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Studio Spotlight

All Good Games Have at Least One Monkey: A Little Bit of MunkyFun

August 28, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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“I believe that our heavenly father created the monkey because he was disappointed in man.”

- Mark Twain

Monkeys. They are endlessly fascinating. Maybe it’s because they remind us so much of ourselves. We see in them enough of a resemblance to remind us, perhaps, of how far we’ve come. Or maybe just how close we still are. In Hinduism, they are a symbol of attachment. In the Chinese zodiac, vitality. Mayans held them as sacred symbols of artistry. For a group of veteran engineers out of LucasArts, the monkey was the impetus for an identity, a state of mind.

They called themselves MunkyFun, partly in homage to the pantheon of monkeys appearing throughout the history of gaming, but also as a tribute to the Monkey Island games created by Ron Gilbert, Ron Grossman and Tim Schaffer during the halcyon days of the LucasArts’ graphic adventures. Plus, monkeys are funny. The word monkey is funny. What happens when great talent is tempered in the fires of adversity and given an evocative name? A truly inspiring upstart game studio is born.

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Nick Pavis, CEO of MunkyFun

Game studios are like rock bands. So much is in the name. A band’s name evokes a personality that bleeds into the music.  Think about Smashing Pumpkins and The Rolling Stones. The same can be true in games. The personality of a studio often lends itself to the games they produce. Both types of entities, bands and game studios, tend to be ego-driven crucibles of creative energy. Those that are successful, those that have longevity, often form for reasons other than money or stardom. The great bands, like the great game teams, are lovers of their craft who produce for the simple joy of making magic happen. Such is the case with MunkyFun.

LucasArts alumni have spawned so many successful start-ups that one has to imagine what could have been had all that talent been recognized and managed well. MunkyFun founders Nick Pavis, Tim Ramsay and Oren Weizman worked together for years at LucasArts, and, after shipping Star Wars: The Force Unleashed for Xbox360 and PlayStation 3, felt it was time for something new. Their experiences helping to re-build the LucasArts studio amounted to an advance degree in building development teams from the ground up. They knew they had what it takes to create their own team, and they knew it was time to take the next step – to spin off on their own.

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Their challenge was to bring both the look and feel of their early console experiences to mobile.

“We wanted to focus on fun, both in our games and in the office environment.” says Pavis. “We work in games because we all love playing them, and if we aren’t enjoying making them, that lack of fun will trickle down to the players’ experience.”

MunkyFun was formed by a team of gamers, many coming from a console and PC game background before transitioning into the worlds of iOS and Android. Their challenge was to bring both the look and feel of their early console experiences to mobile. And if you just look at their games, it’s obvious that they’ve risen to that challenge. Thus far, they have created an eclectic assortment of titles – (Bounty Bots, Knight Storm, Archetype, D-Com Mission Alpha , Ivory Tiles and My Horse.) – puzzlers, RPG’s, FPS’, even a horse simulation, all notable for their high graphic quality as well as their gameplay.

“The technology has not been a challenge for us;” Pavis says. “It’s all about the games now. The fun. The mobile space has been like the Wild West, and we have been fortunate enough to try out all manner of fun gaming experiences. We have a great prototyping and a gate system for which ideas move forward, and each idea is as different as you could imagine. No idea is a bad idea.”

The prototyping system Pavis speaks of begins with what he calls a Game Jam where they periodically set aside a few weeks to work on internally generated ideas. They start with ten to fifteen concepts on paper, reducing that number down to five based on feedback from the staff and a three point gating process.

“The process is self-governing,” Pavis says.  “Because if you can’t convince artists and designers to help create your prototype, then your idea will be starved of resources.”

Each idea/prototype is accountable to three criteria, or gates, in order to pass through the various stages to full green light. First is Second-to-Second Gameplay – a game has to feel right at an interface level, meaning the controls feel good, or the fundamental mechanic of the game is compelling on a moment-to-moment basis. Second is Minute-to-Minute Gameplay – controls are one thing but beyond that feel, what’s the point? What is the player trying to achieve at a micro level? Third is Hour-to-Hour Gameplay – this is the overall objective, the macro gameplay, the value of sticking with a game all the way through. No game is given a green light to move to the next gate without passing successfully through a previous one.

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At MunkyFun, no matter who you are, your opinion matters.

MunkyFun has several games in various prototype phases all the time. This not only ensures their pipeline is full, it keeps their ideas fresh and prevents genre rut – that complacent zone of safety that often bogs a studio down. It also allows for the entire team to be involved in the creative at some level, engendering a sense of ownership, pride and the feeling that one is not just a cog in a machine but a true contributor. At MunkyFun, no matter who you are, your opinion matters.

MunkyFun has enjoyed quite a bit of success of late, but they almost didn’t make it passed their first quarter of existence. Two months after they formed, the great recession kicked in and the U.S. economy took a nosedive. Most major publishers cut back drastically on external development deals or froze spending entirely. MunkyFun was in late stage discussions with several publishers at the time, all of whom pulled the plug on pending negotiations. But MunkyFun pulled through.

“If we thought we were bootstrapping up until that point, we had another thing coming,” says Pavis. “This was really bootstrapping. But sheer grit and resilience surprisingly gets you a long way. It was literally a case of success being defined as not quitting when the odds are against you. You beg, borrow, and steal, and you make it through – somehow.”

Adversity will break or make you. In MunkyFun’s case, they were made. So impressive has been their rise (and their games), that GREE International recently made a $3M investment in MunkyFun as part of their $10M partner fund.

With access to GREE’s global mobile social gaming ecosystem, analytics expertise and user acquisition prowess, MunkyFun is poised to level up a tier or two. They are hiring, releasing a number of new titles this year and have moved into an historic building in San Francisco’s Jackson Square, an old Ghirardelli chocolate factory with exposed brick walls and high arched windows in the heart of advertising gulch. It’s a very cool space.

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They are hiring, releasing a number of new titles this year and have moved into an historic building in San Francisco’s Jackson Square.

“We love to innovate and we feel we are getting better at reading what it is our audience wants to play,” Pavis says. “GREE can really help us dive deeper in ways to make free-to-play successful.They understand how to reach and understand that mobile free-to-play gamer, and part of that is making monetization work in a positive way for both us and the player. With both GREE and MunkyFun, it isn’t about how to extract money from players quickly so the game makes some fast cash and dies, but it is about creating games the players want to play and constantly infusing those titles with new content, therefore building a long term relationship with the player.”

The infusion of money and resources that resulted from the GREE deal has really helped MunkyFun to complete its transformation from the scrappy, ramen noodle days of startup hell to a more focused, streamlined and polished organization with a live-ops team, customer service department and analytics teams, designated HR and a finance group. They are now a full-function, self-sufficient studio capable of self-publishing through the product life-cycle.

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Sometimes all you need is a spark, an angle, a manifesto to spur you on.

When MunkyFun was still young and working on coining its name, one of Pavis’ colleagues said that all good games have at least one monkey. While this may be a stretch, the idea itself was something they were all able to latch onto. Sometimes all you need is a spark, an angle, a manifesto to spur you on.

“Do we have monkeys?” Pavis says. “Of course we do! In fact, in Bounty Bots, you can only autofire by strapping a monkey in and letting him go crazy – just a little bit of extra silly. We are firm believers in having fun and just monkeying around, especially when it comes to our games!”

MunkyFun may have grown up a little, but they’re still scrappy. They’re not subsisting on freeze-dried ramen anymore, but that singular, hungry focus is still alive. You can feel it in their studio. And you can see it in their games.

