Getting the best talent together is a good strategy in any market. Loot Drop, a new social game developer, is banking on that idea as it takes on the likes of Zynga, Disney, and Electronic Arts in Facebook games.
The San Mateo, Calif.-based company is unveiling its game plan today for making a splash in social games, which have been fueled by the rapid growth of Facebook past 600 million users. Loot Drop is assembling a small but talented team of famous game industry veterans who already have a lot of experience crossing the divide into social games. Their plan is to build a strong game development company that can publish games for multiple social game publishers.
The company’s leadership is impressive and includes Doom co-creators John Romero (pictured second from right) and Tom Hall (pictured right); veteran game designer Brenda Brathwaite (chief operating officer, pictured second from left), and Rob Sirotek (chief executive, pictured left). While there are lots of independent video game developers making games for Facebook, few have these kinds of veterans running them. We talked to them in an exclusive joint interview.
Loot Drop has funding from social game publisher RockYou, which will publish Romero’s first game in the coming months. The company has a total of 11 employees, including programmers who have decades of experience programming games. And while there are a lot of old timers in console video games who are thinking about making the leap into social games, each one of the design leaders at Loot Drop has already done that.
Rattling off the bios of these founders is like taking a walk through video game history. Hall will be the studio head and game designer at Loot Drop’s Austin, Texas studio. He has worked with Romero at places such as id Software and Ion Storm. Most recently he was an executive at KingsIsle Entertainment, maker of the popular Wizard 101 online virtual fantasy world that was inherently social from the start. Robert Sirotek, co-founder of Sir-Tech Software, will serve as chief executive of Loot Drop. Sirotek’s previous company released 138 games over 26 years, including Brathwaite’s Wizardry and Jagged Alliance series.
“I’ve had a chance to work with John several times and I jumped at the chance to do it again,” said Hall. “John’s genius is seeing the next thing. It’s an honor to work with Brenda too.”
Most recently, Romero made a spectacularly successful social game, Ravenwood Fair, for LOLApps. That game launched in October and turned out to be a big hit, with more than 11 million monthly active users. Romero said that whet his appetite for more. And Brathwaite spent the past year as creative director at LOLapps and worked on Ravenwood Fair with Romero. One of her games is being published soon by LOLapps, and she will now begin work on a new game for Loot Drop. Romero said his goal is to launch four Loot Drop games this year. The games will be published and marketed by other companies.
Third-party development deals are common in the traditional video game industry. But they aren’t so common in social games, or least they aren’t publicized that much. The industry is in its early stages and it hasn’t broken down into its areas of specialization yet. It’s still like the early PC industry, before it broke down into makers of hard drives, microprocessors, and software. Social gaming has grown up with publishers doing everything. As the industry evolves, the likely specialties include publisher, distributor, analytics firm, and developer. But Romero feels like the industry is mature enough to support an independent game development studio.
Romero is used to making bold bets, and sometimes he’s just a little too bold. He is now on his eighth video game startup. From id Software to Ion Storm, he had a lot of ups and downs. At id, Romero and co-founder John Carmack, Hall and others created some of the most legendary first-person shooter games in history, from Doom to Quake.
But the id team split asunder. Ion Storm (pictured, photo credit Salon) in particular, which Romero started with Hall, was an ambitious attempt (with admittedly too much machismo) to make game designers into the center of power in the industry. It was an outright attack on the system where publishers held most of the power. But after raising a lot of money, it crashed and burned, much to the delight of the gaming establishment. Ion Storm closed its doors in 2001.
After Ion Storm collapsed, Romero tried his hand at mobile games with Monkeystone Games, and he thrived in that environment for several years. He worked briefly at Midway Games and then shifted to massively multiplayer online games, starting Slipgate Ironworks, which became the core studio of Gazillion. That didn’t work out as planned, reminding Romero that big unwieldy teams aren’t easy to manage.
Then he moved over to LOLapps as a contract game designer to experiment with making a Facebook game. His title, Ravenwood Fair, was made in a few weeks by a team that had never made a game before and worked under his and Brathwaite’s direction. Once he got a feel for it, he decided to start his own company “because that’s what I’ve always done.” With this startup, he wanted to be sure to have creative control.
Moving with speed was important, Romero said, because “the game industry is dropping down on top of social.” Veterans are flooding into the new social game studios. Brathwaite says there’s a talent war on and her feeling is that the best strategy is to gather a “ninja strike team” together. When you do that, it’s important to treat game designers with respect, regarding them as talented artists rather than worker bees. One way to express that is to give them all credit in each game, she said. Often, social game companies don’t do that for fear that someone will steal away their talent, a practice that was common in the early days of gaming and which was hated by individual developers, Brathwaite said.
