Eric Schiermeyer, the co-founder of Zynga and the analytics expert behind its success, has launched a new game studio called Luminary that is preparing to release its first genre-bending game.
The new title is Greedy Goblins, a mash-up of an endless runner combined with strategy where the goal is to send your goblin racing into a rival fortress and then steal as much gold as possible. Players can put obstructions in the goblins’ way and strike back with revenge attacks.
The game has a lot of potential, but so does the studio because of Schiermeyer’s own expertise in analytics and his attempt to marry that discipline with good game design. I interviewed Schiermeyer during a walk along the coastal trail in Half Moon Bay, Calif., where he frequently conducts his meetings.
“I find that you have much better meetings” within view of the breathtaking beaches and cliffs in the area, he said, exhaling a vapor mist.
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It was on those windy cliffs (and on beaches in Encinitas, Calif.) where Schiermeyer reflected on his experience at Zynga and decided that he wasn’t quite done with his contributions to games, technology, and building companies in Silicon Valley. And this time, he wants to create a company that is as significant as Zynga in the way that it is run but is also much smaller.
Schiermeyer, who was a founder of Intermix (which led to MySpace), was at the start of Zynga with co-founder Mark Pincus, the longtime chief executive who grew the company to more than 3,500 employees and a billion dollars in revenue. Pincus missed the transition to mobile in a big way, the company hit the skids, and he brought in new CEO Don Mattrick to turn things around. But for a number of years, Zynga pioneered its path in social games and had its competitors on the run.
At the beginning of Zynga, Schiermeyer set up the analytics to track everything that happened in a social game such as Zynga Poker. He ran into a lot of resistance from game designers, but he felt that the analytics would give the company a much more scientific way of absorbing consumer feedback and modifying the games so they were better.
That meant that analytics experts dubbed “product managers” would sit alongside the game designers and figure out how to refine the games so that they could constantly grow the number of users and improve monetization. The idea was controversial because some gamemakers didn’t want to bother with the analytics. They just wanted to ship the games out the door and move on.
Schiermeyer wanted to know what people liked about the games, and that meant the games had to have metrics, including unique users. That discipline helped a lot of games take off, but Schiermeyer felt it had went to an extreme. He felt that creativity and game design needed to have just as much sway in guiding the final product.
“It was pretty controversial, but Mark [Pincus] didn’t have any objections to it,” Schiermeyer said. “It was me that was forcing it to happen. When I was pushing it, I really pissed off a lot of people.”
When Zynga got to be huge, Schiermeyer decided he wasn’t having as much fun. He was frustrated with internal politics and working so hard to achieve results that didn’t satisfy. He left Zynga a few years ago and decompressed for a couple of years.
“That was my pattern with startups,” he said. “I’ll work really hard. And then I’ll need a long break to recharge. ”
He started Luminary last August with David Glenn, a former Zynga employee and former Blizzard Entertainment developer who was part of the team that built the successful Diablo II game; Amir Ebrahimi, a veteran of companies including Naughty Dog, Activision, and Unity Technologies; and Marco Rizzo, a financial expert who also makes games.
They are creating a game where you train different kinds of goblins and then use them to run into an enemy’s fortress and steal their gold. Then you run out and try to escape. Meanwhile, you build up your own fortress so it is harder for the enemies to steal your gold.
“It’s a finite runner,” Schiermeyer said. “We’re calling it a strategic runner.”
Schiermeyer wants players to care about completing their runs so much so they’ll be willing to spend money or some of their hard-earned resources.
“If you are going to spend money on something, I want it to be because you care so much,” Schiermeyer said.
The idea for the game, oddly enough, seems driven by creative game design more so than analytics. And Schiermeyer likes that because that is what he wants to see happen with the marriage of intuition and metrics.
Some of the innovations have less to do with the game than the company. The self-funded San Francisco-based studio has just seven employees, and that is intentional. Schiermeyer saw what happened at Zynga with stock options and wanted to get away from the traditional incentives that drive startups to become bigger and bigger at all costs. He wants his new studio to stay small and function with large-scale profit sharing.
“We have seen small teams do exceptionally well against large teams,” he said. “And this compensation structure is aligned with that. There are fewer people taking bites out of the pie, and the pie can be quite large. The idea is to immediately pay people out and not wait four years for them to vest.”
Rather than concentrate the rewards among just the founders, Schiermeyer wants everybody to have significant profit-sharing checks on a regular basis. If there are no profits to share, so be it. And when the team decide to hire someone, they will realize that the addition of one person will reduce the size of their profit sharing and perhaps think twice about it. And they won’t have to wait for years to see a potential payoff.
“This is my answer to what I was experiencing over there [at Zynga],” he said.
Schiermeyer doesn’t want his employees working so hard that they become sick or unhealthy. At Zynga, he argued for benefits like yoga classes and massages. He decided that a team with “good kung fu can kick ass” and deliver a game that makes it to the top-grossing mobile-games rankings.
And he wants the gamemakers to embrace both analytics and creative game design in a more balanced way. The game designer’s intuition was missing from his last job as game analytics experts worshipped their metrics in the same way that game designers worshipped their own intuition, Schiermeyer said.
“We wanted to do a game company right,” Schiermeyer said. “We aren’t rushing to clone something, be it a game or a company. Our founders have experienced many types of startups and established companies. We’ve learned a lot from those experiences, and this company is an answer.”
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