Studio Spotlight

Emotions, Relationships and Realism: Massive Scale In the Machine Zone

August 26, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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Just wait until you see Game of War: Fire Age. There really is nothing quite like it. It is a game of tremendous scope and vision. But it’s not so much what you see, it’s what happening in the world that is particularly mind-blowing. Machine Zone‘s forthcoming MMO RTS, capable of supporting hundreds of thousands of simultaneous players in a persistent synchronous world, is a watershed project. At the time of this writing, the game is only up and running in five countries. By the time you read this, it’ll have been released worldwide. And it may change the face of gaming forever.

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It’s Gabe’s singular mission to revolutionize gaming – beyond the remarkable things Machine Zone has already done in mobile.

But this is not a game review. This is a story about a vision. This is a story about a dream. Gabriel Leydon is the dreamer. It’s his singular mission to revolutionize gaming – beyond the remarkable things Machine Zone has already done in mobile. The revolution he has in mind has to do with scale, as in massive scale. It wasn’t enough that he and co-founders Mike Sherill and Halbert Nakagawa ushered in the F2P paradigm long before Apple made it do-able within a game. What Leydon has in mind are hyper-connected real-time environments where not thousands, but hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of players interact simultaneously. With this new game, he’s drawn his line in the sand.

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Game of War: FireAge can host 3 million players in simultaneous chat.

Game of War: Fire Age can host 3 million players in simultaneous chat with a .2 second response time. Gamers from all over the world can interact with each other, form alliances, plot, strategize, email, comment and chat with no language barrier because Game of War does translations on the fly. Type in a command or a greeting to a gamer in France, bingo, it appears in French in his chat window. Spanish, German, Russian? No problem. And if there’s strange bit of slang or a text acronym that it can’t handle, the game turns to players for answers, building it’s database through crowd-sourcing.

Gabriel Leydon, Machine Zone’s co-Founder and CEO, is hell-bent on making gamers feel powerful. He wants to convey scale, and create massive communities. He wants to create something so engaging, cooperative and unpredictable that it evokes the turning tides of real battle, the drama and adrenaline of alliances, betrayal, victory, defeat, the rush that can only come from the interaction of real human beings having to make decisions in real time. Game of War cannot be played, fought or won alone. It is not a game of individual glory, but one that requires teams, pitting kingdom against kingdom in a quest to dominate a huge, real time world.

The first incarnation of Machine Zone was called AddMired. They began as an app developer, building a slick photo-sharing community on MySpace called Addable. Addable was a huge hit on the early social network, allowing users to not just share photos and build comment threads around them, but to make a game out of it. This fostered competition and engendered a sense of power among those users who were most adept at gaining followers, thus boosting their photos to the front of the line.

In the fast-moving, cutthroat world of social-mobile, knowledge enables kings.

Addable was popular, but there was no way to make money on it. Not at that time on MySpace. But it didn’t really matter. Sometimes, cash is not the ultimate reward. In the fast-moving, cutthroat world of social-mobile, knowledge enables kings. And what Leydon and his partners took away from their MySpace adventure was enough to launch a thousand apps. And perhaps a million kings.

Leydon is a game designer at heart, and that’s because he is and always has been a game player. He was the typical lonely-kid-gamer as a boy, playing and becoming proficient at games in order to fit in. For him, prowess in games was a form of social currency. In his late teens, he would log up to sixteen hours a day playing Atari’s San Francisco Rush, becoming one of the best in the world at the game. After hacking into the system and getting caught, he was recruited by Atari as a testing lead. But even before breaking into game development, Leydon understood inherently what it meant as a player to feel that sense of virtual power and wield control in a gaming world. It was the feeling of being very good at something and the power of connectedness with others that inspired his vision.

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Power, as he describes it, is derived not from money or resources.

As a game designer, Leydon’s goal has always been to make his players feel powerful. But power, as he describes it, is derived not from money or resources. “The value of a king is not how much gold he has or how much land,” Leydon says. “It’s how many subjects he’s got; it’s how many people will follow you.”

Power is derived from other human beings. It’s given to you via an agreement between people, an exchange of energies and consent. And that dynamic is precisely what Machine Zone attempts to replicate in its games – and what it has created in Game of War: Fire Age.

iMob was Machine Zone’s foray into iOS. It was their first game and the proving ground for the ideas and mechanics they gleaned from building Addable on MySpace (i.e. community, connectedness, something about empowerment). iMob was a mostly text-based RPG that introduced the concept of Free-to-Play. Read that again: it introduced Free-to-Play. At that time, there were no tools, no hooks for in-app purchases. But Leydon and his team got around those limitations by prompting players to purchase other Machine Zone apps that communicated with iMob, to give players boosts and other in-game enhancements. Viola. Free-to-Play is born. It was primitive and clunky, but it worked. iMob was a huge hit.

But this was still in the boom era of the social game phenoms when Zynga’s Ville-franchises were making money hand over fist, and Leydon admits that he had a little Facebook envy. The acronym-crazy days of social were dominated by DAUs and ARPUs but F2P had yet to be coined. Still, Machine Zone stayed the course. They knew they were onto something big but believed that it was going to get bigger. Gaming, as the world understood it, was about to be hit with its dinosaur-killing asteroid. And Leydon and crew knew it.

His passion for the F2P paradigm and mobile gaming in general is on the level of a fire and brimstone gospel preacher.

When the tools came along that did allow for in-app purchases, Machine Zone’s revenue went up 700 percent almost overnight. That Facebook envy was gone, and Leydon raised $13M in venture money rather quickly. And it’s no wonder. His passion for the F2P paradigm and mobile gaming in general is on the level of a fire and brimstone gospel preacher.

“Console and PC are old models,” Leydon says. “The App Store changed everything. Think about it. Between Google Play and iOS, we can reach 2 billion people in real-time. And you have the F2P revolution. The other industries? They just don’t matter. There is no game industry outside of mobile.”

Leydon does not come off as arrogant. He speaks with the authority of a hands-on developer who has struggled and lost some hard-fought battles. But there’s an edge to his voice. He has the quiet confidence of a poker-player holding a suite of kings. And his conviction on the future of mobile and the power of hyper-connectedness is spellbinding. But it’s his thoughts on story in games that are perhaps the most compelling. Machine Zone focuses almost all its energies on community-enabling tools and player-driven events’ which are, he says, far more interesting than anything game designers or writers can dream up.

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“If you get out of the users’ way, the stories are always perfect.”

“I don’t believe in stories,” Leydon says. “I’m trying to create an event, not tell you a narrative. The real power is in sharing with other people. The story is the player base. The story is the player. If you get out of the users’ way, the stories are always perfect. Their stories make sense. Enabling those interactions is the biggest challenge. It’s what Machine Zone is all about.”

When asked about the name Machine Zone, Leydon described it as that sense of immersion one gets when you’re, say, driving at night and realize you’re home without remembering how you got there. It’s that sense of immersion, of transparency, of mechanism that Leydon is shooting for in his games.

“Machine zone represents the total immersion a player feels with the device,” Leydon says. “The zone is a moment where the game stops being a game and starts becoming real. We focus on social technologies because that’s the only technology that can really create the level of realism we want on our games. The emotions are real, the relationships are real, and the game becomes real.”

If the early numbers on Game of War: Fire Age hold (average time spent in-game daily is two hours), then Machine Zone may have succeeded in that flattening of time where the details no longer matter. They may have created the ultimate virtual space where human psychology and the social behavior of man actually trumps graphics and gameplay. Should we be stoked, or scared?