She says Loot Drop has a unique approach because it is a gathering of veterans who have already worked together many times and who have also succeeded in the new era of social games. Sirotek added that he has occasionally seen game developers get good at one kind of game and then fail to adapt to make the new kind of game when the industry changes. So developers have to spend time learning the new ways.
Romero said he has done that. And he said that the lesson of many of his past startups was that you should always work with small teams of seasoned people, not with huge teams. Each of the three teams at Loot Drop will start with a handful of people and grow to perhaps 10 or 11 each. As with Ion Storm, Romero’s view is that “design is law,” meaning the game designer is in charge and responsible for focusing on making the game fun. That means that commercial concerns, such as figuring out how to monetize a game, are secondary. Metrics, while important in the feedback loop of design, are also secondary to the designer’s instincts for what is fun and what is not.
“We don’t have a view of strip mining the players for cash,” Romero said, referring to the fact that many players spend lots of money buying virtual goods in social games. “When a player gives you money, you want them to feel good about giving you that money.”
That view is certain to be controversial. Social game leader Zynga has hired a lot of seasoned game designers — the big names include Brian Reynolds, Steve Chiang, Mark Skaggs and Bruce Shelley (a contractor). But it started out without a focus on traditional game design. Zynga was more like a web company that figured out how casual games could work on Facebook and how they could be improved by paying attention to metrics and then monetized through virtual goods. Romero didn’t single out Zynga as the enemy in an interview, but clearly Zynga’s approach to making games in its early stages is the antithesis of what Romero and his colleagues are saying is important now. For many in the industry, the early Zynga symbolized a lot that was wrong in the industry, for traditional game designers. For those who think that way, Zynga’s clash with the old game companies is a lot like the clash between the artists and the business people, or the developers and the marketers, in just about any game company.
Indeed, while the early Facebook games drew praise for the sheer numbers of players they could attract, the focus these days — with titles such as Zynga’s FrontierVille (designed by Reynolds) — is on engagement, or keeping players entertained with a game for a longer period of time. Brathwaite said many veterans have been encouraged by the success of FrontierVille, which has more than 19 million monthly active users on Facebook, as proof that game designers have a place in the social game market. That’s because FrontierVille is really the first of Zynga’s hit games to be critically acclaimed for its game design.
Of course, Loot Drop isn’t going to knock out Zynga, which has more than 267 million monthly active users on Facebook, with a few well-designed games. Zynga could even become a publisher of Loot Drop’s games, as Loot Drop’s relationship with RockYou is not exclusive. In fact, many independent game developers are moving into mobile games because they feel like Zynga — and a handful of other players such as CrowdStar, Electronic Arts, 6 Waves, and Playdom — have already won the lion’s share of the market. Those indie developers feel like the market is played out and it’s too hard to dislodge the leaders. Starting a social game company, they say, is as crazy as starting a console game company to take on Activision Blizzard and EA.
But Sirotek said that isn’t the case. He says the market is in such an early stage that anything can still happen. Social games can still be created in a matter of months with a very small but competent team. Richard Garriott, founder of social game startup Portalarium and the veteran creator of the Ultima series of games, feels the same way and is preparing to launch original games in direct battle with Zynga. Brathwaite says, “There is a ginormous fish in social games, but it’s a giant sea.”
Brathwaite says that the current market favors games that can be played in a lunch hour. She says she loves this time now because, for the first time in her decades-long career in games, she is part of the key demographic that consumes Facebook games, which is women in their 30s or older.
“I’m in the target market,” she said. “I am making games for my gender peers. This is the moment I have been waiting for.” Adds Romero, “We have satisfied hardcore gamers for decades. Now it’s time for the rest of the world. Our opportunity is to teach the rest of the world how to play games.” And Hall said, “My wife Terri is playing Ravenwood Fair and she has embraced it all the way. But she won’t admit she is a gamer. She just likes chopping down trees,” which is one of the main activities in the game.
Romero said the flowering of new game studios — which follows upon the layoffs and studio shutdowns at many big companies during the recession — reminds him of the days in the 1990s when many developer-powered studios were built. Today, there are a few strong game studios that Romero admires, such as Bonfire and Newtoy — both of which have been acquired by Zynga.
Romero says a lot of venture capitalists have come knocking on the company’s door already. He is taking meetings to get to know them. But Hall says that it makes more sense to build a real company with valuable assets first, rather than fund a new company that is nothing but fumes.
At the Game Developers Conference this week, Brathwaite will give a rant on the social game industry and its tensions with traditional game developers. Her message? “We’ve seen this all before and we have had so many shades of evil,” she said. “We are going in to do something right. We believe in fun. We want to make games fun. Some people call social games evil and [say] that they are ruining games. But that’s just judging the entire platform on a few games and one business model. We are going into this to pioneer a new platform.”