HQ Trivia Interface
Instead of seeing HQ as a competitor, Robinson couldn’t be more pleased with the success of HQ. “HQ’s success has been very, very conveniently timed for us,” Robinson admitted. He sees the company’s success as a validation of Acention’s business model, which is a critical component of his narrative as he prepares to pitch to seed investors this summer.
“HQ’s success has been very, very conveniently timed for us.” Colin Robinson, Co-Founder and CEO of Acention
Acention is gearing up for a public launch this summer. Leading up to the release, refinement of the product is a top priority: “We want to be sure the games available are as fun and engaging as possible prior to our public launch”, Robinson reports. The app currently offers two different turn-based games players can choose between and recently introduced a tournament-style mode similar to HQ. They plan to continue rolling out additional games and enhancements that will improve the player experience and drive user-growth as they begin to raise seed-funding.
“We want to be sure the games available are as fun and engaging as possible prior to our public launch.” Colin Robinson, Co-Founder and CEO of Acention
When asked what sort of user numbers or funding they were hoping to see this summer, Robinson smiled and said, “We’ve got some numbers in mind, but can’t disclose official targets just yet.” Even a modicum of success may justify an investment. HQ is reportedly raising $15 million at a $100 million valuation. Interestingly, the company is facing roadblocks due to its founder’s reputation for inappropriate behavior.
Something tells me the Acention founders won’t have to deal with that sort of issue…