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Fortis, a new video game company started by former Warner Bros. gaming leader Steve Chiang, is debuting today with backing from Las Vegas Sands.
The San Francisco company has already acquired three game studios and has more than 150 people, and it is headed by president Chiang, the former executive vice president of worldwide studios for WB Games.
Chiang’s decision to start fresh at a new game studio is a sign of the times, where veterans of gaming are opting for freedom and a fresh supply of funds from investors who now see the power of games. In this case, the money comes from Las Vegas Sands, a company started by Sheldon Adelson (now deceased) and known as the creator of the Venetian Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. Last year, the Las Vegas Sands sold the Venetian resort for $6.25 billion, and it is now diversifying into new kinds of investments like games.
In an interview with GamesBeat, Chiang said he was happy with the partner because it isn’t focused on niche games like social casino games or gambling apps. Rather, he said Las Vegas Sands wants Fortis to go after the broader gaming market and invest heavily in high-quality titles.
As part of its long-term strategy, Fortis has been building its team through acquisitions and hiring globally. The company has recently acquired three development teams: Doppio Games, in Portugal; Oktagon Games in Brazil, and Metagame in Romania.
“At Sands, we believe interactive entertainment is the world’s most accessible medium to provide people with fun and rewarding social experiences, and we see video games as becoming a core pillar as we diversify our business,” said Patrick Dumont, Las Vegas Sands president, in a statement. “As a group of entrepreneurs and executives from some of the most impactful companies in interactive entertainment, the leadership team at Fortis brings together the right talent and experience to create a new kind of game company built from the ground up for a new era. We are prepared to invest at scale for the long-term to help Fortis breakthrough as a company of consequence.”
Fortis is building a global developer and publisher, with a leadership team of entrepreneurs and executives from Electronic Arts, WB Games, Zynga, Smule and more. Fortis plans to triple in size in the next year. Fortis is a wholly-owned subsidiary of publicly traded resort developer Las Vegas Sands. Gaming is an interesting diversification for Sands since casinos have been hurt hard during the pandemic and digital gaming has grown by contrast.
“Sands is very aligned with us,” Chiang said. “I don’t want to just make casino games, and so that is not part of our charter. Our charter is to go after the broader games business.”
The founding team includes Chiang, president; Shawn Foust, Fortis’s chief operating officer and a former WB Game executive and Plexchat CEO; and Calvin Lau, a former lead designer on multiple top-grossing games who is serving as the company’s chief product officer.
Chiang didn’t say exactly why he left Warner Bros., which has huge game properties from Shadow of Mordor to Harry Potter. But he did say that you can’t always have the most creative freedom in large companies. That is something he is looking forward to at Fortis.
Fortis will focus on creating the next generation of the video games as service model, pushing forward game design and social mechanics to enable digital societies and enduring group experiences that foster relationships and memories.
The founders believe online social experiences can be more positive and meaningful, and that games can become the primary form of social entertainment. Fortis games will bring deep social play to a diverse set of titles across new and under-explored genres in the current landscape.
As for the three studios, Chiang said they aren’t going to work separately on three separate games. They are going to be prototyping, but Chiang believes the studios will be working together on various projects. In other words, this isn’t a rollup of a bunch of game studios that will operate separately.
Building from the ground up
Chiang is a lifer.
“I’ve been been a gamer all my life since elementary school, and my whole career has been in games,” Chiang said. “I’ve seen every transition from cartridges to CDs, platform change after platform change, non-connected consoles to always-connected, live updates from single player, local multiplayer, massively multiplayer, and business model shifts from triple-A premium to free to play.”
Chiang left Electronic Arts and went to Zynga in 2010 on the basis of his belief in games-as-a-service and free-to-play as the business model of the future that could attract broad markets.
“It’s been over a decade of free-to-play, but it still feels like we’re in the very early stages of this game-as-a-service and free-to-play model,” Chiang said. “At a macro level, our goal is to really create the next generation of game services, built on social, creating meaningful social communities that people belong to.”
Chiang also said he loves building great teams.
“We’ve seen a lot of change the last two years of going all remote and creating strong teams, and this remote environment is very different,” he said. “It’s one thing if you’re like going remote with an existing studio. But building teams that have never worked together, maybe even never met personally, has the challenge of building that trust and engagement.”
So Chiang said it felt it was time to build a new company from the ground up, addressing new problems on how to build strong teams and support them. The goal is to become a top game company by building great teams.
As for WB, Chiang said his experience was great building titles like the top-grossing Game of Thrones: Conquest mobile game, and acquiring the game that became Golf Clash.
“For me, it was a little bit more about getting back to a smaller company,” he said. “When you’re in these large companies, there’s just a lot of change. You’re getting acquired by AT&T and there are just different things that affect games. Having more control and agency is what the next chapter was about.”
Chiang acknowledged that the hiring market is super competitive, with companies like Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta out hiring folks to build the metaverse and game companies expanding with a lot of new investment money. That is one reason why Fortis acquired three studios at the outset.
“We’re competitive in terms of just the overall market,” Chiang said. “We’re not turning the crank. We now have a blank canvas.”
Fortis is Latin for “brave,” and Chiang wants to innovate and bring differentiation to “responsive worlds,” or the idea that the games you play will be deep enough to create social moments.
The company will focus on both mobile and web technologies and eventually move to broader platforms.
As for nonfungible tokens (NFTs), he said the company is watching the trends. But the real goal is to “build these responsive worlds,” Chiang said.
He also noted that he believed Las Vegas Sands will be good as a long-term investor, in contrast to gaming venture capital funds that might be on a shorter timetable for getting returns. In those environments, Chiang said “you’re always raising, you’re always selling to get to the next round.”
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