Funbakers: Bringing an AR detective game to the streets of Ireland

31 Jul 2017

Funbakers founders from left: Demid Tishin, Ilya Moshkov and Alex Nietz. Image: Funbakers

Our start-up of the week is Funbakers, a company that has come to Dublin from Russia, Massachusetts and Belgium to make compelling AR-based video games.

Funbakers develop original immersive games with a wide appeal,” said Demid Tishin, co-founder of Funbakers, the creator of a new game called Silent Streets.

Funbakers is a small, independent game studio based in Maynooth, Co Kildare. The project won the Competitive Start Fund programme run by Enterprise Ireland in 2016, and was well received at a number of game shows and contests, including EGX (Eurogamer Expo) 2016 in Birmingham, Wexworlds 2017 in Wexford and Meaningful Play 2016 in the US.

Future Human

Set in 1867 during the Victorian era, Silent Streets allows you to play the role of a private detective from London who arrives in the grim coastal town of Snowport to investigate a distress call from an old friend. You find him brutally murdered, and a short visit quickly turns into a full-scale campaign against criminal masterminds, corrupt police and a secret science society.

That’s the premise of an exciting augmented reality (AR) experience in which you walk around the crime scene, with in-game evidence scattered in your real-world surroundings.

You discover these objects with your phone camera and tap on them to collect and use in your investigation. A murder weapon could be lying right on your working desk – just look around.

“You physically walk with the phone in your pocket to get around Snowport,” Tishin explained.

“The game uses your phone’s accelerometer and GPS sensors to measure how close you are to your game destination, such as a crime scene or your detective’s office. You can use your daily commutes, shopping trips or fitness time to progress through the story.”

The market

Silent Streets is a mobile detective adventure with augmented reality features. So we are looking at age 30-plus, established professionals interested in technology and culture,” Tishin explained.

“More specifically, gamers who love interactive fiction, adventure and role-playing titles.”

He said that country-wise, it is a traditional choice of North America and western Europe.

“From our early stats, we see that Russia and China have large potential, too. Facebook Audience Insights estimates there are at least 10m fans of adventure games in the US alone, so the opportunity is huge.

“But, with over 600,000 other games in the App Store, the challenge is really how we reach this audience.”

The founders

The Funbakers founders comes from a diverse range of backgrounds.

Tishin is co-founder of All Correct, a games translation business established in 2006.

“I quit my CEO position in late 2015, which left me with a bit of savings, contacts in the industry and loads of free time.”

Alex Nietz is originally a medical doctor and master of public health from the University of Massachusetts, but he later worked in web design in Russia. “Because Alex had also studied visual arts, he handles our UI design and level design among other things.”

Ilya Moshkov is a Belgian business school graduate and was part of a successful consumer start-up in Belgium. “He worked as a freelance project manager when we met. Ilya manages most of the production and, as a talented musician, also creates fascinating sound scenes for Silent Streets,” Tishin said.

The technology

Funbakers’ Silent Streets is an AR detective game made in Ireland

Image: Funbakers

Silent Streets is made with Unity 3D, one of the world’s most popular game development engines.

Tishin said it is totally cross-platform, which saves a lot of development time. It’s also very flexible, because the user community is developing custom extensions and add-ons all the time.

“We used one such extension, Vuforia, to set up the AR evidence collection scenes. It positions 3D objects in a scene around the player’s avatar, your phone reads your hardware gyroscope data, detects any changes from the original position and changes your camera view accordingly.”

Funbakers’ Silent Streets is an AR detective game made in Ireland

Image: Funbakers

This is very similar to how the camera works in Pokémon Go, for example. “Unfortunately, most phones have only one back camera, they don’t recognise depth and actual surfaces, so the objects sort of hover in the air. Good news is, technology is evolving.

“Apple has just demonstrated the abilities of its iOS 11 ARKit coming out in autumn 2017. It would accurately detect flat surfaces even with one main camera.

“On the player movement side, we use the hardware accelerometer and, optionally, the fitness co-processor, if your phone has one, to detect your steps. Additionally, we use GPS data to check if the player has actually moved and is not simply shaking her phone. The downside is, you can’t efficiently collect steps in a gym or doing household chores. The upside is, we incentivise people to get outside and get some fresh air.”

Tishin said that Funbakers is aiming to create a series of at least five episodes and reach 1m users.

“It’s an immersive world, so once you dig the story, you’ve sold your soul. Kind of. And yeah, we know 1m is a big challenge.

“Aside from Silent Streets, we want to make great games for players around the world, not necessarily mobile, and be able to comfortably live off that.”

The scaling game

Funbakers launched globally in recent weeks and has amassed around 1,000 users.

Promotion of the game has just begun and the company has signed a distribution agreement for Google Play with a publisher.

“We hope this partnership will be a major boost for the project. We did raise a small seed investment in December 2016, which will last us until September. If Funbakers starts generating revenue soon, we might not need scale-up investment.

“Advertising a mobile game on your own is unprofitable even if you have loads of money, so investment is not the silver bullet.

“Chartboost gives you the average cost per install in the US as $4 to $5, and this is just to have someone download your game for free! Imagine you have conversion into paying users of 5pc – this means to simply cover the advertising costs, your average paying user must spend $100, which is not going to happen. Publishing deals reinforced with PR are a more efficient strategy in my opinion,” Tishin said.

“Project-wise, building the user base is the biggest challenge. With so much noise around, to grab someone’s attention is super difficult. Please bear in mind Silent Streets is our first project, so we spent endless hours making our mistakes – finding the right talents, distributing team roles, attracting investment, learning the tools and so on.

“On the design side, making a continuous playing experience was a big one, because the dialogue and evidence collection scenes are separated by the walking bits, and I’m still curious if we managed to deal with that one.”

Starting in Ireland

Tishin said the Irish start-up scene is full of all the right supports.

“The start-up scene is amazing in Ireland – lots of venture funds, angel investors, business accelerators, free advice from Google and much more. Two heads above what we have back in Russia, my home country.

“Funbakers won an international round of the Competitive Start Fund programme in late 2016. This gave us access to seed capital of €50,000 and ensured we finished Silent Streets and actually shipped a real product to the market. Enterprise Ireland also connected us to a games industry veteran as mentor, and helped Alex and Ilya to get residence permits in Ireland.”

Tishin’s advice to fellow founders is to balance product development with business know-how.

“We live in amazing times. New consumption models and opportunities arise even as we are talking now. You are lucky to have all the resources at hand in Ireland – amazing talents, equity funding, advice and the fantastic Irish air.

“Read a few guides to pitching for seed investment, there are loads out there on the web – this will give you an idea of what business aspects you need to have covered besides the actual product development.

“From that, you will see strengths and weaknesses in your project and adapt accordingly.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years