Studio Spotlight

Cryptic Studios – The Improbable Journey of Heroes

August 22, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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Like most game companies, Cryptic Studios began as an idea. Ever imagined an MMORPG built around a world of superheroes? Rick Dakan imagined just such a thing. He played and admired Everquest, but dreamed of something different, something outside the realm of fantasy. In short, Rick had what might be called a vision. But he didn’t have the means to bring it to life. So he approached Michael Lewis, an old high school buddy, with the idea, and Michael ponied up the initial start-up cash. We call that kind of capital angel-money and like the biblical archangel from the Book of Daniel, Michael delivered. He not only provided the early cash, he recruited Silicon Valley entrepreneurs Cameron Petty, Matt Harvey and Bruce Rogers – three Atari veterans with some serious production chops – to come on board. Boom. Just like that, Cryptic Studios was born.

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Rick Dakan’s inspiration for a super-hero themed MMORPG became City of Heroes.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple or that easy. We all know that the road that begins with “What if?” often ends in “WTF?”. But Rick Dakan’s inspiration for a super-hero themed MMORPG became City of Heroes, a brilliant idea that did lead to a watershed game. However, between his early musings and the final product was a lot of pain, a lot of uncertainty and a lot of hard work. The founders pitched the game everywhere, but it was not an easy sell. Eventually they signed with NCSoft, home of the legendary Garriot brothers, who had the background to help shepherd such an ambitious project through to completion. But even under the care and guidance of NCSoft, the road was still rocky. Several months into development, City of Heroes was entirely scrapped and rewritten from the ground up. Two of the original founders left and things were looking grim.

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Building a great game and keeping a studio going through the hard times is a Herculean effort.

Building a great game and keeping a studio going through the hard times is a Herculean effort beset with pitfalls, nasty surprises and tough choices. But greatness is born of adversity and Cryptic rallied. Michael Lewis, the angel investor who was so instrumental in Cryptic’s formation, stepped in as CEO. The company scaled from a dozen employees to several dozen, and City of Heroes launched to overwhelming critical and financial success. So much so that a year later, they quickly followed it up with City of Villains, a bookend product launched with much fanfare and also to great success. If you think that all would be lollipops and unicorns for Cryptic at this point, then you haven’t  spent much time in the trenches of the game business.

On the heels of the wildly popular superhero-based MMOs, Cryptic partnered with Microsoft to create Marvel Universe Online. This was a dream project for Cryptic. On paper, it was a match made in Heaven, the perfect marriage of a world class IP with a proven technology and production pipeline. But after more than a year working on MUO, Microsoft inexplicably killed the game. Cryptic was emotionally crushed. But like true heroes themselves, they rallied once again. They took Microsoft’s lemons and eventually turned them into a fine sorbet with Champions Online for PC. But hold on, not so fast.

Cryptic needed capital to fund the publishing of Champions and to develop Star Trek Online, a license they acquired from a then ailing Perpetual Entertainment. Next, they hired industry vet John Needham as CEO to help raise funds. But it was hard going. They wound up having to sell City of Heroes back to NCSoft, yet that wasn’t nearly enough to fund both Star Trek and Champions. That’s when the poop really hit the fan. There was that minor inconvenience of the financial meltdown in 2008, when Silicon Valley became Death Valley overnight in terms of investment dollars. There was nothing cryptic about it, Cryptic had to sell their shirts in order to survive.

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They wound up having to sell City of Heroes back to NCSoft, yet that wasn’t nearly enough to fund both Star Trek and Champions.

After being courted by many potential suitors, Cryptic agreed to be acquired by Atari, who was looking to pivot into an all-digital future. Champions Online launched in October 2009, under this venerable old-school gaming brand. But the game didn’t perform as hoped. At this time, the industry was making a subtle, but steady shift from subscriptions to micro-transactions. The things that worked for City of Heroes and City of Villains simply didn’t work anymore. They launched Star Trek Online six months later and had a great deal more success. Then they flipped the switch and turned Champions into a F2P game. Then they got bought. Again. Perfect World, a publicly traded Chinese publisher of F2P MMORPG’s, acquired Cryptic from Atari in 2011.

Under the guidance of Perfect World, Cryptic turned Star Trek Online into a F2P game and expanded the universe, making it bigger than City of Heroes. Their latest MMORPG, Neverwinter, is a Dungeons and Dragons-inspired universe that just entered open beta. It’s already bigger than all of Cryptic’s previous games combined, and word is it’s their best, most advanced game to date. Cryptic credits Perfect World with giving them the freedom and the guidance to make what they see is their best game ever. In fact, they have been generous in their praise of NCSoft and Atari too, giving each credit for helping Cryptic to grow and evolve during crucial periods of their history.

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Neverwinter is already bigger than all of Cryptic’s previous games combined, and word is it’s their best, most advanced game to date.

Cryptic Studios is a well-seasoned survivor in a landscape dotted with the corpses of many also-rans. Through various phases of their growth, they’ve somehow managed to bend and adjust as market conditions changed, and what’s truly amazing is that they’ve always put out quality product. They are the poster-child for adaptation and resourcefulness, and a true inspiration to anybody who has a wild idea about making a great game. I’ve heard it said that ideas themselves are a dime a dozen. The real value is in a team. It’s the will and know-how to get an idea made that matters most. Nothing cryptic about that. But the rubber does not often meet the road, and many small studios skid off into trees. Not Cryptic. They’re still driving above the speed limit.

Studio Spotlight

HopeLab: Saving Lives One Game at a Time

August 9, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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They’re just games. We’re not really saving the world, though sometimes we simulate that in our pursuit of enjoyment and vicarious power. Basically, they’re toys – diversions, escapes, and if you’re reading this, you’re likely involved in some way in the creation, sales or marketing of this very modern form of entertainment. You can rationalize it six ways to Sunday but what we do doesn’t change the world and will be long forgotten not long from now. Some of us do it for the love of it. Others do it for the money. But let’s face it, no matter what you’re doing it for, games are primarily a selfish endeavor designed to provide a few people profit in exchange for others deriving temporary pleasure.

But the technology behind games has far more potential than we realize. Games, as we are well aware, influence our attitudes and effect our mental states – even if only temporarily. Games can, and do affect behavior. There are even a few games out there that are saving people’s lives. And there’s at least one game developer in Silicon Valley who is making a real difference in the world. If Google’s motto is “don’t be evil”, HopeLab‘s should be “doing good”.

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Could video games help people heal themselves? HopeLab believes it can.

Unless you’ve been through it yourself, you cannot possibly imagine what it’s like to be a cancer patient. Chemotherapy is brutal. Even if it works and the cancer goes into remission, you’re facing years of daily medication that will often make you feel sicker, and, to say the least, unmotivated to carry on with your treatment. Adolescents and young adults are particularly prone to neglecting their routine medications. Many fail to believe in the power of their meds and the benefits of the full course of treatment. And unfortunately, some of them die because of it.

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The Re-Mission games are designed to change attitudes and behaviors around treatment.

But HopeLab is changing that. They make games, develop technology and turn research into actionable solutions for patients undergoing the harsh treatments for cancer. HopeLab was founded in 2001 by Pam Omidyar, whose husband Pierre was the founder of E-Bay. Pam was a gamer and a former research assistant in an immunology lab who had a vision – could video games help people heal themselves? Could a savvy developer, armed with the right research, harness the power of games and technology to better human health and well-being? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes.

Re-Mission™ and Re-Mission 2™ are Flash games developed by HopeLab that are designed to address adolescent behaviors around taking chemotherapy treatments. There’s a tendency to skip or simply not take medications among young people – not because they’re being rebellious or irresponsible, but because it can be difficult to make the connection between painful chemotherapy and long-term health, and the Re-Mission games are designed to change attitudes and behaviors around that crucial portion of treatment.

