The company makes a killing with low-cost, no-frills mobile versions of puzzles, word games and old favorites such as solitaire, intentionally steering clear of the jackpots the industry loves to chase.
For a bunch of guys in what can be the high-touch world of video games, the Tripledot Studios founders are remarkably unsentimental. Making a game can be a lot like making a movie: long, costly and successful only with obsessive focus on elements like narrative and character. That’s a lot of hooey, say the Tripledotters, CEO Lior Shiff, COO Akin Babayigit and Eyal Chameides, the chief product officer. Their fast-growing, profitable—profitable!—mobile games unicorn makes inexpensive versions of puzzle concepts and classics such as solitaire. Their process prioritizes Excel sheets over storyboards, where metrics like, say, a game’s 90-day user retention rate guide them. (It measures how many users keep playing three months after first downloading the app. A roaring success will have a rate of 10% or higher.) “We’re very good operators,” Shiff says. “We excel in the business aspect of building mobile games.”
The Orson Welles of gaming he is not, and neither are his cofounders. But Shiff, 44, does speak from a place of earned confidence about Tripledot’s operations. By selling ads in their games, Tripledot did $200 million in revenue last year—up 250% from the previous year—on estimated profit of around $30 million. Its games have over 30 million monthly users, and they’ve attracted some bold-name investors, like Lightspeed Venture and billionaire Len Blavatnik’s Access Industries. From April 2021 to February 2022, Tripledot raised over $200 million, most recently at a $1.4 billion valuation. The founders, collectively, own about 40% of the company, which is headquartered in London but draws about half its audience and two-thirds of its revenue from the U.S.
“We’re very good operators. We excel in the business aspect of building mobile games.”
By design, Tripledot ignores the most glamorous parts of gaming. No dreams about a metaverse. No desire to pursue the next Elden Ring or Cyberpunk 2077, two of the more high-profile console-based games from recent years, each built on expansive stories and worlds—one a hit, one a flop. With those types of titles, “you work on a game for two years, spend $100 million on marketing, release it into the wild and hope it’s good, because at that point there’s nothing much else you can do about it,” says Chameides, 38. By contrast, four-year-old Tripledot spent only about $8 million developing new games and maintaining existing ones last year, launching five titles with five more already out there. Really, Tripledot is executing on what we might call the Wordle Gambit. It succeeds for the same reason the New York Times Co. spent over $1 million on Wordle in January, three months after it publicly debuted. The most straightforward way to make money in gaming is from simple, addictive puzzles that invite frequent play and avoid a slog through a hellscape of costly entertainment development.
Shiff and Chameides were both born in Israel, where they served out their mandatory military duty in intelligence. Shiff won’t say what exactly he did. Chameides has a guess. “Time travel,” he says. Chameides isn’t much more revealing about his own duties. He admits, vaguely, to producing some “training” games. After their clandestine activities concluded, they did the only obvious things: Shiff went to get a Stanford MBA, then started a social gaming startup, Product Madness, in 2007. Chameides followed him there.
Product Madness was built around casino games—a lot of slots, like Sin City-themed Heart of Vegas. (Subtlety does not sell as well.) Product Madness marketed itself heavily on Facebook, where Babayigit worked after a Yale engineering master’s and a Harvard MBA. In 2012, Product Madness sold itself to Aristocrat, an Australian company then concentrating on physical casinos, for “mid-eight figures,” Shiff says. He and Chameides stuck around for a while before eventually deciding to join forces with Babayigit, forming Tripledot in late 2017.
The average Tripledot user is a woman over 35 years old, and, gosh, does she like Woodoku, the company’s biggest hit. It launched in 2020, took about five to six months to develop and has since been downloaded 100 million times. It combines elements of Tetris—you slide around pine-colored blocks—and sudoku. In other words, Tripledot didn’t do much more than take ideas from two popular games and mash them together. Which sounds pretty dumb until you stop to consider that “guess a five-letter word every day in six guesses or fewer” also sounds pretty dumb until you remember that’s what Wordle is.
Danny Cohen, a president at Blavatnik’s Access Industries, figured out Woodoku was more than it might seem when the Tripledotters described the dozen-plus rounds of A/B testing to find the perfect, ear-pleasing chime to play when a board clears. (Sort of like a soft strike on an instrumental wood block.) “They understand the levers you need to pull, in a way I will never understand, to make the games they do,” says Cohen. Tripledot has also put out a popular solitaire game (75.5 million downloads on the strength of a glossy design with antique-looking cards and a daily challenge feature meant to retain users) and pinned high hopes to another one, Triple Tile, a cross between mah-jongg and a simplified match-3 game (3.6 million downloads for now).
There is a rather obvious flaw to Tripledot. Intentionally, the company hasn’t developed the elaborate IP it owns. (As elaborate as it has gotten: the recently launched Piper’s Pet Cafe, which combines solitaire and a tacked-on narrative about renovating the titular location.) There’s nothing stopping a competitor from coming along with a newer, better riff on sudoku or solitaire or word-wheels. The investors understand this. “They’re not creating Fortnite,” Cohen says. “There’ll be competition with the games because they’re casual mobile games. But I feel confident.” He and the others assume competitors will emerge, and they wager the rivals won’t be as good at the number-crunching as Tripledot, less willing to sit down and figure out if Sally costs $5 to acquire through Facebook marketing, she must—absolutely must—produce $8 to $9 in ad revenue for Tripledot. If Sally doesn’t, she’s not worth acquiring in the first place, and her game’s not worth keeping. “They care about cost,” Cohen says. “They care about the bottom line.”
For all their numerate rigor, the Tripledotters do allow themselves a few softer measures to judge a game’s chances. One is the Tube Test. “When I go down to the London Underground, I look at people’s phones, and I want to see what they’re playing,” says Babayigit, 42. If he sees them playing a Tripledot game, “that’s a sign we made it right,” he says. “If it’s not our solitaire, I go ask them …‘Why do you play this game?’” At six foot, three inches, Babayigit’s impromptu market research unnerves some people. “It’s scary,” he says. “I’m quite tall.”