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Few outside of the video-game industry have likely heard of Bing Gordon. But the game pioneer now wields major influence over the future of the Internet, with board seats on companies from Amazon.com to Zynga. Today is a day that Gordon’s fame may spread wider: he has been named the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, a prestigious video-game association.
Gordon spent more than 25 years at Electronic Arts, working with game developers to produce some of the best video games ever made. That career, which ended with a long stint as chief creative officer at EA, would easily have earned him accolades and plenty of praise upon retirement.
Then he moved to become a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. There, he made investments in Ngmoco, which was acquired by Japanese mobile game firm DeNA for $403 million, and Zynga, the social game maker whose recent valuation at above $5 billion puts it in a league above EA. At Zynga, he has helped the young company nab game developers such as Brian Reynolds and assisted them in making games that are played by tens of millions of Facebook users. One of Zynga’s games, CityVille, has hit 100 million monthly active users today — only 43 days after its launch. Gordon, quite naturally, is already at level 60 in CityVille, as high as you can get. I know because Gordon regularly shows up in my city to help me harvest my strawberries.
Gordon has proven that he has a golden touch. And that is part of why he is going to be honored by the AIAS for lifetime achievement, an honor which is being announced with this story. Gordon will get the award at the upcoming Dice Summit, which runs from Feb. 9 to Feb. 11 in Las Vegas. The AIAS awards are akin to the Oscars of gaming. Gordon is only the fifth recipient to get the award; others included trade group founder Doug Lowenstein, former Nintendo executives Howard Lincoln and Minoru Arakawa, and Sony PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi.
That’s some pretty rarefied company for Gordon, who has a deep voice and a casual attitude about everything except making great games. But Gordon has earned plenty of accolades. Mark Pincus, CEO of Zynga, says, “The scariest thing about Bing is he is that he is usually right.” Paul Lee, a former EA colleague and head of VanEdge Capital, says Gordon helped shape the video game industry and has been a mentor for countless leaders in the industry.
We caught up with Gordon yesterday to talk about the award and his outlook on gaming.
VB: Everybody who got this award before you is retired after a long career. But you seem to have earned this not only for your first career at EA, but for your second career as a venture capitalist as well. It seems like your second career is just as important.
BG: When I got a Man of the Year award at EA a decade ago, I thought that was the end of it. It’s like I should be dead or retired. When we started EA in 1982, our goal was to make games as big a media as visual entertainment, or movies. That was how big we dreamed at the time. It seemed like an outrageous dream. What is so interesting now — some say Facebook will be a trillion-dollar company and Apple is thinking it can reach a billion customers and Google is targeting 2.5 billion users — is that people think 100 million is a niche market on the web. When we started, 1 million was a mass market and 100,000 was a success for a game audience. These companies like Amazon and Facebook and Zynga and Google are so huge.
VB: CityVille should cross over 100 million users today.
BG: It just keeps on getting bigger. The speed with which things grow constantly surprises me. Mark Pincus talks about mass markets that are much bigger. At Zynga, we have educated each other along the way. He says he played video games as a kid. But the market was small. He wants everybody. Games are not quite at ubiquity, but almost. It’s like the social equivalent of texting. Once you find out that someone likes a certain game on Facebook, now you know what kind of virtual gift you can get them.You can send them a little decoration. Social games give you goals where you can help and reward your friends. I think that may make the next 25 years of games even bigger. Games are becoming like a social lingua franca. They aren’t just an escape for some people. They are so big and that still surprises me.
VB: And just how big will they get?
BG: We used to talk about the trade-offs when massively multiplayer online games were getting started. This is relevant to the upcoming Star Wars MMO, in terms of time versus intensity. You knew you could get 25 million people to commit the time to watch Star Wars, the movie. You could get 2 million people to buy a Star Wars boxed video game. And maybe you could get 200,000 people to play the Star Wars MMO and put a lot of time into it. Now we are seeing entertainment properties that can get 100 million users. CityVille has gotten it in less than a couple of months, and doing it by giving more rewards. Games are a metaphor for a social lingua franca.
VB: How did you manage to get a front seat for this revolution, for the second time?
BG: You are a pioneer and a visionary because you bet your career on writing about video games. The 1980s was a time of the great recession of interactive entertainment. When Atari fell in 1982, until Nintendo launched its console, video games were an outcast for five years. We were the goats of the entertainment business. You had to be contrarian and thick-skinned to be in the game business. With social games, you also had to have a thick skin. A few years ago, a lot of gamers despised social games. It was never as bad as the 1980s in terms of the disregard for games as a legitimate business. But it was still contrarian. It’s always nice to overcome that.
VB: When you left EA, did you get a lot of people ask you about why you would do that? Why would you leave a company that was at the top?
BG: I got it in my own household. My kids grew up feeling like their dad was a hero because he worked at EA and got them a backstage pass. They were distraught because it undermined their identity. But kids are resilient and they figured out they still have an identity. They couldn’t see the next Sims or play the new Rock Band. It was like having a dad who runs Disneyland.
VB: What did you say?
BG: To my own family, I said I had made my decision and I hope some day you like it. The friends came in. It was never that they were going to these new games. It was more like they were leaving behind the old games. Someone like Brian Reynolds at Big Huge Games found that they couldn’t afford to do what they wanted to build anymore. I started my conversation with Reynolds by playing a Zynga game with him. We rekindled our friendship playing games. It was like the 1980s. You didn’t hire recruiters to be part of it. You found people who made their way to mobile and social.
