Before PUBG Mobile and Fortnite blew up, there was MaskGun. A multiplayer first-person shooter developed by Pune-based June Gaming, I tried it out for myself at 2015’s Pocket Gamer Connects — a mobile game developer conference held in Bengaluru. Back then, the game sported a look not too dissimilar to Counter-Strike and for the time, had an interesting solution to make aiming easier. Since that polished demo, June Gaming has said little. That is of course, until I chanced upon a tweet talking up the game in what was an obvious plug. It’s been half a decade since the original reveal and the mobile game landscape has changed tremendously, it made me wonder what June is doing differently with MaskGun that would make it stand out. So I caught up with June Gaming CEO Roby John over a video call to find out more.

“We kept it in soft-launch for three years,” John says of MaskGun’s development. “We finally released it worldwide on January 16, 2019 and the response was incredible.”

On debut MaskGun was the 8th biggest title in the Play Store’s games category. The reason for this, he believes, boiled down to the timing of its release.

“We had pre-launch registrations open on Google Play and organically we had 3.5 million pre-registrations,” he says. “It led to a million installs in the first week when we launched globally. The game really took off.”

The initial critical mass was helpful, allowing June Gaming to strike a deal with Miniclip in August 2019.

“This is why you didn’t hear a lot about the game in India because the audience at the time was not India,” he says. “We focussed internationally and it kept growing. When we launched we had less than two million. We added 40 million in the 20-odd months since launch.”

A part of the reason for this growth was June’s deal with Miniclip. The publisher’s focus on user research and reaching out to players paid off. In addition to this, it leveraged its games like 8 Ball Pool and Carrom Pool to cross-promote MaskGun. While this helped the game get traction, June felt it was in danger of losing its identity.

“I think that for an audience of primarily sports game players, a first-person shooter game is not the best choice for cross-population,” he says. “We consistently saw users coming in who weren’t the best users of our game.”

MaskGun is built for the world and now played in India

In May of this year, June decided to publish the game itself.

“We started shipping a whole lot more content and brought the game back to our original vision of what a modern mobile shooter would look like,” he says. “One of the advantages of just having a little bit of success on the shooter team was that we’ve been able to scale our team. We soft-launched in 2016 with a four-person team that’s now grown to 30 plus with all that experience in making a shooter game through various trials and errors.”

Roby claims that the MaskGun team consists of developers from the likes of Ubisoft and Glu, with June going to lengths to find “the right people to help build a world-class shooter”. The game has gone through several iterations over the years, with an early version sporting fonts akin to Quake 3. It was quickly superseded by a Counter-Strike inspired look and then what’s described as the game’s “Vainglory phase” borrowing UI cues from the popular mobile MOBA. It finally came into its own after Alfonzo ‘Zo’ Burton, a UI developer on Glu’s Deer Hunter came on board for a spell.

“We made some money on another game of ours and got him to make MaskGun look good,” Roby says.

With the priority being building the right team and sustaining its existing audience, it’s no surprise that June has been quiet. However it doesn’t mean gamers in the country haven’t taken notice.

“We have seen 15 percent of our audience was Indian until July this year,” he says. “Just before the PUBG ban, it was 20 to 25 percent. Now it’s around 40 to 45 percent. At that point of time we felt we should be promoting our game in the country.”

MaskGun is not a PUBG Mobile alternative

While the current state and metrics of MaskGun’s player base may justify the company raising its profile, John is wary. He’s careful about how MaskGun is perceived more so in the aftermath of PUBG Mobile’s ban in the country.

“We’re not a PUBG alternative, we’ve not said any of those things,” he says. “India main bhi acche games bante hain [good games are also made in India]. I think we know how to make games in India already. We don’t really have to think about somebody to come and save us or try and buy games from other countries or republish them, which is really what’s happening on the internet.”

The influx of new Indian users has also resulted in a slew of fan mail that’s indicative of the current wave of nationalist sentiment.

