Shibu Mathew is the VP of Products at Immutable. He joined Immutable in 2022, bringing more than 20 years of experience in product management and software development in consumer internet, mobile gaming, and ecommerce.
In previous leadership roles at Electronic Arts, Shibu launched and scaled freemium versions of many popular titles, such as Star Wars, Tetris, Sims FreePlay, FIFA, Madden, and Apex.
We recently spoke with Shibu to learn more about product initiatives at Immutable and his role within the company. Shibu reflected on his transition from Web2 to Web3, shared insights on identifying new market opportunities, and discussed how to define markets through iterative learning and experimentation.
Our conversation has been edited lightly for brevity.
Immutable is a distributed ledger that enables anyone to create, trade, and play with digital assets on the Ethereum blockchain. Currently, we’re ruthlessly focused on gaming. Of all the different domains that blockchain will eventually influence, we strongly believe that gaming will be one of the first to experience radical change.
The gaming space is large — close to $270 billion per year. All the money that consumers put in when they play a game is sunk cost, meaning once it’s given out, it’s gone forever. Blockchain provides a mechanism where there’s more power for game developers and consumers because there’s no central authority or central entity. In essence, the blockchain becomes the distributor.
In many ways, the community is responsible for the roadmap and determining how the game evolves, influencing the game’s economy and driving its success or failure. Individual game developers can kickstart a game, get it out there, and then eventually get rewarded for establishing a good community.
At Immutable, we want our Web3 games to be really meaningful experiences for people. We want people to come play and then stay for an extensive period. So that’s been our core focus. Our definition of a successful game has AAA (i.e., high-quality) core design, is sustainable, and is profitable.
Making games is a creative endeavor. I’d say it’s a mix between creativity and science. If players come in and don’t feel the soul, they will quickly turn out.
Around four years ago, we launched the first game on Immutable, Gods Unchained. This year, we’ll launch our next title, Guild of Guardians. We’re also getting ready to launch several games through co-development efforts where we provide the Web3 and blockchain component expertise.
My background is in programming. I wrote code for a living for quite some time and then was a technical architect at a few financial companies like American Express and Morgan Stanley. At one point, I joined a startup where we built trial-based content. The company was eventually sold to Orbitz, which is now part of Expedia.
I joined the company that had funded the startup and started getting an understanding of how products are built. That’s when I realized that I wanted to go build things. I was very excited about the gaming space. At the time, Apple had just launched its iPhone and the iOS SDK.
I joined Electronic Arts at a time when the whole notion of freemium was new to most people. At the time, a game like FIFA would be burned on a disc and sold for $60 apiece. The idea of giving the game away for free, but charging a low recurring subscription price and getting more money than the paid disc just didn’t compute for a lot of people. They dismissed the idea that freemium could be a successful business model.
When I joined EA, I was given three months to change a brand new title into a freemium game. My team and I built the economy, the leveling curve, and the progression systems. The game was a big hit; it was their top-grossing title on the App Store. Eventually, I went to the CEO and said “This is not a one-time thing. Freemium is a broad-level trend and we need to embrace it.”
That started my journey at EA, moving from studio to studio to build titles. Today, the bulk of EA’s revenue still comes from premium (games burned on discs), but the freemium practice has definitely expanded.
A few years ago, I started noticing trends related to Web3 and the whole notion of how distributed ledger can empower consumers to actually build games. I saw the same signals in Web3 that I saw in freemium about 10 years earlier.
A few colleagues and I pitched the idea of moving into Web3 at EA. It was the classic innovator’s dilemma. Often an established business wants to continue to cater to the same audience to ensure that business is not disrupted; there can be a hesitation to try something new. So, I decided to take the leap and move to Immutable. That was my Web2 to Web3 transition.
In product, you can go into a competitive space where others have already defined how it should look, or you can go into a blue ocean space where you get to define the market and figure out what “good” looks like.
There are a lot of similarities between Web3 and the early days of freemium. When freemium first started, it was a wacky experience. It wasn’t very user-intuitive. A lot of social hacks were put in place. It took a few iterations for game designers to really fine-tune the fun aspect of it.