VB: Along the way, it must have gotten easier to recruit people. You could say that you can write some code and millions of people would use it tomorrow in your game.
BG: Brian Reynolds figured that out early on. With FrontierVille, he found that more people had played that one game than all of his other games put together. Oh my god. There is something heady about that. Brian said it reminded him of the old days, when he wrote 5,000 lines of code, prototyped something, and then he starts trying it out. In the traditional games, it got so big that he would design a game, hand it over to 25 artists, and then wouldn’t be able to test it for a year until they finished their work. Zynga felt like a return to earlier games for him. At Ngmoco, you could create a game and test it in Canada, where you could get feedback from 10,000 people. We have a faster turnaround, broader scale, and it’s a lot fun. It’s like the games meet the web.
VB: How did you get the discipline to focus on the right couple of game start-ups and focus only on them?
BG: The games business is about betting on people. I was betting on John Schappert (now No.2 at EA) when others at EA were dismissing him. Or betting on Don Mattrick (head of Microsoft’s game business) when some people thought he should leave. Or betting on Neil Young (CEO of Ngmoco) when people thought he was a failure with his Majestic game. That’s what it felt like to me. I was confident in the macro. But I have often been wrong about big changes about half the time. I thought interactive movies would be big and they weren’t. I dismissed the Wii. But I was right about EA Sports as a franchise or The Sims as a franchise. But with people, I knew that Neil and Mark Pincus would do great things. I have confidence in my ability to smell out talent based on micro moments, like how they behave with a team, how they explain their vision, what their passions are, who believes in them, the long-term relationships they have. and how they think through a problem. You find the most fascinating people to work with and pedal as fast as you can.
VB: Why didn’t you spray a lot of money out to a lot of companies?
BG: I take pride in making a difference for people. It feels like when you raise a family, you don’t have 100 children. I try to make a contribution. You could write 100 times as many things, but you make a choice about how many things you want to be involved in. It’s not an analytics-based strategy. As long as your results are good enough, you can focus. I want an emotional contract with a great leader and I want to deliver value to them.
VB: What do you like going forward?
BG: We started our sFund at Kleiner Perkins. The reinvention of the internet around people is wildly fascinating. In the history of Moore’s Law, it’s always been valuable to watch the habits of young people. Look at user behavior. We have a generation growing up that will never use land lines. They prefer text messages to voice. They prefer multitasking. They have a heads-up display for life. I find exploring that wildly interesting. I have the heart of a marketing person. I love where the rubber meets the road on purchase decisions. There’s virtual goods and e-commerce. There is a potential for games to be so compelling that they help cement friendships. Social, commerce and entertainment is our focus. At some point, part of you says you have to meet these people. You feel like you are in the middle of something really cool, like when you were watching the Xbox guys and they were starting something big. It’s so cool to be where we are right now.
VB: Do you feel like it is a Gold Rush?
BG: You get to hang out with nationally known figures, like the leaders of Facebook or Amazon. You feel like they’re really fascinating people. Games are in the center of the universe right now. In the late 1980s, games were supposed to be the onramp to the information superhighway, as they called the internet back then. It never really happened. They were more like an offramp. Now we are seeing maybe that promise of 20 years ago that games are an onramp. They are a reason to get the internet, or to have an iPhone or to get on Facebook.
VB: Every now and then people say games have reached a peak. You don’t think that is true?
BG: Hah. In 1995, I thought we had reached a peak with games. Casual games started to work out. The Sims was coming. We would soon have 50 year olds playing games. It never occurred to me then that there was another two times to four times growth in the game audience. It was like it never occurred to me there might be a company more important than Google. Or, back in the 1990s, it never occurred to me there would be a company more important than Microsoft. That’s the miracle of the internet. Games are so strategic now that game people get to hang out with the people who are the leaders of the technology industry. They have a lot of respect. If you look at China, Tencent has so much stature there because of games.
VB: Do you see EA as being a big part of this still?
BG: In any business that grows big on one business model, transitions can throw everything in the air. I used to say at EA that transitions were our friends. We grew market share through every market transition over two decades. It was people driven. They took risks. They were some of the best and brightest people. EA still has that. The future is in EA’s hands. It’s pretty hard to predict.
VB: Game designers like Sid Meier are making this transition. He is designing Civilization World for Facebook. What are their chances?
BG: I haven’t talked to Sid. He is an amazing talent. He could make great games with anything. Will Wright could entertain you with a spreadsheet. Packaged video games are now kind of like special effects movies. Social games are more like the Blair Witch Project. They have lower production values, but the story and the characters carry the day. Is that going to last forever? No. But I think Sid is so spectacular that anything he does needs to be played. Even his old dinosaur game that got canceled.
VB: Do you think Facebook games are at the AAA quality level?
BG: They are not AAA quality right now. It’s more like the early days of PC games. Developers are making animations happen on a system that was designed to show bar charts. They have to trick the system. Facebook is not designed to be an interactive app host. There is still some awkwardness to it. At the same time, the scale is huge and the pace of change is fast. It’s harder to make AAA games in this environment. High quality means more like a faster loading game on Facebook.
[Homepage photo: Joi Ito]