Doing Something Disruptive

By Christine Grillo

Huang and Cheung

Chieh Huang ’03 could have been a lawyer, and Chris Cheung ’03 could have become a financier. They could have used their degrees in economics to climb corporate ladders in what Cheung calls “shirt-and-tie jobs.”

Instead, they drew on their experiences in the shirt-and-tie world to develop Office Heroes, a satirical iPhone game that lets users become pocket CEOs who perform “important office work” like tossing paper, surfing the Internet, playing solitaire, and ordering lunch.

Huang and Cheung, who have known each since middle school, joke that their foray into corporate America was ill-fated from the start. They both began new jobs—Huang at a white-shoe law firm and Cheung at Goldman Sachs—in September 2008, when the U.S. economy collapsed. As Huang walked to work on his first day, he passed the Lehman Brothers building; streaming out onto the sidewalk were former employees who had just been fired in the wake of Lehman’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection filing.

It wasn’t long before Cheung and Huang gave up their salaried jobs and holed up in a frigid New Jersey basement to develop smartphone games. (No, their parents definitely were not happy about this decision.) They decided to hedge their bets on mobile devices, to make games only for smartphones. In part, they were compelled by the “truly democratic” way in which iTunes distributes titles, making relationships with retail stores irrelevant. The decision crystallized for Huang when he logged onto his email account from a computer—instead of a cell phone—and it felt all wrong. He had a feeling that all the money and users were heading toward mobile devices. “We just needed to make a good product, and the App Store would handle distribution.”

Literally overnight, Office Heroes became wildly successful. The game launched on July 22, 2010, and on Day Two, the duo woke up, checked iTunes, and saw that they had top advertising from Apple. Within a couple of days, the game was downloaded several hundred thousand times.

Their success caught the eye of DeNA, a Japanese mobile gaming giant, which invested in them. Soon after, they gave birth to Astro Ape, which became a 20-person studio in Manhattan in less than a year and is one of the only purely mobile social game developers in the nation. They’ve developed three iPhone games (Office Heroes, Dessert Heroes, Monsterz’ Revenge) totaling millions of downloads, and in June their newest game, Vegas Strip City, was released across smartphones in Japan. (The game is available on U.S. Android phones now, via Mobage.)

The irony is not lost on either partner. Says Huang, “We quit our office jobs to make a game about office jobs, and now we run an office.”

Cheung, who is Astro Ape’s CCO, appreciates the mountains of data available to them—because users are always online and connected, he and his colleagues can monitor usage patterns. For example, they can see when usage spikes occur and find out what features in their games are most popular. “At no time in the history of video games have we had insight into how players are playing in real time,” says Cheung. Huang, the CEO, says, “Traditional console game studios used to ship games and move onto the sequel. [But] the heavy lifting in social gaming actually starts when you ship the title.”

“We wanted to do something disruptive,” Huang adds, referring to what happens when a small shop disrupts how an entire industry currently does business.

“Every day is quite a roller coaster,” says Cheung.

“If you’d told us we’d be running a video game studio… there’s no way you could’ve sold that script,” says Huang.