Voodoo Games thrives by upending conventional product design

Voodoo Games is one of the most interesting startups alive today. In mid-2018, it had 150 million MAUs and raised $200 million from Goldman Sachs, yet I’ve never heard anyone mention the company. That might be normal for an obscure enterprise SaaS play, but Voodoo is consumer-facing through and through.

Quantitative success aside, Voodoo upends much of the conventional thinking about product design and gaming. If it can do it, how can similar strategies apply to other products?

But first, some background: What is Voodoo Games?

Voodoo is best described as a product conglomerate. Take a look at its App Store page. It has dozens of generic-looking apps. The basic playbook is:

  • Quickly build a relatively low-quality, single-purpose game.
  • Make sure one mechanic is really fun. It doesn’t matter if users churn 20 minutes after downloading it.
  • Keep the in-game mechanics simple and on a tight feedback loop.
  • Aggressively spam the user with ads to monetize.
  • Make some of those ads point toward similarly addicting mini-games within the Voodoo portfolio.
  • Keep users in the Voodoo ecosystem by retargeting ads for new mini-games.

I’m using “low-quality” purely in a descriptive sense; Voodoo doesn’t go over-the-top with glitz and glam like other publishers might. The virtue of the Voodoo system is that it’s essentialist. Less time spent on game design is more time spent on core mechanics.

So, how does Voodoo break the mold set by gaming giants like Supercell and Zynga?

False narrative No. 1: The bar is rising for consumer UI/UX

Largely inspired by the success of consumer “design-driven” products like Robinhood and the continued churn-fighting iterations of hit apps like Headspace, founders and VCs assume that we’re experiencing a secular shift in the demands of the market.

The theory makes sense. The expectations of today’s mobile game consumer should rise alongside our general quality of (digital) life. But the numbers are impossible to refute. Voodoo boasts 2 billion downloads from 300 million total users. Clearly UI/UX has not killed mass-market customer acquisition. (For the sake of comparison, Robinhood has approximately 7 million accounts and Headspsace has been downloaded 11 million times.)

What’s going on here? One obvious answer is that users simply don’t care. “Design-driven” consumer tech is one of many ways to stand out in a crowded field, but better use of acquisition channels and quality of core mechanics are sufficient.

False narrative No. 2: Churn will be the death of me

This is common sense when read in the context of a single product — if someone stops using it, they’re dead and gone. Unless you’re a dating app that treats “successful relationship churn” as a marketing win, that is.

Most financial models only work if users stick around for a reasonably long time. So you need to design a product with diverse features providing a lot of value. The complexity of such a product can be difficult to manage and reduce optionality going forward. But if the whole problem of customer acquisition payback periods were magically irrelevant, you’d be free to build products with fewer constraints.

This is the brilliant core insight behind Voodoo: Expect lightning-fast churn, but don’t put all your eggs in one basket. When a user gets bored with one game, it’s straightforward to retarget and acquire that same user with different titles.

Why spend months building product and carefully designing a subtle yet profitable advertising strategy when you can run-and-gun it?

False narrative No. 3: Gaming companies need social network effects to last

At this point, you may be wondering: Can such a strategy really lay the foundation for an enduring firm? Even great brands like Angry Birds eventually fade into irrelevance.

The traditional answer here has been social network effects. Supercell, Fortnite and even console hits like Call of Duty are sticky primarily because of the community and competition with other gamers.

Of course, that has worked fantastically well for the titles mentioned above, but it’s not the only way.

The beauty of Voodoo’s constant churn and reacquisition assumption is that it’s generalizable beyond the scope of in-house apps. By building Voodoo Hub, a platform for developers with similar games, the company can create a powerful ecosystem effect.

A third-party game studio will be able to build small apps that fit the Voodoo model and simply plug into its distribution network. This ensures that new content will keep getting created.

It remains to be seen whether such an ecosystem is good enough. But if Voodoo is 1) printing money in the meantime and 2) still has the option to build out more traditional brands using the Voodoo game network as a launchpad, it may not matter.

Lessons learned

A core theme these points support is that what looks like an industry shift is often little more than the discovery of a new viable strategy. Design-driven “luxury UI/UX” will continue to power the success of many tech startups. But it’s not the only way you can build a great business.