- Snap has launched a major social gaming push for Snapchat, as it looks to boost usage of its app.
- Snap Games are casual social games that run inside the Snapchat app.
- Will Eastcott is a British founder who has been secretly working on Snap Games for the past two years after he sold his game engine startup PlayCanvas to Snap in 2017.
- Eastcott spoke to Business Insider about PlayCanvas’ sale to Snap, the importance of gaming within Snapchat, and how PlayCanvas plans to remain open source.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Will Eastcott has managed to keep out of the limelight for the past two years, but the British startup founder has been integral to Snapchat’s recent push into social gaming.
Snap drew back the curtain in early April on Snap Games, casual social games that run inside Snapchat’s messaging service. Like the casual social games you might see on Facebook, they are colourful, fun, and users can play with friends or random opponents.
It could be Snap’s biggest new product in years, after its Snap Spectacles hardware fell flat. The company is nearing peak growth in its core US market and now needs to encourage users to stick around and keep using Snapchat. Social gaming is one way of doing that, according to JMP Securities analyst Ron Josey.
“This is 100% dedicated to Snap trying to drive even greater engagement across their platform,” Josey told Business Insider. “We know the average user spends 30 minutes a day on Snap… this is another way for them to drive that even more.”
This is where Will Eastcott comes in. Eastcott is the CEO and cofounder of PlayCanvas, an open-source game engine that lets developers build lightweight games for browsers.
The startup was quietly acquired by Snap for an undisclosed amount. Both firms managed to keep the deal under wraps for a year, but filings spotted by Business Insider revealed that Snap closed the acquisition around May 2017. The price is likely to have been millions rather than hundreds of millions of dollars, multiple sources told Business Insider.
The PlayCanvas engine now powers key parts of the games on Snapchat, namely front-end elements like graphics and animation.
Eastcott and his cofounder, David Evans, have remained under the radar since the acquisition, occasionally posting to the PlayCanvas GitHub repository. Both men moved from London to Los Angeles after the acquisition and are based in Snap’s new headquarters in Santa Monica.
Asked how life has been since the acquisition, Eastcott noted in an interview with Business Insider that Snap is a “secretive” company, but that he has no regrets about ditching the startup life and his life in London.
“It’s been very… interesting,” Eastcott said. “The main thing I’ve had to deal with is going from an environment where there’s very little structure.
“If you’re working for a startup, you’re inevitably fighting fires. You’re just dancing from one task to another. Then to joining another company where there is a great deal of structure and process and you’re having to interact with and coordinate with vast numbers of people. It’s a very different experience.”
Here’s how Eastcott and his cofounder quietly built up a popular game engine for browser games
Eastcott has been interested in 3D graphics almost since his university days, doing a stint at a Manchester VR company after completing a computer science degree at Imperial University. He hopped between several major gaming firms after that, moving from Criterion software to EA, then to Sony, and finally to Activision. It was at Sony where he met his future cofounder and CTO David Evans.
At Activision, the early concept of a game engine to power games in the browser was bubbling away at the back of his mind.
“I was really excited at the time with what was happening with certain web technologies, HTML5 had been announced,” Eastcott said. “It seemed to me that it would make sense for studios to start building tools based on these technologies. You could build tools and write them once and they would run in any browser in any platform, and that really excited me.”
Eastcott began building what would eventually become PlayCanvas and showed it to Evans, who was so excited by the idea that he left his own startup. The pair raised an initial tranche of seed money in 2013 from backers including Techstars in London and began hiring staffers.
“It snowballed from there,” Eastcott said. “That seed round powered us to profitability. We were signing up some really interesting licensees, like Disney, Viacom, and Polaris.”
Paying customers could either pay for PlayCanvas’ tools through its site or the company would do tailored deals with larger firms. Then Snap came along.
“We caught their eye, I think because someone on my team knew someone working at Snap,” Eastcott said. “Essentially, we ended up demoing the technology to somebody who was already thinking about the Snap Games platform.”
That someone was product director Will Wu, who was dreaming up games on Snap three years before the feature actually went live.
“As soon as he saw PlayCanvas, he knew it was the ideal solution to power [Snap Games],” Eastcott added. “Because the PlayCanvas team had decades of experience working in the games industry, so we were a really good fit.”
There is a sense that British founders tend to sell out too early, rather than raising more funding and building their businesses into global giants. Examples include AI company DeepMind, which sold to Google, or UK autonomous vehicles startup Blue Vision, which was bought by Lyft.
“I was always looking for opportunities to make PlayCanvas successful,” Eastcott said. “So it seemed to me that through a company like Snap, it could allow us to take the technology to the next level.
“It could give us all the resources we needed to reach a new group of developers. When we heard about the opportunity, it seemed like such a super fit, and the vision we had for where video gaming could go meshed really well with Will [Wu’s] vision. It just seemed like an ideal marriage.”
Moving to Los Angeles probably didn’t hurt, although Eastcott says he misses certain “Britishisms” and English food.
Eastcott says PlayCanvas is now never strapped for resources and can draw on Snap’s thousands of engineers across different teams. “The thing that jumped out at me after joining Snap was that the calibre of people is just exceptional,” he said.
After having to stay quiet for years, Eastcott said, one advantage of the Snap Games push is that it has brought big updates to the PlayCanvas engine itself, to the advantage of the external developers using it. Among the new features is “cool tech”, for example, that renders and animates the 3D Bitmoji avatars that represent users in Snap Games.
He added: “Snap as a company is quite secretive. [PlayCanvas] doesn’t talk as publicly as we used to, but now Snap Games has launched, we are returning to our old ways, blogging more and doing more outreach. You’ll see as at [games expo] GDC. We’ve been really focused on Snap Games for the last couple of years, and we’ve really pulled back from other activities.”
When Business Insider first broke the news of the acquisition, the developers using PlayCanvas for their own browser games worried the tool would be yanked.
“That’s one of the reasons PlayCanvas was open sourced, to begin with,” Eastcott said when asked about this. “As a small startup, developers were asking, ‘What happens if you guys aren’t around one day?’ And we would just say, we’ll open source the technology, and you can fork it and do whatever you like with it. Today I’m very bullish about our open source strategy…. we will definitely be continuing with that.”
For Snap as a business, gaming is a risky bet.
Despite the huge appetite for gaming evidenced by “Fortnite,” “Apex Legends,” or even “Pokemon Go,” making a game people want is more art than science.
“Getting hit games is really hard — it’s hard to launch a game that everybody will play,” said JMP Securities’ Ron Josey. “Gaming is a hits-driven business.”
Snap’s push to become more of a gaming platform may reduce that risk and the need to find a single killer hit, however. Josey added that the firm might also find a way of monetising games through advertising.
Asked if he has faith in Snap two years into the acquisition, Eastcott was confident. “Absolutely, or I wouldn’t have joined them,” he said. “Snap Games is genuinely the most exciting opportunity I’ve seen in the video games industry in the last 10 years.”
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