A year ago, Icelandic game studio Plain Vanilla had hit a wall. The product they’d poured their hearts into for months had fallen from the charts almost immediately after launch, and they were just weeks from running out of cash.
This morning, the company is announcing a 2.4 million dollar Series A, following up on a one million dollar seed round they closed just nine months ago.
So what changed?
Let’s jump back to November of 2011.
Plain Vanilla games had just released their first game, The Moogies. Packed with bright colors and crazy characters, it was primarily meant to keep pre-schooled aged kids entertained in a pinch. It sold well enough at launch, with Apple having highlighted the product around the App Store.
But then Apple’s spotlight moved on, and the sales went with it. Almost overnight, sales of The Moogies had plummeted.
By the beginning of 2012, the company was nearly out of money. The Moogies weren’t bringing in nearly enough to keep the lights on, and Iceland’s venture capital scene wasn’t exactly plentiful.
So the team did what many an entrepreneur searching for their share of gold had done before them: they picked up and moved out west.
Armed with nothin’ more than their Work Visas, their charms, and a bright idea for a series of quiz games, the team set out to save the company. They moved to San Francisco, with 3 months to either raise a round or go bankrupt.
“It… wasn’t easy,” said CEO Thor Fridriksson told in an interview. “I thought I’d just charm my way in front of these VCs, share my big idea for a quiz platform, and they’d throw money my way. Not quite.”
“Just connecting with the right people was a challenge. I’d cold call and ask for meetings, and they’d maybe be willing to set something up for 2, 3 months later. I had to be creative to get in front of these VCs. It maybe even bordered on stalking. In hindsight, maybe it was a bit creepy.”
But his dedication (or creepiness, if we’re using his words) paid off. By July of 2012, Plain Vanilla had closed a million dollar seed round to fund their next step.
That next step could be boiled down to one, simple idea: trivia.
When he looked out at the mobile gaming landscape, Thor saw many games that had been translated from board game classics to mobile smashes. Scrabble became Words With Friends. Pictionary became Draw Something. But what about knowledge games, like Trivial Pursuit? A few attempts had been made, but no one had really smashed it out of the park.
So they built an engine on which they could quickly build new trivia games with realtime, cross-platform multiplayer functionality. They built a few, broadly focused quiz games, which they dubbed QuizUps, to test the concept, and they seemed to do fairly well on their own.
But then came Twilight.
The company managed to score a partnership with Lionsgate, leading to the release of Twilight QuizUp in November of 2012. Any metric they had set to measure the success of their seed funds was crushed by the weight of a million screaming vampire fans.
These partnerships with big franchises, it seems, are the key. The franchise brings the fan base, while Plain Vanilla brings a new means for the studios to get their fans engaged.
“People really play these games,” says Thor. “We have had some people playing the Twilight game for up to 3 or 4 hundred hours. They want to be the number one fan.”
While Thor wouldn’t specify which properties they’re in talks with right now, he did say that they have “quite a lot of deals coming up.” But those deals are just part of a bigger picture.
With today’s $2.4 million series A, Plain Vanilla wants to build their trivia games out into a platform. They don’t just want their games to be a quick time-killer — they want to be connecting people with similar interests (like, say, Twilight) and building fan communities beyond the game. Alas, the company is staying mostly mum on exactly how they plan to do that.
The round was led primarily by Greycroft Partners, Tencent, BOLDStart Ventures, and IDG Ventures, with participation by CrunchFund*, MESA+, Riot Games (makers of the massively popular League of Legends) CEO Brandon J. Beck , and Unity3D CEO/super-brilliant-dude David Helgason. With the closure of the round, David Helgason and Greycroft’s Ellie Wheeler will be joining Plane Vanilla’s Board Of Directors.
[*Standard Disclosure: CrunchFund was started by Michael Arrington, founder of TechCrunch. I actually didn’t notice this until I was about 80% of the way through writing this story, so I’m pretty darn sure it didn’t affect my decision to cover it.]