The Seattle company has survived for a tumultuous decade by sticking to a pretty unglamorous market niche: casual, social games played in a web browser. And it’s making a profit, too.
Much of the video-game world is descending this weekend on Los Angeles for the E3 trade show, a mecca of crowds, noise and the new big-budget games expected in the coming year.
FlowPlay will not be making the trek.
It’s not the first time the Seattle video-game maker has zigged while the rest of the boom-and-bust industry zagged. The company has survived for a tumultuous decade by sticking to a pretty unglamorous market niche: casual, social games played in a web browser, typically on personal computers.
“In general, we have not been trendy,” Chief Executive Derrick Morton said.
Video gaming has been defined in the last decade by trends that bloomed out of nowhere. Game studios targeting Facebook, or smartphones or the iPad rapidly grew into giants, and sometimes were dethroned just as quickly.
All the while, little FlowPlay carries on, building multiplayer games aimed at teenagers and middle-aged women.
The studio pulled in $18.28 million in revenue last year, up about 1 percent from a year earlier, and three times what the company earned in 2013.
FlowPlay runs two games. “OurWorld” is a social game aimed at teens that lets people customize a character and living space, chat with others and play minigames.
“VegasWorld,” takes the same concept to a casino. Most of its players are women between the ages of 45 and 70.
“The vast majority of people are lonely, and they play games because they’re lonely and bored,” Morton said. “Once people start playing with us, they tend to stay for a very long time.”
The games are technically free to play, though access to some features and in-game items — like clothing or charms that make minigame odds more favorable — cost real-world cash. Active players tend to spend a few dollars a month, FlowPlay said.
Both games look like creatures of a different era, with cartoonish avatars moving around a two-dimensional series of digital rooms, chat bubbles popping up above their heads.
That formula has minted devoted fans. One of them is Zoë Keenan, who has been playing “OurWorld” since she was 10.
“At first glance, it’s kind of weird,” she said. “But the people you meet, you can become friends with them for years.”
Those friends included some FlowPlay developers. Eventually, Keenan started volunteering to help moderate one of the online forums where fans discuss the game.
While she was attending community college in Buffalo, New York, last year, the company asked her to move to Seattle and join the team full time.
“Derrick said I had a job, so I graduated early,” Keenan said. Today, the 19-year-old runs customer service for “OurWorld.”
She’s one of 60 employees in FlowPlay’s downtown Seattle headquarters. Another eight, digital clothing designers, work from Shanghai, and the company has about 15 customer-service contractors scattered around the U.S.
FlowPlay’s home base near Pioneer Square, on the third floor of a converted warehouse originally built in 1905, resembles other casual video-game studio startups. There’s a full bar, exercise equipment and arcade games scattered around an open office plan bordered by exposed brick walls.
Employees mostly work from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The company pays for lunch for its employees the other three weekdays.
Doug Pearson, FlowPlay’s chief technology officer, says the location is a draw. “Better than those hermetically sealed buildings on the Eastside,” he said, alluding to the stale suburban office parks of Bellevue’s video-game cluster.
Before starting FlowPlay, CEO Morton and Pearson worked together through RealNetworks, the media-streaming pioneer whose alumni went on to found a clutch of successful Seattle-area companies. Morton ran the company’s game division, and Pearson worked at a startup that built games for RealNetworks.
The two struck out on their own in 2006, intrigued by the idea of virtual avatars pioneered by the likes of “Second Life,” as well as the emerging trend of in-game currencies that blurred the line between game commerce and real-life transactions.
Funding from the creators of Skype, as well as Intel Capital, helped underwrite their initial work.
One of the company’s first hires was Kristen Van Dam, who had worked at a comic-book publisher in California before moving to Seattle “on a lark.”
“There were only a handful of people, I’d come in early and there’d be no one in for hours,” she said, remembering her early days at FlowPlay. “It was a self-directed environment.”
FlowPlay, which was then exploring a charge to access a premium tier of its games, stumbled into a more lucrative model.
Van Dam is a bit of a Japanophile. During a visit to Tokyo, she was struck by a Japanese New Year’s custom in which stores offer mystery bags of unknown merchandise at steep discounts to their list price.
FlowPlay borrowed the idea and started selling mystery bags containing rare or expensive in-game items.
“Ever since then, we’ve been profitable,” Morton said.
The company is now reinvesting some of that in a major overhaul of its services.
FlowPlay’s games are built on Flash, the multimedia plug-in that used to make much of the interactive web function.
These days, it’s better known for bugs and security flaws, and some browsers are trying to phase out use of the software entirely.
“We know Flash is going away,” Pearson says. “Eventually, that story ends very badly” if FlowPlay doesn’t adapt.
Pearson’s team is re-engineering FlowPlay’s games from the ground up to break their dependence on Flash and make them work better on smartphones, where FlowPlay games today tend to be crash-prone and slow.
The company just finished a graphics overhaul, and newly coded versions of the games are expected to launch later this summer.
Morton doesn’t see the company’s largely desktop-bound customer base disappearing any time soon, but better mobile products would hedge FlowPlay’s bets.
Asked about his plans for the company after its first decade, Morton, 59, says he’s not eager to step aside.
“I’d hang out another 10 years,” he said.