“It’s like ‘sir mujhe pata nahin tha yeh to India mein banaye [sir I didn’t know this was made in India], are you really Indian?’,” he says.

“If I respond people, like really think like, some angrez or some gora guy sitting there writing to him because I got three first names, all Christian right? But I’m as desi as they come. So when I respond, people will actually check me out, people actually go to a Google Maps page, find our office and see it see the photographs and say ‘haan sir aap ka photograph dekha, aap Indian hi hoon’ [I saw your photo and you are Indian]. And now we’re getting these emails, which go to a new level, which are ‘are you Indian and are your investors also Indian and not Chinese?’”

June Gaming’s origins: enterprise and educational software

Before we get to how and why MaskGun has captured public imagination, it would be interesting to look at what led to June’s creation and its influences. John attributes his five year stint at Amber Point in Silicon Valley as being critical in understanding how important programming is in terms of game development.

“So when I and W [Navneet Waraich, Co-Founder] joined as the first Indian employees at Amber Point we realised that the average developer experience in the company was 29 years,” he says.

“Everybody was older than our father and had been writing code for that many years. The founders of the company had the same team, all 24 people actually worked at Ingress Forte, which was the world’s first relational database, which went public in ‘92. So they wrote Ingres and then Forte which was the predecessor to Java. In India you have to put a gun to somebody’s head to get him to write code whereas in the West, what we were seeing is that people were writing code for the fun of it like singing, painting, or music. What we realised while working at AmberPoint was that writing a great product was sufficient to building a great company. Writing Code that others cannot write was the real jugaad.

These learnings proved useful when June was established in 2009 in a bungalow in the Viman Nagar area of Pune by Roby (Founder and CEO), Avinash Pandey (Founder), Sreejit Jayanthan (Founder), and Navneet Waraich (Co-Founder).

In 2009, it built a nightstand stand app. Its was its first attempt at putting something out on iOS and had 900 downloads on the first day. Seeing the response, June decided to go all in on the App Store.

A year later, the team timed its first platform with the launch of the iPad, and TapToLearn was born. It made educational games for the iPad and was funded by Ycombinator by moving to the Silicon Valley. TapToLearn ran from 2011 to 2015 and had 30 million downloads of its games with games like Math vs Zombies and Tiny Countries being featured by the stores.

In 2015, the founders moved back and switched to making free-to-play games which disrupted their TapToLearn premium games business which died a slow death.

How June learned to Tango

John credits part of MaskGun’s success to the studio’s history of making games. It had cut its teeth on the likes of Angry Birds Math, Ninjump Dash, and Road Riot to name a few before venturing into the realm of competitive shooters.

“Ninjump Dash was the first game we made with Backflip Studios,” he says of the company’s partnership with the now defunct casual games powerhouse. “It had 25 million users in the first year.We didn’t monetise it as well, because we were still learning free-to-play. What we learned was how to deal with latency more so with 300 ping being the norm. The challenge was to make the game work with this issue or at the very least, mask it with animations.”

It helped that the game’s design essentially boiled down to what John describes as “Mario Kart in 2D”.

“That really helped us solve game balance and rubber banding,” he says. “As well as allowing us to create dramatic moments in the last 10 metres of a race similar to getting a blue shell in Mario Kart in the final lap. We measured ourselves only on that and learned how to get people to come and play together.”

Perhaps one of June’s biggest games before MaskGun was Road Riot. It was published by chat app Tango on Android and iOS.

“Road Riot had 40 million users with 18 million dollars in revenue,” he says. “We didn’t make all that money ourselves, but it runs on our June engine and that is where we learned how to balance for free-to-play.”

This was followed by Puzzle Island — a game that melds Clash of Clans with Candy Crush. John claims that it’s been one of its best performers from an ARPDAU (average revenue per daily user) perspective. “Every download we got was worth $4.5,” he says. “So for example if we have 100,000 downloads and about half a million in revenue.”

