Welcome to issue #6 of our recently launched Q&A series, Startup Spotlight.
This series is all about diving into the world-class technological innovation conducted by exciting UK startups. Getting to grips with the technology, the mission, and even the stories behind them.
In each edition, we sit down with a different startup founder, leader, or operator in an easily digestible conversational style Q&A format.
This time we’re joined by Shib Hussain, CEO of Unsolved Studios, who let us quiz him on all things crime and gaming.
Shib takes us through Unsolved’s learnings, navigating a criminally oversaturated market, and how they’ve ended up supplying the fastest growing fiction genre to a traditionally non-gaming demographic.
- 👀 Why Unsolved is focussing on crime content
- 📱 How IDFA has changed the way Unsolved approaches user acquisition and product development
- 🔀 How Shib tackles pressing challenges like hiring and shifts in investor appetite
Unsolved Studios is rapidly on track to offer the most immersive and entertaining crime games on mobile and emerging platforms. They've managed to tap into a genre of gaming that’s received fairly little attention, up until now.
By harnessing the spending giants that are 25-45 female casual gamers, Unsolved Studios are developing a range of interactive crime games that will hit this demographic at scale.
But what are the challenges that come with this mighty mission? How does one know when a game should be built, or when it’s time to be killed?
With a cookieless world approaching, how has the uncertainty within the advertising landscape shaped user acquisition?
And how will Unsolved Studios stay on top of their game when it comes to growing a team of trailblazers?
Shib sat down with us to share all of his secrets, visions, and more. 👇
To kick things off, what's the mission of Unsolved Studios?
For us, it's all about becoming the go-to for interactive crime experiences. Right now, that's mobile gaming but the next opportunity we see is in VR. So, ultimately any place that you look to for immersive crime content on any format, Unresolved Studios will be there.
Love it! So, why crime?
We quickly found that the best retention and conversion rate in our current game was for crime content. Secondly, when you go to the App Store and search for narrative games, the romance genre dominates. There's this huge interest in 'crime' but no one's building crime games.
What’s also interesting is that crime is the quickest growing and biggest genre across every format. It’s the most in-demand genre on streaming platforms, for example when it comes to TV, the recent finale of Line of Duty had the highest viewership of a TV programme this century, and then CSI and Law and Order are some of the longest-running shows in the US.
Diving into podcasts, the quickest downloads to 5m was Serial. And, 36% of book sales are from crime content, which is something like $300 million a year in revenue.
Huge. Which direction do you see crime going, and how does Unsolved Studios fit into that narrative?
It seems to be moving away from death, guts, and violence, and towards more scam-based crime/intelligence related crimes, which we can see on Netflix with the documentaries of people getting swindled. This is where we come in, by focusing on 'whodunnits' and psychological based puzzle-solving games instead of gory crime scenes.
We’ve also found that 75% of the audience that consumes crime across all those formats - podcasts, books, TV shows, gaming - are 25-45 year-old females.
This has great crossover with gaming audiences: 65% of all in-app spend comes from this female market segment but interestingly they still don’t see themselves as ‘gamers’. So we’re trying to double down on this audience and be the only one directly targeting them at scale.
With the recent changes to Apple’s Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA), how has Unsolved Studios had to adapt?
One change has been from a metrics point of view. Now with the IDFA changes, you get very little paid install data, so we can’t do paid attribution that effectively anymore.
What we’ve moved to now is a blended cost per install (CPI) approach. So, we’re looking at this cost and asking if the lifetime value of an average user is better than that which has then opened the door to a lot of organic opportunities and given us space to add new tools, like attribution partners.
Effectively we’re moving back to that and incremental testing; did running this TikTok campaign actually do anything? Overall, it might look good top of the funnel but maybe we’re just hitting the same audience that we were on Facebook.
Attribution is key for you then. How about user acquisition (UA)? How does this help inform the products you launch?
We test UA before we've even written any lines of code, just to work out if there's any audience demand for that game and if the clicks will be good versus our current benchmark, which is the industry benchmark.
Where we’re moving to with new games is simply having a greenlight process. We've historically not really done that, normally we would develop and launch a game and then see if it's working, whereas now before we even a launch game, we're just testing if we can get a CPI that feels comfortable with that creative and then that can drive a lot of learnings for if that game mechanics even makes sense.
