This founder is dedicated to making a mobile game without giving in to intrusive ads

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Thor Fridriksson is, as Jordan calls him, the Kind of Mobile Gaming. With mega-viral games like Trivia Royale and QuizUp, he knows the secret sauce to make a popular game, but the code he hasn’t cracked is how to make a super lucrative game. Thor joined us on Found Live to talk about the pitfalls of ads on mobile games, why the experience of playing will always be his number one priority, and what he has cooking with his next company Rocky Road Inc. 

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After QuizUp and Trivia Royale, Thor Fridriksson’s next act is a mobile MMO

QuizUp founder Thor Fridriksson is at it again. The Icelandic serial entrepreneur is two-for-two in creating viral mobile games, but has thus far struck out in turning those into viable businesses.

Today, he’s (kind of) coming out of stealth to announce his third attempt: Rocky Road.

Rocky Road, named for Fridriksson’s entrepreneurial journey, is a casual open world mobile game. Yes, a casual MMO for mobile.

Fridriksson isn’t getting into the weeds on the details of the game — launch is still about a year away — but one thing we do know is that it’s based on real-world map data.

The general premise is that players enter the game and travel around in the real world, rather than the fantasy worlds most MMOs are based on, and play mini games on their own, with others, or with friends within that world.

The key is balance: Rocky Road aims to ensure that the games-within-the-game are casual enough for mobile but that the progression within the overall world is compelling enough to have staying power.

It’s an ambitious project, but not the first of its kind. It’s an interesting blend of already popular mobile games like Pokemon Go and Genshin Impact, with a goal to eventually hit 1 billion players.

Fridriksson has been on quite the entrepreneurial journey over the last 10+ years. He founded QuizUp, which was a viral sensation that nearly franchised itself into a NBC show before the whole thing fell through. The game itself was a hit, and at one point was the fastest growing iPhone game in history.

But monetization was an issue. Fridriksson didn’t believe in pumping the product full of ugly interstitial ads, and was rather more intrigued by native ads where brands could launch their own quizzes on QuizUp. It worked a bit — the team did partnerships with Coca-Cola and Google Maps. But it wasn’t at all scalable.

When the NBC deal fell through, the only option was an acquisition offer from Glu Mobile for $7.5 million. It was a disappointing fate for a game with tens of millions of users that had raised around $40 million from investors.

TeaTime went through a similar, albeit shorter, journey. The platform itself was meant to let people play mobile games together. And by together, I mean with a video chat component built right in. It came with Snap-style overlays so that players could ‘dress up’ as different characters, interacting and showing emotion, without having to show their actual faces to strangers.

Fridriksson and co. launched Trivia Royale on the TeaTime platform in June of 2020 and within a few weeks it saw 2.5 million downloads. The guy knows how to make a popular game!

However, after stalled acquisition talks with a ‘big tech’ company, TeaTime ran out of runway when the deal never went through. Bringing us to today.

It would be no surprise if Rocky Road became another viral hit. Fridriksson has become a master at understanding the landscape of mobile gaming and iterating on or combining its finest elements into a product that is delightful enough to mention to a friend. He’s also stayed close enough to the ground to understand the marketing landscape in mobile games and use it to his advantage — Trivia Royale, for example, made a big bet on TikTok and it paid off.

However, it remains to be seen if Fridriksson can find a way to monetize this next venture.

His strategy right now is to focus on cosmetics and aesthetic upgrades, which makes sense considering how important those types of virtual goods are in MMOs.

He added that the landscape has changed in mobile gaming.

“When we were doing this with QuizUp, putting [in-app purchases] and subscriptions in games was a very hard affair, whereas the norm now with younger generations coming up is that it’s easier to monetize through in app purchases, subscriptions and so forth,” he said.

Rocky Road raised $2.5 million in seed led by Crowberry Capital and Sisu Game Ventures.

How Thor Fridriksson’s ‘Trivia Royale’ earned 2.5M downloads in 3 weeks

In its first few weeks of release, the latest game from QuizUp founder Thor Fridriksson took the top spot in the Games Section of Apple’s App Store and was the top app (for a brief time) in the App Store at large.

Since its launch on June 17, Trivia Royale has been downloaded more than 2.5 million times, with day-one retention of 45% and week-one retention of 45% on iOS, according to the company. Average daily usage per user is around 30 minutes. It currently sits in the number six spot in the Free Games category on the App Store.

