The lucky calls and unique ideas that put startup Grunka Munka Games on a path to success

The Grunka Munka team, from left to right: Ray Aflakian, marketing and producer; Adrian Chavez, formerly art and FX; Connor Adam, artificial intelligence and programming; Andrew Ward, CEO, co-founder, design and executive producer; Matt VanCompernolle, chief technology officer, co-founder and programming lead; and Tim Tsai, art. Not pictured: Nik Vennard, sound, music and art. (Grunka Munka Games Photo)

Either the team behind Grunka Munka Games is super brilliant or really lucky, or likely a combo of both. Because as co-founder and CEO Andrew Ward tells it, stuff seems to largely work out for their 2-year-old, Seattle-based startup. Their success includes today’s release of their game Collidalot on Nintendo Switch as well as winning numerous accolades, most recently a best multiplayer game award at DreamHack Atlanta 2018.

The venture started when Ward and co-founder Matt VanCompernolle met at Seattle’s Academy of Interactive Entertainment, a tech school for gaming and film.

“From the get-go we tried really hard to put ideas on the wall, weird unique things that we haven’t seen before,” Ward said. “I liked the idea of giant spaceships running into each other. I thought that was really cool.”

Andrew Ward, CEO, co-founder, design and executive producer of Grunka Munka Games, maker of Collidalot. (Grunka Munka Games Photo)

VanCompernolle was into four-player games, so they combined both ideas to create Collidalot (a portmanteau of collide-a-lot). For artistic reasons, the spaceships didn’t pan out, resulting in a pivot to outlandish jet cars that embody a sort of interstellar Mad Max vision.

In a demo at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center, kids loved the game and parents were delighted to discover that it wasn’t all about shooting anything or anyone.

Parents “were like, ‘Oh my God, that’s amazing.’ So no guns, that was a good move.” Ward said. “We’re very family friendly, and that has come as a consequence of trying to make cool designs. We never went in saying, ‘We’re making a game that kids love.’”

Collidalot sells for $12.50.

Among their projects is building two custom arcade cabinets for Seattle Children’s Hospital that they’re donating to its Alyssa Burnett Adult Life Center. One game will be for the center to keep, and the other the nonprofit can auction off. The hospital has a harder time raising money for adult-based care, Ward explained. The project is happening in partnership with Nintendo.

Collidalot doesn’t neatly align with the strategy and game play of other offerings, and it often takes a few minutes even for experienced gamers to get the hang of it. That has been a plus as well, Ward said. Players “don’t have any preconceived notions going in.”

And what’s with the name Grunka Munka?

Ward, VanCompernolle and Adrian Chavez, who is no longer with the startup, were sleep deprived and punch drunk during a 48-hour gaming contest. Their team had dwindled from six to three over 30 hours and their game, which was focused on wizards and sorcery, was imploding. A delirious and laughing VanCompernolle suggested scrapping the fantasy approach for a game that featured a caveman running around saying, “grunka munka.”

The name struck them as perfect for their budding enterprise. “It doesn’t fundamentally mean anything,” Ward said. “It holds that spirit. The goal of the company is we want to make brand new ideas.”

And again, it turned out somewhat accidentally to be a good choice. Try to searching for anything on Google like Grunka Munka, Ward said. “It’s easy to find us.”

We caught up with Ward for this Startup Spotlight, a GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire, provided before today’s game release.

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: We make original video games.

Inspiration hit us when: Walking home on a summer afternoon. We were talking about wanting to play a spaceship sumo wrestling game. This quickly led to us chatting about having it take place on the rings of Saturn, where the ships would grind on the rings’ gravity. Before long, an early prototype of Collidalot was born.

Players take Collidalot for a spin at PAX West in Seattle in August 2018.

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Bootstrap, for now. We got up and running on a small budget and have been able to focus on making Collidalot a great game and on our future plans. Now that the game is nearly complete, we can focus more on marketing and getting the word out about Collidalot. We will continue making original games and growing the team.

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: To assume that we’ve barely scratched the surface. We’re always pushing ourselves to explore gaming with the mentality that there is still much to discover.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Building and nurturing friendships out of the connections we’ve made. We’ve met tons of great people and have very intentionally not secluded ourselves from them, but instead remained engaged with the community and those people who care to help us. When we see their triumphs, we celebrate them and they’ve done the same for us. It’s an incredible feeling to know that you’re not alone. People out there — even if they may seem like competitors — are supportive and happy to help you. No one builds a castle alone.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Initially we underestimated how important it is for all members of the team to communicate beyond just work needs. We are more than just each other’s co-workers. We’re all friends and we see each other pretty much every day, even if it’s not because of work. It’s important to make sure you can work together and not let that bleed into your personal relationships with each other. That was a challenge that we got much better at over time.

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: One hundred percent Gates. He created an atmosphere that truly innovated — even if it was before the market was ready, at times. His focus on new products and features is unrivaled and he didn’t tolerate mere iterative improvement every six to 12 months. He also seems like a nice guy who genuinely cares about other entrepreneurs and our world, plus he proves it constantly.

Doing battle in Collidalot. (Grunka Munka Games Photo)

Our favorite team-building activity is: Group walks every day. We spend so much time in front of screens that simply getting everyone together for a short walk is healthy for us. It lets us chat away from the keyboards and take a moment to breathe. Sometimes we talk about personal stuff and joke around, but we also chat about our work and a lot of our best ideas have happened when chatting during a walk.

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: A fire to build things and solve problems. There are people that want to work and people who want to make stuff. We want to (and do) make stuff. We’re all the type of people who get things done no matter what because we love what we are doing and care deeply about making the best stuff possible. It’s hard to not like someone like that.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Take time to stay connected with why you started. It’s easy to dive so deeply into work that the reason you’re working becomes muddled in the day-to-day grind. You start a game company because you love games and want to pour that love into what you make. When the work overwhelms you — because that will happen — remember that you’re one person working on something that is bigger than yourself. Make sure that you take care of yourself so that you don’t lose the love and passion for what you do.