PopRox Entertainment

Mike Gramling, the chief executive of PopRox Entertainment, knows what it’s like to have a house “under water,” where it is worth less than the mortgage owed on it. That’s why he built his startups and his new game, Race 4 My Place, which debuts today. The effort allows you to compete with others to create a simulated city and win prizes, including $200,000 that a winner can use to pay off a mortgage.

The Austin, Texas-based company believes the free, Facebook- and Web-based title will draw interest from people who want to play a fun, casual game that also gives them a chance to get a significant reward in real life.

“Gaming can be more than just earning another virtual plow,” Gramling said in an interview with GamesBeat.

A decade ago, Gramling was a real-estate investor and home builder. In 2006, when real estate crashed, he had two properties that were worth half the value that he bought them at. He thought about creating a skill-based online game that would allow people to legally compete for cash prizes. During that time of experimentation, he heard from other people about what a crushing burden it is to have a mortgage you cannot pay off. By 2009, he decided to create the social experience. By 2011, he formally incorporated his company and began full development this year. He planned on creating a game with the grand prize of paying off a mortgage, up to $200,000, or giving away $100,000 in cash instead.

“We wanted to give people tangible, real-world prizes that could impact their lives,” he said. “We want to do something that is socially responsible.”

The company plans to make money through branded sponsorships. Deals are pending. Race 4 My Place is a resource-management title, sort of like SimCity or CityVille. In the game, you build up your city and have to erect the Hollywood sign. PopRox will award the grand prize on April 19. In the meantime, players have received other smaller prizes such as iPads. The game has gained 10,000 fans without any promotion and has awarded $4,000.

PopRox has fewer than 50 employees, and it is working with development teams in Poland, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Rivals include Zynga, Electronic Arts, and other makers of city-building social games. The firm has not disclosed its funding.