There is no shortage of mobile games, but in such a cluttered space, it’s difficult to break through the noise. So how did Trivia Royale do it?

The game, which lets users compete in a 1,000-person, single-elimination trivia tournament, is built on the Teatime Games platform. Teatime emphasizes the fun of playing against other humans in the mobile gaming landscape, giving users the ability to communicate via video chat while they play in a game on their smartphone.

The platform allows game developers to use this video chat functionality, which comes with Snapchat-like face filters or Apple Memoji-style avatars, on their own games. But for Teatime to truly succeed as a gaming platform, the company needed a hit game, Fridriksson said.

The serial entrepreneur told TechCrunch that he decided to take off his CEO hat and return to his product roots by focusing on a category that few people know as well as he does: trivia.

The Trivia Royale tournament combines the scale of Battle Royale with the durability of trivia — whether it’s Jeopardy, HQ Trivia, bar trivia or this, we can’t get enough of it — or lets users match against one other player in a single category of trivia.

I’ve played around on the game for a while now and can say that it’s very well done, from the design to the production value. But more important than the mechanics of the tournament or the typeface or even the content of the questions are the avatars, which let users express themselves through customization and their real-life facial expressions.

But none of that means anything if players don’t join the game. So how did Trivia Royale earn more than 2.5 million downloads (and climbing) in a matter of days?

A big bet on TikTok

Fridriksson told TechCrunch that he has to give a ton of credit to his kids (who are 15 and 11). His daughter told him about TikTok and gave him a list of her favorite stars, including Addison Rae and Dixie D’Amelio.

QuizUp founder gets back to trivia roots with the launch of Trivia Royale

trivia royale

Thor Fridriksson is no stranger to trivia. The tech entrepreneur founded QuizUp, one of the hottest mobile games of the early aughts, which attracted more than 100 million downloads, a deal with NBC, and had raised more than $40 million from notable investors. Plain Vanilla Games, the parent company of QuizUp, eventually sold to GluMobile for $7.5 million.

But that doesn’t mean Fridriksson is hanging up his hat on trivia. In fact, the lessons he learned the first time around have led him to this very moment. Today, Fridriksson is launching Trivia Royale, the latest game out of Iceland-based TeaTime Games.

Trivia Royale is, like it sounds, a trivia game in the genre of Battle Royale. It’s a 1,000-person head-to-head Trivia tournament. Like QuizUp, players can choose to do one-to-one Trivia matches based on categories in a casual way. But the real draw of the mobile game is Trivia Royale.

It starts with 1,000 people who are matched into one-on-one battles around general trivia. Each battle includes five questions, that go from easy to more difficult, with 10 seconds to answer each question. The faster you answer the question, the more points you get. The final question in the battle is worth double points.

If you lose your battle, you’re out of the tournament. The pool then drops to 500 people, and then to 250 people, and so on and so forth until you’re down to the final four and the final two. Folks who win a Trivia Royale get a ‘crown’ that’s displayed on their avatar, as well as access to the Royale Lounge, where they can check out global and local leaderboards and chat with other Royales.

What’s most interesting about Trivia Royale is that it’s built on the TeaTime Live platform.

TeaTime, cofounded by Fridriksson, launched in February of 2009. The platform is not a game in and of itself, but rather a developer platform for game makers that adds a new level of engagement, interaction and monetization to mobile games.

On TeaTime, users can create an Animoji-style avatar that employs the front-facing camera of a smartphone to let players interact in real time with facial expressions as they play a game. Since most users don’t necessarily want to show their actual face to strangers during gameplay, TeaTime uses Snap-style filters and Apple Animoji-esque avatars to let users engage with one another without revealing their actual identity.

The initial failure of QuizUp was an inability to monetize. TeaTime was built to avoid making that same mistake twice. The existence of avatars offers a built-in monetization strategy as users look to customize and build out their avatars.

Fridriksson was also extremely averse to mobile advertising within games while he was running QuizUp, and has made his peace with some advertising with the launch of Trivia Royale. When a user wins and is rewarded with points, the user can double those points by watching an ad.

Users can also supplement their winnings by buying virtual currency to update their avatar with hats, piercings, hand gestures, glasses and more.