“The game targets that specific negligence around taking the treatments,” says Richard Tate, VP of Marketing and Communications at HopeLab. “The way that it does this is by shifting attitudes around chemotherapy so that it is viewed as strong and powerful, as opposed to something that they hate and makes them sick – we rebrand it in the game, representing it as something really powerful that can vaporize cancer.”

HopeLab’s games are solid. Thousands of young people have benefited from their six online games and from Zamzee™, an activity meter and motivational website that helps get kids moving, fostering physical health through games.

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Positive emotions, a sense of self-efficacy and shifting attitudes can drive change.

“There are three active ingredients that drive health behavior change,” Tate says. “Positive emotions, a sense of self-efficacy and shifting attitudes around cancer treatment. Playing these games increases positive emotions, gives them a sense of power and control and changes the way they think about chemotherapy.”

And it works. A study published in Pediatrics in 2008 shows that playing Re-Mission increased players ‘cancer knowledge, increased self-efficacy, increased their adherence to antibiotics and increased their adherence to chemotherapy.

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HopeLab proves that developers can harness the power of games and technology to better human health and well-being.

As of now, HopeLab’s products are all browser-based. Mobile apps are in the works, but since HopeLab no longer develops games in-house, they’ll look to strategic partnerships to make that happen.

“We essentially tried three different models,” says Tate. “The first was an in-house development team, the second was where we were acting as producers and creative directors, hiring a single development studio as a vendor to build a game based on our particular interests and the third model, which is a bit of a hybrid, is one in which we use our expertise in R&D to collaborate with developers who’ve already created a successful product we can modify for a health purpose.”

It’s that third model that has allowed them to cut costs and get products to market much faster – and that’s crucial for a research-driven non-profit like HopeLab. Leveraging off a proven game mechanic and, ideally, built-in audiences, also enhances a game’s reach and effectiveness.

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HopeLab uses game mechanics that speak to the current generation of gamers

“What we found,” says Austin Harley, former R&D Lead at HopeLab, “was that there were a lot of games where we could see the mechanics mapping on, and they’re really fun, short-burst play experiences that speak more to the current generation of gamers. Our model [now] is approaching these developers and saying to them ‘Hey, we like what you got, can we re-skin the art in this game to be about killing cancer inside the body? We need to make chemotherapy seem powerful and strong and your game would be great for doing this.’ We’ve done that for five of our six games [and] that allows us to focus on user research and understanding cancer patients and their psychology and how to really shift attitudes about chemotherapy to the forefront. We can iterate much faster, we can integrate the users much easier and development costs were a lot cheaper.”

HopeLab is branching out into other areas of physical and mental health by applying their research-driven methodology to other problems in the area of health and wellness. It is a refreshing approach. Games reach so many people now, and game mechanics have become recognized as legitimate tools for altering behavior. Imagine games and game engines being used for good? Sure, fun is good and helping people to relax is good. But these are frankly first-world problems. When the difference between life and death can be a slim percentage of your cancer medication dosage, we’re talking about games that literally save people’s lives.

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We’re talking about games that literally save people’s lives.

HopeLab is reaching out to bigger studios in hopes of working with them to adapt some of their ideas onto existing game I.P.’s. Can you imagine what games could do to foster better understanding between people? To reinforce positive behavior around bullying, tolerance or drugs? To bridge cultural gaps between ethnic groups or maybe help a lonely, misunderstood kid reach for a telephone rather than a gun? Hey Zynga, EA and Rovio, are you listening?

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What’s John Riccitiello Doing Now?

July 29, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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John Riccitiello
John Riccitiello

Nothing. That is, if you consider that he’s been working hundred-hour weeks for almost thirty years and now he’s working maybe fifty. For him, that’s practically a vacation. Coming off his stint as President and CEO of EA, John‘s kicking back (in a manner of speaking) and watching the fruits of his labors ripen. Many of the games and franchises he presided over at EA are releasing now, and he speaks about them with the pride of a father watching his kids play little league. If there’s any residual bitterness or regret, I sure didn’t sense it.

I spoke with John briefly the other day. It was the first time I had met him, so to speak. It was a pleasant conversation and I found him to be extremely knowledgeable and optimistic – not just about his own future, but about the future of games in general. He is a man full of ideas and opinions, and if I somehow inferred that he isn’t busy, or that perhaps his head isn’t in the game, then let me correct that perception right now. His head is very much in the game, and he’s quite busy.

His focus today is in investing in game companies – primarily mobile start-ups. He acts as an advisor, guru and all-around Obi-Wan Kenobi to fledgling studios that show promise and by promise, he means future-oriented; as in vision and the ability to build products that last. John is bullish on the industry but is careful to point out that it is becoming increasingly difficult to break into the top of the charts and stay there. When I asked him if  there was any hope for an Indie developer just starting out today, his response was not what I expected.

He acts as an advisor, guru and all-around Obi-Wan Kenobi to fledgling studios that show promise.

“It’s not hopeless,” he said. “It’s still possible to do, but it’s increasingly important to create a rich product experience that is well crafted.”

I’m curious to hear his upcoming Casual Connect talk on Tuesday at 1:30 – Fireside Chat with John Riccitiello, where he’ll sit down with the very smart and savvy John Gaudiosi. I’m hoping he’ll go into more detail about what he sees as important for a game developer to consider at this very crucial time in the evolution of the industry, and expound upon his vision. He gave me a lot to chew on, but I don’t want to steal any of his thunder, so you’ll just have to check out his talk.

I did however ask him how he views Casual Connect, a conference that has become increasingly significant as a disseminator of vital industry information and a hub of meaningful connections and influencers.

“Casual Connect is a very important show coming at a very important time,” He said. “Great new game companies will rise in the coming year, and some seemingly great companies of today will disappear. Fortunes are going to be won and lost here. I think it’s important to be there to see what’s happening on the ground. Learn from game developers what is working, what is not.”

San Francisco
Casual Connect, which is being held in tech-geek mecca San Francisco for the first time, seems to be coming at a very interesting and critical time, when big data and analytics appears to be trumping innovation and pure design.

Judging by this years’ conference line-up, I think he’s right. Casual Connect, which is being held in tech-geek mecca San Francisco for the first time, seems to be coming at a very interesting and critical time, when big data and analytics appears to be trumping innovation and pure design. Will the mobile revolution raise all boats or just the ones with the most resources? Can the Indie spirit thrive, or merely survive? Just what’s inside John Riccitiello’s crystal ball? Drop in why don’t you, come sit by the fireside. I think it’ll be worth your while.

Studio Spotlight

KIXEYE – This is Not Your Momma’s Game Studio

July 18, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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KIXEYE. If you’ve played Backyard Monsters or Battle Pirates, you’ve heard of them. If you’ve ever been to GDC, you’ve seen their recruitment campaigns – the billboards, the taxi-top ads, the signs on the sides of MUNI buses. There was a time when the KIXEYE logo (a chess knight unicorn) was ubiquitous. And that’s because they were growing quickly and hiring like mad. They still are. And talent is hard to come by here in the land of Google and Zynga, which is why KIXEYE has had to be aggressive as well as creative when it comes to talent acquisition. Thus, the video.

