By Eli Epstein
FORTUNE -- For Icelandic game studio Plain Vanilla, the last few months have been anything but boring.
The studio launched its smash iPhone trivia hit QuizUp on November 7, and quickly attracted 3.5 million registered users. Since that launch, QuizUp has bobbed in and out of the No. 1 spot in the Apple App Store, according to Plain Vanilla founder and CEO Thor Fridriksson.
For Fridriksson, this success comes after a few tough years. In 2011, his studio nearly went bankrupt after its debut title, a game for pre-schoolers named The Moogies, fell flat.
"It was a miserable failure," Fridriksson told Fortune in an interview earlier this month. "We spent a year developing it, and within two weeks we knew it wasn't going to make money."
Fridriksson was forced to lay off nearly all of Plain Vanilla's employees in the fall of 2011. Then, severely in debt, he contemplated his own future. With his Oxford MBA, he could easily get a job in finance and pay off the debt he'd accrued as part of The Moogies failure. Or would he rather take another crack at the mobile gaming industry that he still believed was ripe with opportunity?
He chose the challenge.
This time around, Fridriksson looked at popular games like Words with Friends and Draw Something, two hit titles that didn't reinvent the wheel. Both massively successful games modified an existing analog game (Scrabble and Pictionary, respectively) and brought that experience into the mobile environment.
Fridriksson looked for inspiration. While a mobile version of Trivial Pursuit existed, Fridriksson found it to be rudimentary, lacking a wide range of topics and cut off from social opportunities.
"Trivia is one of the most inherently social things I can think of," he says. "No one wants to sit in a dark corner and read Trivial Pursuit cards."
"Watch a game show -- people yell out the answers because they want to show people how much they know."
What Fridriksson imagined was not a trivia game but a trivia platform: Users could submit their own questions, gain points and titles from their victories, and interact with one another in one-on-one and group discussions.
Fridriksson's only problem was that he had no money to build such a platform. Realizing he wasn't going to find a reservoir of deep-pocketed venture capitalists in Iceland, Fridriksson decided to gamble. He hired two programmers, applied for a three-month tourist visa to the U.S. and bought a one-way tickets to San Francisco -- a city where he knew no one.
"We thought at the time that in San Francisco, they just threw money at you," Fridriksson says. "Oh how we were wrong."
For the next three months, Fridriksson scoured the Bay Area for seed funding while his programmers built him a prototype to show investors. While the unknown Fridriksson struggled to find a VC audience, he sought out a fellow Icelander in San Francisco named David Helgason, the CEO of game development company Unity Technologies.
"There are only 330,000 of us," Fridriksson said. "It's easy to connect with another Icelander outside of Iceland."
Helgason liked Fridriksson and his idea for QuizUp, and he agreed to become an investor. After that, Fridriksson says, the pieces started to fall into place, and other investors slowly came onboard before Fridriksson's visa ran out. Before he returned to Iceland, he was able to secure $1.2 million in seed funding. After his initial trip to San Francisco, Fridriksson took multiple trips between Iceland and California in 2012 and 2013. Whenever he received funding in the U.S., he'd fly back to Iceland to fine-tune single quiz games to show to investors, refining quizzes in categories like basketball or math.
Fridriksson calls these back-and-forth trips his "Viking journeys" and confessed the most important one was a 2012 trip to Los Angeles. Like he'd done with Helgason, Fridriksson cold-called producers at an affiliate of Lions Gate Entertainment (LGF) and convinced them to partner with Plain Vanilla on a trivia game for the Twilight series. The game, released in November 2012, was a hit. Almost 2 million users registered to play it, and they gave Plain Vanilla valuable feedback about a need for more social features, like discussion boards and chats.
Today, both of these features are central to QuizUp's success. Acording to Fridriksson, QuizUp users typically play 17 quiz games per day, for around 40 minutes.
Viral success -- Fridriksson set aside $1 million to market QuizUp, but hasn't had to spend anywhere near that -- has also attracted big name VCs who barely noticed Fridriksson when he showed up in California the year before, penniless and with only ideas for a prototype.