Moreover, users need a ticket to enter into a Trivia Royale tournament. These tickets are provided every couple hours, so users who want to play game after game without waiting will need to use virtual currency to buy a ticket.

Obviously, it would be difficult to get and keep 1,000 players in a single tournament at once, so Trivia Royale focuses on matching people who are at the same level in the tournament rather than holding these tourneys in individual lobbies.

“The challenge is to get a hit game on a platform before it becomes a platform because you need that,” said Fridriksson. “So what I did, essentially, is that I just totally changed my focus as a CEO and went into full-hearted product mode for this game. I find myself back in the mode of creating a cool user experience, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had.”

In beta, the company has used bots to fill in the gaps where there aren’t available matches for players. In the first five rounds of the Trivia Royale tournament, Fridriksson says there is about a 60 percent chance that users will be matched with a real person, with the likelihood of being paired with a bot getting higher then further a user gets in the tournament.

The company ran a beta in Ireland, New Zealand and Canada over the past two weeks and has gotten 9,000 beta users, with day-one retention at 50 percent and with average users playing around 12 games per day.

As the game gets more users, the company hopes to match users with real people 95 percent of the time and ultimately get to a place where the bots fade out of the equation.

At this point, the game has more than 20,000 questions across 40 categories including TikTok, Geography, Movies, Superheroes, Videogames, Sports, Disney, and Logos, with more questions added every day.

The future (and past) of mobile gaming

The summer of 2008 changed everything.

Apple’s launch of the App Store a year after the release of the iPhone was a watershed moment not only in the business of technology, but in every aspect of humanity. Nearly every industry can look back at data before July 2008 and after and see how rapidly and profoundly things changed. But one sector in particular turned into a completely different beast.


We’ve seen some amazing firms come out of the mobile gaming space, some with more success than others. One gaming founder who experienced the full gamut of entrepreneurial emotion is Thor Fridriksson, founder of QuizUp. As we head into 2020, I hopped on the phone with him to discuss the rapid rise of QuizUp in the early oughts, its hard fall from grace following a botched deal with NBC and Fridriksson’s predictions about the next decade of mobile gaming.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Emphasis is mine.)

Jordan Crook: Can you believe it’s almost 2020? Doesn’t feel real.

Thor Fridikksson: I remember when I was teenager. I was into role playing games like the typical nerds. One of the ones I loved the most was called Cyberpunk 2020. It was set in 2020, and it was all about bionic arms and implants and very, very futuristic stuff. And this is kind of why 2020 has a special meaning to me. But, usually, when people predict the future, they’re always so far off. It’s almost unbelievable.

Yeah, we haven’t quite gotten that that down yet, have we? Really being good at predicting the future. Maybe this next decade, with the era of big data, will change that. But let’s focus on the past for a bit. Take me 10 years back. I want to hear about how QuizUp became the popular game it was. You guys reached 20 million users in the first 12 months.

At the beginning of the decade, I was just graduating from university. I had lived in Iceland all my life, but for my MBA I moved to the UK to attend Oxford. It was a pretty wild time for me, especially because Oxford University had this annual thing called ‘Silicon Valley Comes to Oxford.’ I was watching this whole smartphone revolution that was just taking place.

We had the privilege of getting some really top entrepreneurs from the Valley at Oxford and they actually spent a whole week with students in the MBA program. People like Reid Hoffman, the founder of LinkedIn, and Biz Stone, one of the founders of Twitter, and others. I volunteered to be a tour guide for them.

And it was just fantastic! It was fantastic to be having dinners with these entrepreneurs from this totally different kind of environment in Silicon Valley. The environment for the U.S. entrepreneur is so much different from the European, in many ways. U.S. entrepreneurs have this kind of boldness, this fearlessness. Their feelings about failure were something that I was fascinated by.

At later stages, I would have to experience this myself. Personally, I think that one of the things that the U.S. entrepreneurial ecosystem gets right is that the stigma of starting a business and failing one is not nearly as strong as it is in Europe. If you start the business in Europe and you somehow fail, you will not have any chance to … it’s like, you’re an immediate loser. Whereas the thinking, or how people perceive entrepreneurs in the U.S., is that they’re those guys that try and try and try again. This is such a big difference in mentality between the two continents, and this is one big advantage that the U.S. has.