If you really want to get a taste of what KIXEYE is all about, you need to see what Executive Producer David Scott calls “The Video.” The KIXEYE recruitment video basically espouses the company’s fundamental dogma in the form of a parody that skewers Bay Area gaming stalwarts EA and Zynga, among others. It’s kind of hilarious, and definitely ballsy. Their send-up of Mark Pincus is more than a shot across Zynga’s bow, it’s a cannonball sent through their topsail, and what it’s saying is we’re not like other gaming studios, we’re different and we’re in it for the long haul.

“First and foremost, we’re a company built by gamers,” says Scott. “And that is deeply embedded into our DNA and culture.”

What’s the most important question asked in any KIXEYE interview? What games are you playing right now, and what is your all-time favorite game and why? This is a company conceived, founded, built and run by actual gamers who were born and raised with controllers and keyboards in their hands. And that, sadly, is not the norm in this industry, which has become so heavily reliant on formula, imitation and data mining that innovation is all but dead. KIXEYE harkens back to an era of developer-owned shops that placed the game first. Profit is (gulp) a secondary concern.

Founders
KIXEYE founders Paul Preece, David Scott, and Will Harbin

KIXEYE founders Paul Preece and David Scott met at a local LAN party in the UK and immediately hit it off. They were each building Flash games for free-to-play sites like Addicting Games and Kongregate, and had huge early successes with Flash Element TD and Desktop Tower Defense – games built by a single programmer/designer in pure indie fashion. Those games did so well that in 2007, they quit their day jobs to form The Casual Collective, where they built a total of 13 games and a social network that enabled players to form groups and compete with each other on the site.

“I posted Flash Element TD on my website in 2007 and linked it to Stumbledupon.com,” says Scott. “Within a few hours, it received 500,000 visitors and went on to be played by over 100 million people by the end of the year.”

The Casual Collective’s initial business model was based on in-game advertising and though they experimented with subscriptions and micro-transactions, they didn’t see the growth or revenue they had hoped for. But they were learning, and in 2009, made the move to San Francisco to find a CEO that could help the business scale. They hit it off with Will Harbin, an Entrepreneur-In-Residence at Trinity Ventures who was looking to start a game company. Harbin, like Scott and Preece, had a burning passion for games – he was the man they were looking for.

This was about the time when social games were blowing up, but Preece, Harbin and Scott were uninspired by the offerings available on Facebook to core gamers.

“We saw that as a huge opportunity with a lot of runway”, Scott says. “We knew there was a winning formula if we were able to deliver on both accessibility and fidelity.”

KIXEYE
KIXEYE now employees five hundred people worldwide, with four-hundred fifty in San Francisco alone.

So they decided to pivot the brand and changed their name to KIXEYE. They also scrapped the advertising-based revenue model and began promoting the sale of speed-ups to players that allowed them to progress faster. In other words, they were selling time. That first year, KIXEYE launched their first two Facebook games, with Preece creating Desktop Defender and Scott focusing on Backyard Monsters. Smash hits. The company was profitable and grew from three to fifty employees that year. The following year, they launched Battle Pirates and War Commander and hit nine figures in revenue. KIXEYE now employees five hundred people worldwide, with four-hundred fifty in San Francisco alone. And they’re still growing strong.

“Our biggest challenge today is to continue hiring high quality talent,” Scott says. “There’s no shortage of opportunities for talented engineers in the Bay Area, and we’re competing against everyone else for these individuals. It’s why we created The Interview video.”

KIXEYE is adamant that quality is their chief concern. They are serious gamers, hell-bent on crafting experiences that not only make money, but that are loved; and that are played by millions of hard-core gamers. They stress gameplay and good old fashion game design over analytics and formulaic re-skins. And it’s working.

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They are serious gamers, hell-bent on crafting experiences that not only make money, but that are loved; and that are played by millions of hard-core gamers.

How’s this for proof? Three plus years of continuous profitability, 2011 revenue 11x over 2010, 2012 revenue triple that of 2011, 20x higher ARPDAU [Average Revenue Per Daily Average User], engagement [MAU/DAU] is 5x longer than other popular social game and KIXEYE users play more than two sessions per day, one hour and thirty minutes total per session. Folks, that’s staggering. Something is definitely working over there at KIXEYE. Could it be that quality and game design truly matters?

Team
If they can duplicate their successes on iOS and Android, then all that bluster and bravado found on the video will not only be vindicated, it will become legend.

“The vision for KIXEYE is simple,” Scott says. “To build the biggest and most successful game company on the planet, to push the envelope and redefine the intersection of fidelity and accessibility, to create innovative, mind-blowing experiences for competitive gamers. We have never deviated from that strategy.”

Keep in mind that KIXEYE has done all this online. They’ve yet to storm the gates of mobile. With mobile versions of all their hits in the offing, KIXEYE is poised for a mind-boggling 2013. If they can duplicate their successes on iOS and Android, then all that bluster and bravado found on the video will not only be vindicated, it will become legend.

“We’ve been patiently waiting for the right time to make our move into mobile,” Scott says. “When other game companies were abandoning their online strategy, we were doubling down. Now we’re ready to dominate mobile by leveraging our browser success, and have the right internal resources in place.”

TOME
They’ve got a Massive Online Battle Arena called TOME: Immortal Arena on deck that sounds very promising.

KIXEYE has three mobile titles coming out shortly based on existing IP, including Backyard Monsters: Unleashed and War Commander: Rogue Assault. KIXEYE will release mobile versions of all future games at or shortly after their browser debuts moving forward. They’ve also got a Massive Online Battle Arena called TOME: Immortal Arena on deck that sounds very promising.

Unicorn Head
Who wouldn’t want to work for a company like this?

At the end of the KIXEYE video (which Scott claims has increased recruitment 1,000%), CEO Will Harbin says “40 years from now, when you’re bouncing your grandkids on your knee and they ask ‘Grandpa, what kinds of games did you used to make?’, you can say ‘Little ones, I made games that kicked serious ass’…[and] they’ll understand that you worked for KIXEYE, that you redefined online gaming, imitated no one, compromised nothing and had a fucking blast doing it.” Then he dons a unicorn mask and climbs a rope ladder dropped from the sky, ostensibly from a hovering helicopter above.

Who wouldn’t want to work for a company like this?

Studio Spotlight

Supergiant: There’s a Bastion in my Living Room

July 15, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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Living rooms. Typically these are places where you watch TV, sit around on sofas and Lazy-Boys, talking, nodding politely at your grandmother’s adoration, maybe playing charades. Living rooms are not known as crucibles for great videogames. But it does happen. My own gaming career began in a living room. Start-ups run on the cheap out of necessity and living rooms are inexpensive alternatives to office space. Bonus if that space comes rent-free and with access to your parents’ fridge. The last thing you need to be worrying about when you’re in the fever pitch of developing a seminal game is where your next meal is coming from.

Gavin Simon and Amir Rao
Amir Rao and Gavin Simon were both Command & Conquer refugees and alums of EA with an idea for a game.

So it was lucky for Amir Rao that a living room was available. He and Gavin Simon were both Command & Conquer refugees and alums of EA with an idea for a game. They wanted to create an action-RPG in which players build the world themselves. That game was Bastion – beautiful, award-winning, much adored. But back in 2009, it was merely a glimmer in their eyes, a concept in search of a home. And it found a home. In San Jose. In a living room. Amir’s Dad let them set up shop in his house and it was thus that a great game, and a little studio aptly named Supergiant, was born.

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They created Bastion – beautiful, award-winning, much adored.

They began with little recognition in an industry that tends to eat idealists alive. Two junior members of a large and storied EA team armed with nothing more than some (pretty valuable) experience on a great franchise and a dream, Gavin and Amir were inspired by games like Braid, Castle Crashers and Plants vs. Zombies – games crafted by small teams with lots of love and attention to detail. They left EA, not just because of those great Indie games, but because they admired what was going on in the Indie development community – small teams of dedicated gamers were building beautiful things, not for money, but for the love of games.

