When they were 10, fraternal twins Efim and Semyon Voinov received a British-made ZX Spectrum personal computer from their parents. It was 1991 in late Soviet-era Moscow, and such things were rare. The Voinovs put the Spectrum to good use. They picked up programming and quickly graduated from playing games to designing their own.
That childhood hobby has rewarded the twins, now 29, big-time. Last October the Voinovs’ latest project, a game called Cut the Rope, exploded into the iPhone App Store, quickly reaching No. 1. In July the Android version debuted and also hit the top spot. It’s the first game to knock the megahit Angry Birds off the top roost, and has now been downloaded more than 50 million times. The in-game ads and 99¢ sales pile up: Although the brothers won’t talk figures, they’ve earned “several million dollars” from the game, says Mikhail Lyalin, executive chairman of the Voinovs’ year-old company, ZeptoLab. In a country saturated with programming talent, they’re among the first Russian developers to turn their attention to the smartphone market. And they’re likely not the last. Last year, Russians had 6 million iPhones and other mobile devices, though they generally arrive late to this corner of the world. That figure is expected to triple in 2011.
The brothers are rooted firmly in the Soviet heritage of science and engineering. “Everyone in our family is either a physicist or a chemist,” says Efim. Yet because their formative years coincided with the collapse of the Soviet education system, they are, like many of their coding compatriots, largely self-taught. While studying unrelated topics at university, they worked part-time as game programmers. They published some of their creations on a small site called PalmGear.com, and occasionally “we would get checks from America for $50,” says Semyon. “That was a lot of money for us back then.” After they graduated in 2004, Lyalin hired the brothers to work at a gaming company he owned, Reaxion, where they gained experience developing for different mobile platforms.
In the summer of 2010, the brothers left Reaxion to form ZeptoLab. “Zepto,” a math prefix meaning 10-²¹, was meant to signify how truly boutique their operation was: twin brothers working at home with their cat. After success with another game, Parachute Ninja, which was downloaded 3 million times, Efim and Semyon began prototyping the game that would become Cut the Rope. The objective is to get a shiny lollipop into the mouth of a little green monster, named Om Nom, by slicing swinging ropes at the right time. Efim, who typically writes code for the twins’ games, studied a kinetics textbook to understand how ropes move. Semyon, the designer, aimed to make Om Nom maximally cute. “I wanted it to have an emotional attraction,” he explains. “Like a child or a pet that needs to be fed.”
As the game shot up the rankings, the Voinovs started getting offers from Silicon Valley, they say, though they turned them all down. “We’re fine for now,” says Efim. Their focus is on expanding the business: They’ve moved into a real office, hired five people, and in August released a sequel, Cut the Rope: Experiments. They’re also taking a cue from the success of Angry Birds and expanding the brand into comics, stuffed animals, and more. After that? They’re hoping for “a little bit of a breather, so we can create a completely new project,” says Efim.