Fridriksson returned to Iceland after graduating Oxford during one of the biggest economic collapses in the world, which hit Iceland particularly hard. “There was absolutely nothing for a newly graduated business guy to do,” he said. This is around the time he started Plain Vanilla, which would be the parent company of QuizUp. He completely focused on the Icelandic market, unconcerned with the U.S., after having seen the smartphone unlock various geographies.

The first game out of Plain Vanilla wasn’t a trivia game at all. It was actually a children’s game called The Moogies that Fridriksson spent 18 months designing and producing. He recalls it as the classic founder story — he sold all of his stuff, spent all of his money and took out a bunch of loans to fund the project. “I wasn’t really thinking about VCs or anything like that, especially because there weren’t any here in Iceland at the time,” said Fridriksson.

In 2011, Plain Vanilla launched the Moogies, a sort of interactive, cartoon-based game for kids.

It was a massive failure. It’s one of those moments in life where you just put your heart and soul into something. I will always remember this moment. It was a pivotal moment before I started QuizUp. We were working with this big publisher, and I was waiting to see the first sales numbers for the game after it launched.

It was a big thing in Iceland. I was in the press and doing interviews and the launch of the game was big news in Iceland because we’re such a small country. I was really excited and I was thinking, ‘I hope it’s going to be 500,000 downloads, but 100,000 would be great. 50,000 would be OK.’ I was refreshing the dashboard and when I finally saw the number, it was only 500 units sold. Immediately, in one heartbeat, I knew that one and a half years of hard labor was down the drain.

What do you think went wrong there? Did you spend too much time building it out without an MVP or a beta? Do you think it would have done better if you shipped something a bit more bare bones earlier?

I don’t think that was what I did wrong. Actually, I’m a big believer in polish. Especially when it comes to games, I don’t think you should just try to get something out to prove something. You should really, in all your products, think about the details and offer a more finished product than an MVP.

In the case of the Moogies, it was a paid app. This is just around the time when free-to-play and the freemium economy was starting. So, paid apps just did significantly worse. The reason I wanted it to be paid is because I didn’t like advertising, especially not in children’s apps. I was against in-app purchases at the time and advertising, and I just wanted to create a very safe and nice experience for young children. I had my own toddler at the time who was the Chief Tester of the game.

So, it was a paid app. But the other issue is that breaking into the children’s category is so tough. They are probably the most brand loyal audience you will ever find. And I’m not really talking about the kids, I’m talking about their parents. When you have a kid that likes a certain theme of toy, like Mickey Mouse or whatever it is, their parents will only buy that. It’s very hard to get any sort of virality or break into children’s brands without mainstream marketing money.

Was the Moogies the only game Plain Vanilla launched before QuizUp?

Well, I get this idea of QuizUp. It’s a dark winter night in Iceland. I had just realized that I was bankrupt. And there was no way for me to get any more funding from Iceland. I was really feeling, what I mentioned before, this scorn. I would go to see investors and they’d ask how Moogies went, and I would tell them and try to make it look prettier than it was. They would block me immediately because there is this stigma of failure. And this is when I really felt that being in Europe, and having failed on my first try… it really damages your chances of getting up again.

I get this idea for QuizUp and write it on this electric bill that I can’t pay. And I was just convinced. I get this really strong feeling that this game would be the formula to virality and success. Users would play real people in real time and they would have all these rankings and titles. People are so vain, in general, that I knew they would just love it. It felt like something that hadn’t been done before and I really wanted to do it.

But, again, I had no money. I was totally bankrupt and had no employees anymore. But I remembered those guys from Oxford, Reid Hoffman and Biz Stone, and I think to myself, ‘I’m so connected. I’ll just go there. I’m 100 percent sure that with this great idea, these VCs will just throw money at me. I’ll be able to do this. Easy Peasy.’

Fridriksson hired two engineers on the promise of getting to move to San Francisco and help on the project. The plan was for the engineers to build a prototype of QuizUp while Fridriksson went around to VCs trying to secure seed funding. They all lived in a small apartment together.

This plan was a bit naive, when I look back at that time. I was expecting a red carpet to be waiting for me. That, when I arrived in San Francisco, people would be throwing money at me. And it was actually quite the opposite. Getting seed funding with just an idea is quite hard.

So did you get the funding?