“We love it when games feel like they were made with care and bear the mark of their creators,” Amir says. “For us, we draw a lot of inspiration from the games that we played as kids and we seek to make games that spark players’ imaginations in the same way.”

Supergiant Team
Amir Rao, Andrew Wang, Greg Kasavin and Camilio Vanegas

Soon, several of Amir and Gavin’s friends joined them at Supergiant: Andrew Wang, who worked on the Modern Warfare series at EA; Creative Director Greg Kasavin, who also worked at EA and was once Rao’s roommate; Art Director Jen Zee, who was referred by a mutual friend; Voice Actor Logan Cunningham; and Audio Director Darren Korb, who has known Rao since elementary school. The living room was getting cramped, but something magical was happening.

They entered their game into the PAX 10, a hand-picked group of independent games selected by Penny Arcade to appear at PAX Prime. They were lucky to be selected in such an elite grouping and drove all the way to Seattle in a van to unveil Bastion to the world. The response was tremendous. The audience absolutely loved the hand-painted 2D artwork, the stirring score and the narrative technique of the game. That debut led to Supergiant partnering with Warner Bros. to distribute the game across a variety of platforms.

“We created Bastion in about twenty months and debuted it on Xbox LIVE Arcade in 2011,” Amir says. “We created all additional versions of Bastion internally over the following year and took the game to PC via Steam and other digital retailers, plus Mac, Linux, the Chrome web browser, iPad and iPhone. We developed a lot of design and technical expertise around these platforms and are proud to have a strong fan base on each of them.”

Bastion
“We love it when games feel like they were made with care and bear the mark of their creators.”

Supergiant builds their own engines and tools. Their engine started in XNA and has expanded to allow them to ship on XBLA, PC, Chrome, Mac, Linux, iPad and iPhone. They used Mono to power all the versions after the PC. Amir says that the biggest initial challenge was building a team alongside building the game.

Building a Team
Chris Jurney, Lead Programmer.

“We started without the writing, artistic, systems, engineering and musical talents that would be brought on later members of the team,” he said. “There was significant anxiety around those things until we were joined by Greg, Jen, Andrew, Logan and Darren.”

At one point during development of Bastion, they spent a significant amount of time and energy integrating an elaborate ‘gardening’ system that would govern many of the game’s player progressions. Inspired by games like Harvest Moon and Viva Piñata, they wanted to design an organic ‘planting’ as a metaphor for character leveling.  Ultimately, that feature did not come to fruition, and they removed the system before unveiling the game at PAX in 2010.

“Our best ideas often come from a problem-solving perspective,” Amir says. “So when we pursue ideas that simply seem unique, we sometimes have trouble integrating them into the rest of the game.”

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iOS was a big contributor to Bastion’s success.

Bastion has sold in excess of 2M copies, with iOS being a big contributor to that success. They re-imagined the game for touch devices and learned a lot about design and UX issues on tablet devices as a result. Now they’re ready for their next big project. The original Bastion team is intact, and they’ve moved out of the Amir’s living room into an actual office space in the SOMA district of San Francisco. They’ve brought on a few more people and are working on a new project called Transistor, a game so wildly anticipated that people stood in line for hours at PAX this year just for a chance to play it. Transistor is slated for release sometime in 2014.

So if your kid comes to you one day and says “Dad, I have this idea for a game that I think could be really great.” Don’t ignore him or her. Clear away the coffee table, relocate the flat-screen and give up your living room for awhile. It may just be your ticket to a comfortable retirement , and the world can always use another great game.

Studio Spotlight

The Second Coming of PlayFirst: Re-constructing the House that Flo Built

July 9, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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Strangely, PlayFirst has been largely forgotten. As the earth shifted beneath the tectonic plates that was the upward thrust of the mobile revolution, many PC publisher/developers have bitten the dust – especially the early casual game pioneers. Remember them? Remember when PC downloads and try-before-you-buy was the disrupting force in the industry? Most of those early portal-publishers are gone or diminished, unable to make the transition to mobile fast enough. Big Fish Games was an exception, PlayFirst was not. Like many once-great stalwarts of the casual revolution, their transition was painful and slow. If it had not been for Marco DeMiroz and Becky Ann Hughes, they might not have made it at all.

PlayFirst Wall
It takes a whole team of dedicated individuals to turn a company around.

To be fair, it takes a whole team of dedicated individuals to turn a company around, not to mention a wise board and some smart investors. PlayFirst has rebuilt itself almost completely with fresh blood and loads of new talent. But it was the passion, faith and quick thinking of DeMiroz and Hughes that lit the fuse – though they will be the first to demure and give credit to their people. Still, it was Hughes and DeMiroz who, in a make-or-break 56-hour marathon, made the tough call to re-focus the business entirely on mobile and then lay down the framework for the plan that would, they hope, not just save the company, but build it into a mobile powerhouse to rival their South of Market neighbors.

Marco DeMiroz is not your typical CEO. He looks and sounds more like that great science teacher you had in high school, the guy who still burns with a passion for organic chemistry and delights at the little puffs of smoke he produces with his magic beakers. Marco is refreshingly cheerful, and his eyes sparkle with a child-like enthusiasm. He is a roll-up-your-sleeves visionary with boundless energy and some impressive chops in the tech industry.

Marco DeMiroz
Marco is a roll-up-your-sleeves visionary with boundless energy and some serious chops in the tech industry.

DeMiroz has made some very interesting and strategic hires since he came on board 18 months ago, people with some serious street cred, like Tom Hall of Doom fame, Paul Chen from Papaya and Brian Booker of Creative Brain, to name a few. But DeMiroz has some street cred of his own. He’s a true Silicon Valley veteran, coming out of Oracle, Sun and SGI. But it was his stint at General Magic back in the early 90’s that’s most interesting, and perhaps the most relevant highlight of his storied career.

In case you’ve forgotten, or just didn’t know, General Magic invented the precursor to the smart-phone. Back in the last century they called them PDA’s – personal data assistants. But PDA’s were ahead of their time and General Magic followed Apple’s ill-fated Newton, both relegated to Wikipedia obscurity.  But that vision – that the whole world would one day be connected by a computer held in the palm of a hand – wound up changing the world. When DeMiroz was approached by the PlayFirst board almost two years ago, he saw his chance to get in on what he calls “One of life’s major inflection points.”

“I didn’t come here to save PlayFirst,” DeMiroz says. “I came here to help build an enormously successful mobile gaming company. We think we can be the next Gree or DeNA.”

Flo
“Flo is part of who we are, but not totally who we are.”

PlayFirst is blessed with a deep and popular library of IP – Diner Dash, Chocolatier, and Dream Chronicles, to name a few. It’s the Dash franchise that pays the bills and helps fund the company’s reinvention. But they are not the company of Flo. And this is not your momma’s PlayFirst.

“We don’t want to be the Dash company,” DeMiroz says. “For us, PlayFirst is the brand, like EA is the brand. Flo is part of who we are, but not totally who we are. Our effort for the past 18 months has been PlayFirst, PlayFirst, PlayFirst. And it’s an ongoing effort.”

After touring their offices and spending time with DeMiroz, Hughes and others, it’s clear that PlayFirst has changed. They are one hundred percent focused on mobile – no more downloads, no more shrink-wrapped retail. And the energy in the office is palpable. These people are on a mission. These people believe. To an outsider, who knows only the old, Flo-centric PlayFirst, the change is startling. It really feels like an entirely new company.