The Indian tech behind Pac-Man

Then there was Tower Conquest which borrowed from LINE Rangers, a tower defence title that was published by the Japanese chat app with over a billion dollars in revenue. The objective was to make that style of game appeal to Western audiences.

“Tower Conquest taught us how to balance units and truly understand gameplay balance,” he says. “And what we what we did in this game, this game today is about 15 million installs, and about $5 million in revenue.”

In addition to a fruitful partnership with Tango, all of June’s games are made with its own in-house engine imaginatively called the June engine that John has worked on for the last decade. The company sells it as a software as a service (SaaS). It earned the attention of Bandai Namco. The June engine powers the Pac-Man game that released a year ago on Android and iOS complete with its logo on the splash screen.

“We’ve been working with the Pac-Man team for three years,” he says. “But it’s completely on the June engine, which means that any player anywhere in the world is accepting of privacy policy running by an Indian company. Essentially, they wanted us to port the game to be on the June engine. So we get a revenue share on that.”

Pac-Man iOS and Android gameplay via TouchGameplay

Making MaskGun better with friends

All these games and deals were necessary to fund MaskGun according to John. After all, the team was still struggling with how to monetise the game and get users on board during its three-year soft-launch phase before eventually releasing and the Miniclip deal that followed. These weren’t the only concerns. All of June’s past games suffered on account of connectivity.

“They were all the kind of games where being able to play with your friends is really hard, you’re waiting in a lobby and asking them to join but more often than not, either of you get disconnected,” he says. “Most people have the hassle of starting a game together.”

Therefore the team drew inspiration from Counter-Strike, adopting a drop-in drop-out feature for multiplayer allowing for seamless play. A small 100MB download size also helped in reducing the friction, allowing player to bring their friends into the game faster without forcing a large download.

“MaskGun solved that where people could just play together, even today if you install MaskGun and if you have a friend, if he’s online, it’s just one click to join that friend’s game to play together,” he says.

More importantly, it was around this time that John started viewing MaskGun differently.

“All these years I was looking at my games from a developer to the outside world, one-way communication perspective,” he says. “Here I’ve been talking to players, it’s what we did differently where we’re learning what our players want.”

Listening to players and building a community

After deciding to adopt a player-first approach, John manned customer support for the first three years of the game’s life in addition to his other responsibilities. To this day he reads every player email sent in. Along the way he gleaned some key insights into what players want.

“A kid from Australia calls me at 3am and said he bought one of our $100 packs and wanted us to give his clanmates a bulk purchase deal,” he says. “I told him we don’t have clans in the game, he said he got them to change their in-game handles to have their clan name show up first.”

This prompted June to come up with MaskGun’s clan feature. Eventually, John would ensure he knew every player that would make a purchase in the game or cross a certain threshold of playtime.

MaskGun’s best players include a maintenance engineer by day who helps June test MaskGun across older Android and iOS devices and another is a chef from Thailand who was recognised on the streets of Singapore by his in-game exploits recounts John. The community even held its own meet-ups to decide who the best player is in the game. One player even sent his son all the way from Singapore to June’s Pune office so he could learn about game development.

This was buoyed by June’s own attempts at engaging with its users with swag and developer streams, even recruiting streamers to push the game. John himself would stream the game and help players get a better deal on in-app purchases too.

“For a point in time I was like this Lord of War,” he says, referring to himself as an arms dealer not too dissimilar to Nicolas Cage in the movie of the same name. “I gave special offers to our Turkish players for specific in-game weapons they wanted like the AK-47 at night while giving our Indonesian players a good deal on SCARs by evening.”

Those live ops were not sufficient for the team to run the game in the early years he recounts, however June’s efforts did not go unnoticed. The MaskGun community rallied and organised a raffle so the team could make some money for its efforts.

“It was pretty crazy, but we tried connecting with every user by hand,” he says. “But more importantly, the way that I learned about it is that in MaskGun I had 40,000 friends in the game.”