We are very much in that stage in Web3. The economy isn’t completely tuned. There’s a lot that still needs to be figured out regarding Web3, but I am very bullish on the space. I expect that within the next two years, we’ll have a breakout hit.
In terms of finding the “next big thing,” look for areas that are getting lots of buzz, and pay close attention to signals that it’s becoming less expensive or somehow more accessible. This is an indicator that the mass adoption phase is about to start, and that’s the moment that you really want to get into that space.
The premise in this early phase is that there’s a lot more that you don’t know than what you do know. There’s no handbook to rely on. You have to start quickly iterating, learning, and experimenting.
Eventually, you find what works and what doesn’t and you become the subject matter expert. Building a cumulative learning experience is not a quick fix, but it has lasting rewards.
There are many broad-level trends and themes that are going on right now. For example, electric vehicles, artificial intelligence, and ease of accessibility. I think these themes will continue to evolve, and from time to time there will be some event or development that accelerates their growth to the next level. If you keep an eye out for those indicators, you can be very early in the game.
Start by identifying the top problems that you need to solve, and then prioritize them. I do this exercise every six to eight weeks. The gaming industry is very creative, and many people come up with ideas. But, the fact of the matter is, there’s rarely merit to the idea; it’s the execution that matters.
A lot of people get really married to their idea. Especially founders and CEOs — sometimes they will buy into their idea and want it implemented at all costs. I say, don’t get married to the idea, get married to the problem. The problem is what is actually directly tied to the outcome.
Get some distance away from the ideas and the solutions. Ensure you get a wide variety of ideas from a large, diverse group of people. At this stage, quantity is quality.
Then, start investigating and prioritizing the ideas according to their chance for a positive outcome and the costs associated with achieving that. Next, try implementing them. This is the broad-level experimentation that we do on different ideas and themes.
There’s also tactical experimentation that’s more quantitatively driven. For example, if we’re interested in first-time user experience, we might consider: where is the drop-off? Where are people coming in? How do we ensure retention is best in class? How do we monetize and create that pinch point at certain points?
Right now, we’re focused on establishing and scaling our place in the gaming industry. Our goal is to become the de facto place for gaming. I envision that for at least the next two years, we’ll be heads down working to meet that goal.
But, then we’ll probably start looking at other areas. When we try something new, we keep a close eye on adoption. If we see strong adoption for an idea, we’ll really kick in and start putting resources behind it.
There are a lot of early signals that we’re seeing in the fintech space. I think that might be a good area. I can think of lots of potential opportunities, from airline miles to coffee house reward cards to insurance management.
Of course, one consideration is that the finance and insurance spaces have a different level of regulatory reform compared to entertainment and gaming.
In the early startup phase, regardless of industry, the founder is focused on building the initial experiment to determine if the business idea will actually work. Eventually, they get more involved with investor calls, raising money, and the general operations and management of the company.
The moment the founder is unable to spend enough time on what is actually being built is the time that someone needs to be brought in to head up the product function.
The role of the product leader is to help execute the founder’s vision and ensure it is delivered on time and to quality. Of course, the product leader often refines the vision and also does a lot of customer validation.
As the business scales, the product function scales as well. Eventually, product sits at the center of the core department, getting signals from design, engineering, and marketing and validating that what they’re building is the right product.
I look for people who have a strong sense of ownership. We’re a small company, and a lot of our roles are not very well-defined. Joining an early-stage company is an opportunity to carve your own path, to really take your career where you want it to go.
But, to be successful in this type of scenario, you also have to have urgency.
Folks who have both urgency and a sense of ownership will have an outsized impact on what they do and they will deliver greater value. This eventually cascades to how they progress in and serve the company as well.
There are many other skills that matter too, like the craft of product itself and domain knowledge, but a lot of that can be taught. It’s difficult to teach many of the most important attributes, like motivation, urgency, and honesty.
My all-time favorite is a role-playing game called Heroes of Might and Magic. It’s a very old game, but I still play it from time to time. It’s a resource management game, and I like that it requires a lot of thinking and strategizing. This particular game has been through several developers and currently sits with Ubisoft.
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