“We’re really a two-year old mobile gaming company,” DeMiroz says. “Out of the fifty-seven people currently on board, forty-seven joined since I joined the company a year and a half ago.”

So how is PlayFirst making this pivot? How, with the rather ambitious goal to double revenue in 2013, will PlayFirst earn more cash with less Dash? The answer is twofold – strategic partners and genre-expanding, original IP. You will see things come out of PlayFirst in the next several months that will make you whistle with admiration and shake your head in disbelief. They didn’t bring Tom Hall in to make girl-games with unicorns and ponies. They’re going after boys. And they’re going to do that with mid-core strategy SIMS like Mortal Instruments™, which they’re developing in partnership with SONY Entertainment ahead of the release of the upcoming film.

Flo Sketches
PlayFirst is going to take risks with new genres and new IP, but they’re not going to mess with the golden goose.

PlayFirst is going to take risks with new genres and new IP, but they’re not going to mess with the golden goose. Oh no. The Dash franchise, which according to DeMiroz is the second most downloaded piece of IP after Angry Birds, is one of the big user-acquisition and innovation engines that will be key to PlayFirst’s becoming the next big mobile player. The Diner Dash franchise, which includes the games with Flo and her cadre of familiar, cartoony friends, is being modernized and optimized. And it’s making money. A lot of money. Revenue grew by 40 percent last year, they more than doubled their user base, and they’ve seen a lot of success on Google Play. Then there’re the movies.

“We’re partnering with Branded IP, like movie studios,” says VP of Product and Marketing Becky Ann Hughes. “Hotel Transylvania was one of them, but we are partnering with them to create games like Mortal Instruments and Cloudy 2. But really, the key there is they spend millions and millions on marketing, and they have such big presence at the launch of these that there’s an opportunity for us to deliver great game content and also get a lot of scale with that partnership and then, along with our platform, driving scale into our platform and monetizing across our games which is really critical, and what it really comes down to is building community.”

Aligning themselves with entertainment giants like SONY is brilliant, if not obvious. This will not only help them fund technology developments, hone live-teams and generate revenue, but the vast reach and huge marketing campaigns behind big tent-pole releases such as Mortal Instruments, Hotel Transylvania and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 will become (if all goes well) user acquisition juggernauts. Think of it as UA stealth mode.

By platform, Hughes means P3N, the PlayFirst Publishing & Promotion Network – a proprietary, publishing and promotion platform inside every game that gives them enormous user acquisition leverage.

“We have our own ChartBoost, our own TapJoy,” DeMiroz says. “And we’re really careful about what content we expose to our users.”

PlayFirst has proven to be just as valuable to big entertainment brands as those brands are to them. They created 300M impressions for Hotel Transylvania with Hotel Transylvania Dash prior to the movie’s release – a significant achievement that, if it can be maintained, bodes very well for DeMiroz’s aspirations and PlayFirst’s future. They have an evergreen franchise, top talent, a brilliant plan, strategic partnerships and a proven technology layer beneath their games. All they need to do now is execute and deliver some great new games.

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PlayFirst has proven to be just as valuable to big entertainment brands as those brands are to them.

PlayFirst may have been forgotten by some, but they’ve been busy like little cobblers in the night readying themselves for a renaissance that, if it delivers on the promise, will be legendary, and worthy of the many talented people who helped build the house that Flo built; people like John Welch, and Kenny Dinkin. And let’s not forget Eric Zimmerman and Nic Fortugno who, with the pioneering studio gameLab, invented Flo and the whole plate-juggling time management genre in the first place.

Studio Spotlight

WGT: How One Small Start-up Redefined Golf and Out Shot EA

June 25, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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Dawn breaks over the dew-frosted fairways of Bethpage Black. Each blade of grass sparkles in the low morning light and all is quiet save for the gentle rustle of leaves on the surrounding trees. This legendary golf course is lush and beautiful, not just for those lucky enough to come and play here, but also for the millions who have never come, and probably never will. For those players, a virtual experience of the course, meticulously recreated by game studio WGT, is as close as it gets to actually playing there. For Chad Nelson and his team at the studio formerly known as World Golf Tour, authenticity is not just a mission, it’s an obsession.

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Authenticity. Realism. Accuracy.

Authenticity. Realism. Accuracy. This is what they do. Nelson and his crew of a dozen photographers and surveyors trudge miles and miles over each golf course with laser scanners, GPS units, high-end cameras; mapping and documenting almost every location where an actual player might find him or herself setting up a shot in a real game of golf. They return from each course with over 100,000 photographs. And that’s where the real work begins. The process of sourcing, editing and color-correcting these photographs in order to create an accurate virtual golf course is a Herculean task accomplished by proprietary hardware and software developed specifically by WGT, who wanted to bring the world’s greatest courses to golfers of all levels in the comfort of their living rooms.

Mission accomplished. The result of WGT’s efforts has been nothing short of spectacular. Today, over 6-million virtual golfers from 120+ countries play on the hyper-realistic course recreated by WGT. And here’s something even more amazing. They are averaging 2.6 million monthly visits to the WGT.com site – that is more than golf.com and pga.com.

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“We are committed to building truly authentic experiences for both serious and casual sports fans.”

“The vision for WGT has always been to combine high-quality visuals, rich & deep gameplay within a social community built around competition,” says Chad Nelson, WGT Founder and President. “We are committed to building truly authentic experiences for both serious and casual sports fans.”

The idea was to take the social and competitive elements of fantasy football and poker and package them within a premium, console-like sports game experience.

Notice he said ‘sports’. WGT is no longer just about golf. In 2012, they expanded into their offerings with WGT BASEBALL: MLB – the largest MLB-licensed baseball game on Facebook. And though he can’t talk about it yet, Nelson is promising a lot more to come.

WGT was founded in 2006 by Chad Nelson, YuChiang Cheng and JF Prata. The idea was to take the social and competitive elements of fantasy football and poker and package them within a premium, console-like sports game experience.

“When we started WGT, casual gaming was synonymous with Pogo.com and an endless sea of Bejeweled clones,” Nelson says. “Social gaming wasn’t a buzzword, the iPhone didn’t exist and, outside of fantasy football and online poker, there wasn’t much for guys in terms of casual games.”

Golfing
He loved the game and thought that it had all the elements he and his team were looking for in a social, multiplayer experience.

Nelson grew up playing golf. He loved the game and thought that it had all the elements he and his team were looking for in a social, multiplayer experience. Golf is global, it has that easy-to-learn/impossible-to-master gameplay factor, it’s social and it’s got lots of competitive side games associated with it. But this was the era of the big EA Tiger Woods games. How could a small start-up enter the market, let alone compete with EA?

“Indeed, it seemed daunting,” Nelson says. “Yet I saw EA focusing a majority of their development efforts on consoles and, as a result, (they) left the web/online space wide open.”

They started by boot-strapping WGT for nearly the first year, working with a very small core team. This allowed them to build their first golf product, get it live and acquire their first 100k players. From there, they began to attract investors and soon after going live, closed their first round. To date, WGT has raised over $20-million from Battery Ventures, along with Panorama Capital and JAFCO Ventures.

When asked what sets WGT apart from other studios, Nelson points to their technology.