In 2013, Plain Vanilla closed two Series A rounds worth $4.5 million, receiving funds from the likes of Sequoia Capital and Greycroft Partners. With those funds, the company has increased its staff from 20 employees at the start of November to 30 today. Plain Vanilla has also opened up workspaces in New York and San Francisco, in addition to its main office in Reykjavik.
The growth won't stop there, according to Fridriksson. Next month Plain Vanilla will release QuizUp for the Android -- Fridriksson says he's been fielding emails from legions of angry Android users -- and the iPad. Fridriksson also hopes to build practice tests for standardized exams like the SAT and the GRE into QuizUp.
Even with all of the plaudits he and his company have earned over the last month, Fridriksson is quick to remind himself to stay modest. After all, it was only two years ago that he was laying off employees and accumulating debt.
"The glory is a misconception," he says. "Most of the time you're hanging by a thread."
As mobile device use increases, TV viewership is cratering. Games are the entertainment of the future, and free-to-play is the future of games.Oct 16, 2013 10:22 AM ET
Samsung may be winning in device volume, but Apple's App Store attracts paying customers and makes developers' lives a little easier.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- The tech world's attention will turn to Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif. Tuesday, where the company is rumored to debut the enhanced high-end iPhone 5S and the lower-cost iPhone 5C. Other devices, potentially the long-rumored iWatch, could also be showcased. While new Apple products at MORESep 9, 2013 12:27 PM ET
The popular mobile game has expanded its universe through transmedia, and the bestselling fantasy author is one of the architects.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- Brandon Sanderson grew up playing video games on Nintendo (NTDOY) consoles, a hobby he never gave up. Now the New York Times bestselling author (2009's The Gathering Storm and 2010's Towers of Midnight) is actually helping to craft video game stories. Sanderson, who is writing multiple science fiction projects and MORESep 3, 2013 9:08 AM ET
The former entertainment executive doesn't think his industry's business model is entirely broken.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- Former Electronics Arts CEO John Riccitiello recently made his first public speech since stepping down on March 30. Speaking at the Casual Connect video game conference in San Francisco, the long-time video game executive says he spent a lot of the past four months, well, playing video games. Known as one of the MOREAug 2, 2013 11:51 AM ET
The famed creator of The Sims and SimCity is working on a new startup.
By John Gaudiosi
FORTUNE -- Will Wright has created some of the most successful video games of all time, including Electronic Arts' SimCity and The Sims, which has sold over 150 million copies worldwide. The game developer left EA and the Maxis studio he founded back in 2009, shortly after his long-in-development Sport launched in 2008 and failed MOREJun 25, 2013 10:35 AM ET
Riccitiello steps down as video game publisher Electronic Arts has been struggling to adapt to a changing games market. Revenue and earnings per share will be at the low end of or below January guidance.
By Matt Vella, deputy technology editor
FORTUNE -- Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello will step down on March 30, the video game publisher announced today.
In a statement to the press, EA (EA) said it was naming Larry Probst as MOREMar 18, 2013 4:51 PM ET
Chillingo, the publisher behind mega-hits like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope, has a knack for finding mobile gaming cash cows.
By Kurt Wagner, reporter
FORTUNE -- Mobile game publisher Chillingo knows how to pick a winner. Founders Chris Byatte and Joe Wee were the first publishers to stumble on Angry Birds, created by Espoo, Finland-based Rovio, back in 2009. With Chillingo's help, the game grew into a $1 billion MOREFeb 14, 2013 7:08 AM ET
Zynga has a short but rich history of defying expectations -- including its stock price which is up. So why are people so bearish on the social gaming company?
By Kevin Kelleher, contributor
FORTUNE -- Zynga (ZNGA) has a short but rich history of defying expectations. Last summer, Zynga was expected to be worth as much as $20 billion as a public company. Turn out, it was worth $7 billion when it MOREApr 2, 2012 10:43 AM ET
|Five things you didn't know about Bernie Madoff's epic scam|
|Teen millionaire helping Yahoo become cool again|
|Obamacare: 365,000 have signed up for insurance on exchanges|
|Stocks falter as budget deal raises taper risk|
|What the budget deal doesn't do|