Let’s touch on R&D and innovation. Can you walk us through the technology that you’re creating and innovating with?
We're actually native on the first game; Suspects. What we've been doing is building out the back-end story engine effectively for this game. It's a mix between a writing tool and a content management system (CMS). You can write in and create all of the content for the messages, emails, and then you can upload calls, photos, videos, and then it spins up into a story on the front end.
A lot of our development time is spent on improving that effectively. Right now, we’re also talking about how can we make content delivery more efficient. What we’ve been working on has just been around actually trying to invent and test new mechanics for monetization within that game as well, so that's taken up a lot of our development time over the last couple of years, testing a free-to-play or pay-as-you-go type subscription.
And how about the challenges you’re facing. What’s on your plate right now?
One of the main challenges I’m finding is a lot of investor interest has blown towards web3. So it's making it more challenging to raise money to build mobile products. And I think going back to IDFA, those changes aren’t helping because it's just making it harder to scale studios, they need much more capital.
Also hiring teams - we don’t want to hire too many people too quickly. When you’ve created one successful game you start thinking about the second game and you start asking questions. What’s changed from a mental point of view? How did you communicate that? How did you set up teams? When did you hire? Because there's always that thing that we talked about earlier, you might be in the greenlight process and you get really good early day one key performance indicators (KPIs), and then down the funnel, the game sucks. So you don't want to bring on resources too early as well.
Have you found any method that helps to tackle those obstacles?
I'm just asking people who've done it and who failed. Asking what didn’t work for them because I think that's where you get the best advice. There are people who are five years ahead, and we’re probably having the same conversation they had five years before and they’ve either done stuff that didn't work or, got to a point where it does work.
What's been quite refreshing, is talking to some studios who think they know exactly what they're doing because they've launched 10 games. And they just say, you know what, we don't. We still don’t know how to launch a new game, we can't tell you what the formula is.
Love that. The gaming industry is a fantastic community.
Is there any superstar in the industry that you look up to most?
I have ones for different things. When it comes to what we're philosophically trying to do, I really like Hutch. For me, it's that focus on building a culture of people who want to build awesome car games for a huge community of car lovers. That's what you're signing up for when you join there. That's something we're trying to replicate here at Unsolved, albeit for crime!
Talk to me about advertising Unsolved Studios. Are there any consistent creative hooks that resonate well with your audience?
We’ve tested the high gloss Netflix style content but our best creatives, which is so painful for our UA guy at least, are static images on Facebook. And those statics are what you get on the side of an American milk carton for a missing person’s ad. We’re also running a fake police report, and wanted style posters, which are actually our best performing ads. They generate ridiculously good engagement and people start tagging their friends in the comments and try to work it out based on the image alone.
Here's an example of a static image we use:
Eye-catching! Where do this style of ad run?
These are on Facebook and Instagram. We’ve ended up doing A/B testing with one image where we’ve changed the location from New York to Texas and if we’re targeting a broad female audience, they tend to self-select. If they’re interested they’ll click on it and tag their friends.
We’re also exploring different strategies for different channels, as what works on TikTok doesn't work on Facebook or Twitter. Recently we’ve been looking at TikTok from an organic point of view, there’s a hashtag called Crimetok which has 7 billion views:
Wow... 7 billion. That's definitely 'TikTok numbers'!
We’re figuring out how we can insert ourselves into that conversation. We’ve even considered working with the top five crime accounts on that channel because essentially it’s a normal person creating relevant content that’s getting millions of views.
Finishing up on a murderous theme... 🔪
When you come to the point where a game isn’t performing as well as you’d like, how do you go about killing that game?
I've actually been trying to build frameworks for this, I have two points of view on it. One is that you need to build and instil a culture where the team kills the game, not the founder or CEO.
You don't want to be top-down. You want people to effectively say "this thing isn't working, there's no point in spending more time on it".
But then the second one I think also depends on cash flow, and where you are in the studio lifecycle. If you've got three games in the market that are all performing strongly and generating a steady revenue, you can probably spend longer on the new game. But if you're early in the cycle, you probably don't want to be working on games that might take three years to work out.
Thanks, Shib! I'll let you get back to masterminding the growth of your crime empire.
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