MaskGun by the numbers

All of this has paid off for June. John shows me the stats of one of MaskGun’s top players. He’s played 63,000 matches, had 92,000 headshots, killed 750,000 opponents, and died 200,000 times. Impressive but they all pale in comparison to the tiny text that indicates he’s been playing since May 2016.

“Our day 1,000 retention is three percent,” he says. “What most companies think about as day 30 retention is a three year retention for us.”

This means that MaskGun is keeping its players around for longer than your average mobile game. A rarity for most Indian developers. Aside from proving that talking directly to users works, it also gives June an understanding of how many pieces of content it should have in-game. From weapons to cosmetic items, the studio has a better idea of what to plan for and is tracking what users are purchasing and unlocking for free too.

“For example here, this guy has 173 items and he’s unlocked 1,000,” he says pointing to the same stat snapshot he pulled up onscreen. “He can still buy 800 items. This helps us have enough content in the pipeline.”

John pulls up another window on his laptop for me to see. This time it shows player data regarding their frames per second in game. For shooters like MaskGun, low or inconsistent FPS directly impacts the user experience, making it off-putting altogether. Aside from tracking latency or ping there’s a lot of effort put into ensuring decent frames per second across devices, even those five to six years old.

“This guy has an iPad Pro and since it’s a more powerful device we’re aiming at 60fps,” he says. “If it’s a really cheap Android phone from a few years ago like the Lenovo K3 Note, we’re still rendering at 40fps. If you don’t care about how a player is enjoying your game you’re never going to be able to optimise things for him. Every MB that goes in, every FPS drop in the game, it is something that we take personally.”

For John and the team, it’s all about ensuring the best possible experience, paying close attention to low-end devices.

“We have this maniacal focus on ensuring that you’ll see for us if there isn’t 40fps on every [low-end] device we’re going to fix it,” he says.

Growing MaskGun

The aforementioned clans feature helped MaskGun grow. Rather than June asking people to play its game, their friends are telling them to. Throw in user-created communities that sprung up around Facebook thanks to the game’s goodwill and MaskGun saw its player base climb.

“If we got one Facebook user, usually ended up with 14 more,” he says. “That was our organic growth and how we grew to 42 million users worldwide. As per our formulas at the time: if I get you to play with a friend and you enjoy it, you’re going keep coming back.”

Roby adds “ While looking at this player data, we realized that we had made something that appealed to all age groups and demographics. We had parents playing the same game with thier kids, some playing together for years. We had 10 percent of the topmost players in the game as female. The top five countries for us were also non-obvious before launch. The game did really well in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia and India though we had launched in these countries only after 3 years”

Coupled with an influx of users came tools with how to manage them like chat. John shows me how chat works in MaskGun. Aside from allowing players to set up matches and communicate with one another, it allowed June to guide its users throughout their time with the game.

Regardless of being an absolute newbie, a battle-hardened veteran or simply a lapsed player returning after a few years, the tech is in place akin to what you’d see on big AAA games as a service efforts like The Division 2 or Destiny 2.

“I believe these communication tools that allowed us to do two things,” he says. “It allowed me for example, to send player messages. But it also uses all of our automation. When you think of an FTUE [first time user experience] in most games, it will tell you how to play the game for the first 30 minutes. But here we’ve built a communication system where we can do an FTUE in the form of inbox messages throughout the entire player lifecycle. Even if you’re at level 50 and not winning enough we’ll tell you what to do next.”

In addition to this, this allows the MaskGun team to execute massive community testing John tells me. These include sending users custom missions, in-progress updates, consumables, and the like.

Is MaskGun pay-to-win?

All of these aspects of June’s player-first strategy has had one massive upside: predictability. It’s easier for the studio to determine player spending and behaviour.

“Good free-to-play looks like subscriptions,” says John as he pulls up yet another data set, it’s related to the spends of a single player over time.

“He purchased $49 worth in June, July, August, September, and in October he paid $99,” he says. “It’s now predictable in terms of people setting aside a bunch of money for you every month. This kind of cadence makes us figure out when players need to level up next, what content we need to design, our progression systems and so on.”

