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Founder Q&A: How Battlesnake’s game engages with thousands of developers using DigitalOcean

Posted: March 14, 20236 min read

Battlesnake is a multiplayer programming game for developers. Controlled by a web server you build, and the code you write, Battlesnakes move to find food, avoid others, and stay alive. Battlesnake is an open-ended playground for developers to explore and hone new skills. Battlesnake works closely with DigitalOcean, as many developers choose DigitalOcean to host their Battlesnakes. Battlesnake itself uses DigitalOcean solutions including App Platform to scale across multiple regions, reduce latency, and give developers a seamless gaming experience. Hear from their founder, Brad Van Vugt, on how the team has scaled up while staying true to their mission.

Q&A with Battlesnake founder Brad Van Vugt

Why did you want to start your own business?

I’ve always pictured myself running a software business — I’m not really sure why, it’s just a happy place for me. I love building, and I love creating things that don’t exist 🙂

What’s the story behind Battlesnake?

Battlesnake began with the realization that it is hard for experienced developers to explore complex tech without a meaningful problem to work on.

If you’re brand new to coding, there’s so much out there to help you learn—courses, puzzle platforms, bootcamps, etc. But if you’re a senior engineer, there’s nothing. The best advice anyone has is “do a side project”, which sucks. Side projects tend to be lonely, unguided, and even boring! I can’t count the number of times I’ve started a side project and quickly abandoned it.

We built Battlesnake to solve this problem for ourselves. It’s not another “coding competition”— it’s all about giving experienced developers an open-ended and unsolvable problem to work on. It’s easy to get started with, and it’s up to you which parts you optimize and over-engineer! And of course, there’s an awesome community to do it with :)

When did you know that your business was going to “make it” or take off?

At first, we didn’t. Battlesnake sort of took off under our noses. We made it for ourselves as something to do with friends to challenge each other and push the limits of our programming skills. It was really fun!

Then professional engineering teams, computer science researchers, and other developers started to play regularly. GitHub projects started popping up. People began writing blog posts and creating YouTube videos about the snakes they were building for upcoming competitions. Someone even created a Discord server—and it was six months before we even knew about it!

People wanted to be involved in what we were building. That passion was impossible to ignore. We knew this was something that needed to exist. If we weren’t working on it full-time, someone else would be.

What’s one thing that you wish you knew before starting?

Developer communities are magical. When given proper support, they can be powerful. It’s been so inspiring to see what they create. Often our community will build complex tooling, design new maps, and even help drive our roadmap with their feedback. Someone even used our unpublished WebSocket API and Raspberry Pi to build an LED array to display Battlesnake matches in real time. Truly incredible stuff.

But communities also have a mind of their own too. If a developer gets an idea in their head, you can bet they’re going to try it—with or without your permission. So you do need to be prepared for that! We’ve learned a LOT from engaging and communicating with our community. It’s become one of our more powerful advantages.

What’s been the biggest challenge, and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge for us has been sticking steadfastly to our values and principles. Battlesnake works because we’re our own target audience—our entire team is senior and experienced developers who understand what we’re building and why, and this builds an immense amount of trust between us and our community. Being authentic has been so important to us and our success.

At the same time, we’re constantly approached by organizations and companies wanting to recruit and engage our community directly. Oftentimes, with large price tags attached. And while that’s tempting, we understand deeply that part of the reason Battlesnake is growing is because of the respect and sincerity we show our community.

We only work with wonderful developer-facing teams that understand developers at their core and know how to engage meaningfully and authentically (like Digital Ocean!) Our community means the world to us, and we stand firm in their best interests, always.

What advice do you have for others interested in starting their own business?

My response to this has changed over the years. I think the best advice I’ve heard is to “just start working on the business”, which in most cases means talking to people you want as early customers.

It’s too easy to get bogged down and intimidated by fundraising news cycles, who has hired who, how big someone’s office space is… The best advice is to ignore all of it and just become absolutely obsessed with what your customers care about. By doing this, you’ll naturally make the connections you need for later investment, hires, and sales. Customers first!

How do you measure success? (Most important KPIs?)

We measure success by the number of developers that build multiple Battlesnakes, with at least two different strategies, tech stacks, or algorithms. For us, reaching this milestone implies two things:

a) We’re succeeding in building something that is both entertaining and complex enough to engage developers beyond initial exploration, and;

b) Developers are using Battlesnake to learn new things! Which is a huge win for everyone.

Is there a right time and a wrong time to start a company?

Probably, but it’s nearly impossible to know without trying. My advice here would be instead of waiting for better timing, get started and give it your best effort while listening for signals that something isn’t going to work. It’s way easier to try something and realize it won’t work than agonizing over trying to predict if it will.

Why did you come to DigitalOcean?

Our community demanded it! A surprising number of Battlesnake developers not only use DigitalOcean services to build and deploy amazing Battlesnakes, but they also evangelize it to folks trying Battlesnake for the first time :)

I think DigitalOcean’s support for the broader developer community is second-to-none, and it shows when you speak to their users. We’re lucky to partner with them!

What are some of DigitalOcean’s tangible and measurable benefits?

We were able to scale across multiple data centers and cloud regions incredibly quickly! This was very important to Battlesnake growth in the early days, and remains one of our coolest features :)

Any intangible benefits that are hard to quantify?

Working with DigitalOcean as a partner this year has been fantastic. Battlesnake players love DigitalOcean. We were able to stream live with DigitalOcean streamers, create a Sammy head and tail customization for our Battlesnakes, and even hand out some DigitalOcean swag to competition winners. The reception from our community has been wonderful.

What DO products are you using?

Battlesnake runs thousands of live games per minute. We connect servers worldwide using various different platforms and technologies, including DigitalOcean’s App Platform across multiple regions to host our global game engine regions. This made the game more competitive for players around the world by reducing latency.

What’s next for Battlesnake?

Our goal is to have more than 100,000 developers play Battlesnake in 2023! We’ve also just started exploring what live, in-person Battlesnake can look like, and we’re incredibly excited about what we have planned :)

What technology are you most excited about or focused on for next year?

We’re still looking for our first, top-tier AI Battlesnake. Many developers have tried, but none have succeeded (yet). It turns out that the multiplayer aspect of Battlesnake is incredibly challenging to build generalized models for, but we’re hopeful that we’ll see some emerge throughout the 2023 competitive season.

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