10 years ago, Carrie Mandel quit her Chicago ad job to stay home with a new baby, while living with her mom and husband. She started to read about people selling virtual merchandise in Second Life and realized that she could out-perform a lot of the existing products and services that virtual world residents were pining for.
She started the business with $300 in the bank and eventually replaced her ad agency salary by selling the virtual wares she created as Second Life entrepreneur, Carrie Tatsu. A year later, her husband, Jason Schuler, quit his job to help her run it. Within two years, they were thriving.
In short, Carrie and Jason are incredibly successful virtual business owners who have consistently been able to self-fund their efforts. They have made hundreds of thousands of dollars over the past several years with virtual products they created in Second Life. Zooby’s (www.zoobys.com) became a virtual pets and babies phenomenon, in large part because of Carrie and Jason’s amazing artistic talents.
Realizing that Second Life was in decline, they have self- funded two mobile games created outside of Second Life. GoofBlocks is currently in the Apple App store and Weirdables, a like-nothing-you-have-seen-before creation and evolution game, will be out this holiday season.
Q&A With Carrie Mandel
How did you get started in virtual world/game development?
After completing an MFA, I worked as a designer for a Chicago online ad agency. My husband, Jason Schuler, worked at the same agency. We had a baby. I quit my job and we moved into my mom’s house to save some money. We were living check to check and had no savings. That was 2006. During that time I read an article about people who were selling virtual merchandise in a world called SecondLife. I found the idea of virtual worlds incredible and was curious how it worked, so I joined and explored. I realized that I could make products better than what was currently available and I started modeling virtual cats.
It cost around $300 to purchase server space to open a virtual store. It cost $8 a month to maintain it. In less than a year, I created several pets and eventually replaced my ad salary job. I hired a nanny to help with the baby. Within 2 years Jason’s salary was replaced. He then quit his ad job and we started a company called Zooby’s (www.zoobys.com). Jason redesigned every pet to make them look realistic. We finally could afford to purchase our own virtual island for $1000. We hired programmers to help code the pets and Jason designed a virtual pet store. We saved money, moved out of my mom’s place and purchased our first real house with profits from Second Life.
How did you decide what to create?
After a few years we realized that players wanted a real experience. They desired more role play and fulfill what was lacking in their real lives. We decided to design virtual babies. We purchased another island and opened a virtual baby store. When we first released the babies a player could purchase one baby and it came with all the necessary accessories and products. As Second Life user base started to decline, our income began to drop pretty rapidly. We had to find a way to continue to sell the same products to the same players indefinitely.
We knew we had to create an experience and not just a doll, so we redesigned our babies to be more interactive and engaging. If the player cared for their baby daily, the baby would earn a token a day which could be redeemed for free interactive baby toys. If the player gave their baby booster stars, it would grow and learn. The player was allowed to add friends and family to care for their baby. There was a huge demand for baby clothing, but we did not have the time or staff to create all the clothes. We decided we would sell clothing kits and set up an affiliate system that would allow other designers to make Zooby Baby clothing. We would sell affiliates scripts so their outfits would fit Zooby babies.
When did you shift course towards mobile games?
Around 2013, we realized Second Life may not last forever. User base never increased and as we continued to make new products our sales started to plateau. It became increasingly harder to release new products fast enough and keep our sales up. In addition, because we were successful in Second Life we were inundated with avatars that would steal from us, duplicate our products and sell them in other worlds, pretend to work for us and lie to our customers. We also did not own our content and our products could not be easily portable to another platform. It was time to move on.
We created a second company called PowerPrim. Jason thought we should make a mobile game for the iPhone and I agreed. We researched all existing successful mobile games on the market and found similarities with specific genres. Jason thought of the name Weirdables and we should create a more interesting alternative to the typical simulated farming game. We had already created products in Second Life that allowed the player to care for a product, so this was the perfect space to work in.
We had saved money in Second Life to avoid taking out a loan or giving up equity to an investor to make a mobile game. We hired more developers, but could do a lot of the other work ourselves. We knew there would be a learning curve and gave ourselves time to grow. We also still had continued to release products in Second Life, just not as often.
After a few years of developing Weirdables we knew we had to make a choice. Either we continue to work in Second Life part time while trying to finish Weirdables, or we take our lead developer out of Second Life, stop creating new virtual products and focus on another smaller mobile game that would take less time to create. This would allow us to have two mobile games, but the risk was that Second Life sales can continue to decline. We thought it was worth the risk and this October we finished our first game which is currently in the Apple App store called GoofBlocks (https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/goofblocks/id1097337750?ls=1&mt=8). We plan to have Weirdables in the App store by Christmas.
What kinds of games do you make?
We currently have two mobile games we are creating. One is called GoofBlocks and one is called Weirdables. GoofBlocks is a quirky alternative to the typical block stacking game and Weirdables allows players to grow, combine, evolve and experiment unique characters.
What is your mission?
We make games because we enjoy the freedom and creativity, and we want to distribute high-production-quality experiences that truly thrill people. We have a talented team that allows us to push our limits, learn, and explore new ideas. We are also artists and designers and we are always pushing ourselves to create truly artistic games that communicate our aesthetic and commitment to player experience.
What are the biggest lessons you have learned about game design and development?
It’s a lot of work. You don’t have to spend endless amounts of money to make a great product. You need to know what your strengths and weaknesses are and not assume you can do everything yourself. A small focused team, even a virtual one, can accomplish a lot if everyone has the same vision and works together towards the same goal. Have a very clear idea of what you want to create before you create it. Plan ahead what you want to create, envision it and design it before you build it. Realize details are malleable, but the underlying theme and vision remains the same.
How have you funded your projects?
We funded them ourselves with money we earned from selling products in Second Life. So far we have spent about $350k on mobile game development.
What has surprised you most about virtual worlds?
How real our customers wanted their experiences to be. People want their virtual life to feel as real and authentic as their real life and they also overlap. People become emotionally attached to virtual products and feel a need to protect and care for them. People feel deep connections with others they have only chatted with through simulated environments and avatars. Their online experiences become part of their identity and how they relate to the world.
What advice can you give aspiring game developers?
Take everything a day at a time and try not to get overwhelmed. Give yourself time to learn. Know what you are good at and delegate where you are weak. Don’t have an ego, realize you don’t know everything. Listen to feedback. Don’t assume you need an investor or tons of money to make a great product.
What do you think the future holds for gaming?
I am personally fascinated by VR and future simulated environments. I believe they are the next step in gaming and interacting online. I think at some point it will be hard to tell the difference between what is real and what is simulated. I am excited about the possibility of what lays ahead and how that can fundamentally change the way we engage and interact with each other.