One of MaskGun’s major monetisation methods involves June selling guns in-game. Now they’re not cosmetics either, selling completely new weapons for use in what is essentially a competitive game. It made us wonder how the studio keeps gameplay balanced while preventing MaskGun from turning into a pay-to-win affair.

“When we look at the guns we have what we’re doing is we look at each attribute of it — head damage, torso, range, switch, mobility, recoil, dampening, what happens when you move, when you jump, what’s the shot pattern, all of these things are configured and balanced in a system in which we can track what we need to change over a period of time,” he says.

After this, the team looks at every weapon’s kill-death ratio and makes adjustments accordingly. This is done in order to keep the gameplay fair and balanced.

“The base weapon that a player gets is 0.46,” he says. “When he upgrades it becomes 0.71. He upgrades again it becomes 0.85 so what we’re doing is there’s a price-to-player ratio that we can maintain across all of our weapons. We maintain a log of every bullet fired so we can understand where the balancing needs to be done in terms of matching players of similar skills or changing weapon values.”

Also, when playing with a specific weapon, players are only matched with those using the same one in the same skill range.

“Think about it like an ELO which kind of says, this weapon, this combination and skill gives you at a certain ranking and once you’re at that ranking, I’m going match you to the nearest players in that tier,” he says.

How cheaters and hackers are dealt with in MaskGun

One of the major pain points for games with an audience the size of MaskGun’s is cheating. Hackers usually run rampant and the likes of Fortnite, PUBG Mobile, and Free Fire have to invest heavily in anti-cheat and customer support. Thanks to the myriad automated systems in place June is able to manage 42 million users with less than a single support staffer full-time.

“We know what data is being sent, what patterns to look for, and if someone is killing 100 people without moving, we know,” he says. “We automatically ban anything out of the ordinary and give warnings and cool downs automatically as well. If someone comes in with a modded APK, we let them play for a little while. The moment we see the data wrong, it’s an instant ban.”

All of these systems are in place as June doesn’t see itself as a customer service company, preferring to play to its strengths in tech to find a solution.

“The guy who is customer support is also writing all these systems which is why we’re able to do these things,” he says.

Apart from this, learnings from past games have also come in handy while running MaskGun particularly in terms of detecting fraudulent purchases.

“The first game that I made, I thought I made $50,000, but the cheque amount was $5,000,” he says while displaying a browser tab that shows MaskGun purchases in real-time, it’s peppered with green and red icons.

“The greens are good, legitimate purchases while the reds are people trying to hack me right now,” he says. “They’re all trying.”

Although, are these really hackers or genuine users unable to get through the payment process? June has a couple of ways to tell. The data generated from hackers is a telltale sign of malicious activity and a proactive army of community moderators present on June’s Slack makes it easy to weed out the real from the fake.

Could MaskGun be the first made-in-India metaverse?

All of this made us wonder how June runs its other games. Considering how intense and in-depth it appears to be with MaskGun does it do the same with its other games?

“Every game of ours including Pac-Man runs on a similar system,” John says. “I am equally involved or we have a team that’s equally involved. It’s just that I can’t show you that data because it’s just not mine, it’s a partner’s game.”

Finally with the advent of Fortnite, every tech CEO and VC has realised to the possibility of games being metaverses — shared virtual worlds. We had to ask if John felt MaskGun could make a claim for that space. He left us with this.

“I don’t know if I would call it a metaverse yet,” he says. “But what I’ve seen in my game is, our topmost player is a chef who is recognised everywhere else because of MaskGun, its sort of the Ready Player One universe coming to life and we seeing it first hand in our game.”

It’s still early days for John and his team, but it’s fascinating to see how June’s journey has played out thus far. Right now though, June’s tale is one that exemplifies the benefits of focusing on what’s important to users consistently. From that first slice of gameplay five years ago to what MaskGun is today, it will be interesting to see what the company does next.