When asked what sets WGT apart from other studios, Nelson points to their technology. Millions have been invested in the content and the photography solution pioneered by WGT, resulting in golf course visuals that never look dated or need updating with a new 3D engine. This puts WGT in a very defensible position, even against big companies like EA. This patented technique for recreating courses allows them to focus, and deliver, on photorealistic accuracy – which is what has become the hallmark of their brand. But the process was a significant initial investment. WGT developed new hardware to work with their cameras and survey equipment. They built new software to help in the pre-production planning, as well as to assist their post-production team in managing the thousands of images taken per hole. It took double the time and investment to create this foundational production pipeline than their initial plans had estimated. It was quite a learning process, but each shoot and subsequent course reproduction helped them refine the technology and the process so that now the cost of each has been brought down significantly.

WGT has transitioned into mobile by embracing Unity. Their WGT GOLF LITE™ for iOS was developed in Unity; which required them to learn a whole new bag of tricks, as WGT had become the masters of Flash™. By all accounts, WGT GOLF LITE is doing well and the future for both World Golf Tour and other WGT products is headed in a direction that will adapt to their players’ more mobile lifestyles.

Office Space
This year promises to be the best for the company so far.

WGT is headquartered in San Francisco and they’re closing in on fifty employees. World Golf Tour is extremely popular, WGT BASEBALL: MLB is growing month-over-month and there are new games set in realistic worlds of new sports in the offing. WGT is flying high. And so is their President. Chad Nelson now spends more time riding shotgun on a helicopter directing aerial shots than he does in the boardroom. And this year promises to be the best for the company so far.

“2013 is an exciting year for WGT,” Nelson says. “We just launched Merion Golf Club as part of the Virtual U.S. Open Championship and anyone who participates has a chance to win a VIP trip to the 2014 U.S. Open Championship at Pinehurst.”

Golf will always be a bread and butter sport for WGT. But their goal is to entertain all sports fans, and their challenge is to maintain their vision of quality, competition and community as they continue to grow and expand. For Nelson and his crew, it’s clearly about a passion for the games they portray and the worlds in which those games are experienced.

“Realism, accuracy and that thrill you get from the actual experience – that’s what keeps us going,” Nelson says. “We honestly believe the best is yet to come.”

Studio Spotlight

Studio Spotlight: Six Degrees of Connectivity – The Origins of GREE

June 20, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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He was twenty-six years old when he built it. The year was 2004 and if you remember, the term social network still meant your actual in-the-flesh peer group; though it was not a term used by real people in the real world. Perhaps psychologists bandied it about, but at that time there was no Facebook and no Twitter, so the idea that we would communicate and interact virtually using computers and cell phones was just a gleam in the eyes of a handful of visionary entrepreneurs. One of those young visionaries was Yoshikazu Tanaka.

On the Computer
At the time, the idea that we would communicate and interact virtually using computers and cell phones was just a gleam in the eyes of a handful of visionary entrepreneurs.

That ‘it’ that Mr. Tanaka built was called SNS-GREE. It was an early social network launched by the young Tanaka in Japan at a time when ubiquitous connectivity was still more fiction than science. But it was, by the standards of those early days, a success. Initially, SNS-GREE was a PC-only experience, but Mr. Tanaka, in his prescience, envisioned a hyper-connected future unencumbered by wires and desktop PCs, so he executed a masterful pivot. In 2005, the young company made the risky technological leap to mobile.

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Technology time is like dog-years.

Such a move at such a time was incredibly bold. Though it does not seem so long ago, in terms of the pace of rapidly developing hardware and software, technology time is like dog-years. A decade in tech is an eternity. And hindsight tends to obscure courage and under-appreciate genius. There are very few mobile developers today who can say they were out in front of the mobile wave nine years ago.

GREE is short for degree. In 2005, they dropped the SNS prefix and, in a tip of the hat to a social psychologist named Stanley Milgram, paid homage to the concept of Six Degrees of Separation, a term widely credited to Milgram but that actually traces it’s origins back to Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor of the radio, Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, and the Polish math genius Benoit Mandelbrot (trust me, it’s complicated). But it was Milgram’s famous ‘Small-World’ experiments in 1967 that led to the early theories on social networks that would become the foundations for Facebook.

But back to GREE, a social-network developer newly focused on mobile. In 2007, they launched one of the first social-mobile games in Japan to great success. That game was Fishing Star. What followed was series of hits: Haconiwa™, Odoriko™,  Cerberus Age™ and Monster Planet™, to name a few. GREE, and Tanaka, was vindicated. The social-to-mobile shift was proving to be the correct strategy. They had grown to dominate the then booming Japanese social-mobile market. But they were after larger fish. Japan was a big market, but the U.S. was the real catch. The leviathan lay east.

Office
Japan was a big market, but the U.S. was the real catch.

In 2011, GREE International, Inc. opened its doors in San Francisco (they have since opened offices in the UK and Canada). But simply opening an office in the city of Twitter and Zynga is no guarantee of success here. GREE invested tremendous amounts of time and resources in developing and perfecting a live-ops strategy in Japan, but transitioning that knowledge to the US was not going to be easy – and they knew it. They had the foundational knowledge that was essential to building and maintaining hit social games on mobile, but content was another thing entirely. Gree understood their Japanese audiences very well, but the US consumer was a fish of a different color. They needed some help.

Enter Funzio. In 2012, GREE acquired the maker of Crime City, Modern War and Kingdom Age for more cash than Zynga paid for OMGPOP ($210M). Why? Because they were smart, that’s why. They not only bolstered their IP portfolio, they got themselves a studio with know-how and proven insight into the minds (and wallets) of US gamers. Now, GREE can enjoy Funzio’s insight into what works in its games, and Funzio can benefit from GREE’s investment in process and technology.

Office Space
They not only bolstered their IP portfolio, they got themselves a studio with know-how and proven insight into the minds (and wallets) of US gamers.

“We’ve integrated GREE’s live-ops best practices into our RPGs – games like Kingdom Age, Crime City, and Modern War,” said former Funzio President, Storm-8 co-founder and now GREE COO Anil Dharni. “Because of that, we have seen those games, the oldest which has been out for over a year-and-a-half, rise up the top-grossing charts.”

GREE’s San Francisco office now employees over 400 people and since the acquisition, four of their games have charted in the top 50 in the AppStore and three in the Android top 25. So clearly something is working. What’s more telling is that, a year after the acquisition, all of the Funzio executives are still around. It’s not easy to make a Japanese-owned US studio work, but GREE’s doing it, and they’re doing it by focusing on the games and on the players.

“At the end of the day, our focus is on the players and for them, content is king,” said Dharni. “Our aim is to constantly deliver something new by focusing on live-ops and creating new features. Earlier this year, we experimented with a new feature in Modern War called ‘World Domination’ that allowed players to create teams and participate in a 72-hour live event where they battled other teams. It was a huge success, with the launch weekend resulting in the highest revenue ever in the game’s year-and-a-half-long history.”

Working Buddy
GREE was formed, partly, to help enhance those connections through play, through games.

GREE’s goal is to build strong franchises – not just one-off experiences. And that jibes with Mr. Tanaka’s early vision; which was simply to make the best, most innovative mobile-social games, games that consistently deliver new content. But that in itself isn’t unique or particularly visionary. What is unique is the social networking DNA in GREE’s genes and their longevity in the market. They have seen and done A LOT and they have found in Funzio a partner that complements their core strengths.

The mechanics of social networks revolve around the ideas of connectedness. We are all much more closely connected to one another than we might believe. There are only a handful of individuals who bridge me to you, or you to any other person in the world. Think about that. Whether that bridge be six degrees, or three, or eight really doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are not islands. We just think we are sometimes. GREE was formed, partly, to help enhance those connections through play, through games. In 2004, that was visionary. Nine years later, they’re not only still here, they’re thriving, still innovating; and they’re having fun doing it.

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