Photo: Seismic Games
Most social game companies want to you to spam your friends’ with invitations and requests for help as their way of “sharing content.”Except Seismic Games, a new startup that just came out of stealth mode today and raised $2 million. It wants to make games with a whole load of user-generated content.
No, that doesn’t mean painting a shovel or building a farm. Instead, Seismic’s games will have content you can “share like a YouTube video,” Seismic Games CEO Greg Borrud said.
We spoke with Borrud, a nearly 20-year veteran of the gaming industry, to find out what the company is doing. Here’s what we learned:
- Social gaming is evolving the same way traditional console games evolved 15 to 20 years ago. The biggest fish are going public, while the rest are getting gobbled up by existing companies. Eventually, the bigger companies in social gaming will start publishing third-party games instead of acquiring studios for new games.
- Seismic Games raised a $2 million seed round in four months and assembled a full development team in even less time. Now it’s just adding testers and getting ready to launch their first game.
- The founders are no slouches. Greg Borrud grew Pandemic from a studio of 13 to a team of more than 500 after its acquisition by Elevation Partners and eventual merger with BioWare.
- Amazon’s uptime actually isn’t good enough for social games, in Borrud’s opinion. The company went with Rackspace, not because of cost, but for stability reasons. They’ll be switching to an internal infrastructure eventually, though.
- Real-time content and user-generated content will dominate Seismic’s games. That means if you see something in the news one day, you’ll probably see it in one of Seismic’s games the next day. That also means Seismic’s games will have some elements that you will share like a YouTube video, though Borrud wouldn’t elaborate any further than that.
Here’s the full interview:
BUSINESS INSIDER: So tell us a little bit about the company.
Greg Borrud: We’re all people who have worked in the traditional game space and have seen the whole evolution of the space. We’ve seen a bit of a replay of the industry with social games and are wondering how we can make our mark and take a benefit of what we’ve learned in the past 15-20 years from experience.
We were all at Activision in the early days, Bobby Kotick starting over again. I spun out with a couple partners to form Pandemic studios, and a year or two we brought in Giz (Gerwitz) as the creative director. He was one of our head creative folks at Pandemic Studios. This was all before Pandemic merged with BioWare (which is one of Electronic Arts’ top game development studio).
We were excited about going after an audience outside of 25-year-old guys, going to women and older folks and younger folks. The console space had been trying to break the cycle of $60 box products and it’s really challenging to do when you have that deep investment. In the social gaming space, you’re able to be much more agile and move in. Zynga and Kabam and Playfish have perfected this model.
The other thing we were excited about was just the opportunity for experimentation. We love making games and experimenting and trying new things. It’s difficult to experiment when you’re spending $30 to $40 million on a product. In the social gaming space you can try a lot more and you have a conversation with your audience. You can see how they respond and make changes. That’s something that’s really compelling to game designers and compels us to take risks and move the genres forward.
BI: What kind of experience does the team have?
GB: Our core influences are from consoles and traditional console gaming. A number of us are Pandemic guys. I am, Giz is, several employees are. (President Chris) Miller was on the publishing side at Vivendi. A number of our flash engineers and artists come from the social gaming space. We just hired a bunch of folks from Meteor Games, but no one here has ever worked at Zynga.We have 23 employees and we draw from a lot of our experience with outsourcing, and we outsource a decent amount of art as well. We launched in January last year and we started hiring in April. We were fully staffed by May or June and now we’re growing because we’re adding testers and some supplemental art folks.
Honestly the story is very similar to this one at the beginning of Pandemic, we were 13 people when we started Pandemic in a warehouse in Santa Monica. In 2005 we ware acquired by Elevation partners and put together with BioWare and sold to EA in 2007. I saw the whole phase of growing Pandemic from a small company to a company of 500 people going through the acquisitions and joining up with BioWare. It was an incredible learning experience as we looked through the last year.
BI: How are you different from the Zyngas and the Playfishes of the world?
GB: We want to create a hybrid model here. It takes the best of what we’ve learned making traditional console games, which focus on story and entertainment, and marry that with analytics that have flourished at Zynga and Kabam. We want to create a gameplay experience that’s highly addictive and also highly entertaining. We’ve found some of these games are highly addictive but you don’t really brag to your friends.
We’re obviously not the only ones, there’s a bunch of developers that are gonna be trying to push the genres forward. We see the Zynga IPO as the end of the first wave of social gaming, the model is really well defined and perfected. Now is the time for the new companies to take the model into the next generation of social gaming.
The first thing is to understand our audience, which isn’t a traditional core gamer. Our game experience is gonna be somewhere in the middle, something like Sims Social. We think they’ve done a great job, and we knew they would because they nailed the Sims, focusing on character. I think that’s the kind of game you’re looking at. It’s not a CastleVille but it’s not Diablo. There’s definitely opportunities for a lot of new experimentation and a lot of new types of games.
BI: Can you give us some examples of this “experimentation?”
GB: Beyond the character and the customisation focus we want to have, some games are doing that, there’s a couple things. One is on user-generated content. There’s some of this that happens in social games, but this is a real opportunity. People like to reflect what they’re creating, so we want to give them a playground of toys to play with and put together in different ways and share those things. We’re not making a world-building game, it’s not the layout of my farm or city. It goes way deeper.
It’s really about putting something together that you would post on YouTube, something you would share with your friends. You creating your own expression of yourself and your sense of humour and your style and incorporating your friends and characters and sharing it out with someone. It’s not about creating shovels or different kinds of crops, it’s something more akin to a YouTube video. It’s exactly what Facebook’s about — it’s about user-generated content. It’s about being in touch with everyone.
We’re also focused on real-time content. One thing that’s great is you don’t put it in a box and fire and forget it. A lot of folks have used this to adapt the game design post-launch. Our goal is to blend the real world with the virtual world, create a rip from the headlines feel and constantly change the game every day. If something happens in the real world, we want people to log in and see it reflected in the game. We think that will create something that’s very compelling and constantly new and fresh. You can take full advantage of that in social games.
BI: Just Facebook? Or do you want to work on multiple platforms?
GB: We’re very focused on nailing Facebook, they have tremendous audience and incredible structure. Once we feel comfortable with that, we’ve built the technology to move it onto other platforms like Google+ and other social networks. Then mobile, that’ll be a big push for us. But we don’t want to just port it to mobile devices, we want to make the play style really focused on the best experience for mobile. If we do all that at once, we’ll spread ourselves too thin.
We’re building basically everything internally here. Our services will be managed on external servers, pretty much everyone else does that in the beginning. Once we build our own infrastructure we’ll get there. We’re using Rackspace right now, but our technical lead has a major back-end infrastructure financial services background. He’s very good at understanding scalability and security and all those wonderful things.
The uptime promises of Rackspace are better than Amazon. In this world it’s about being uptime, it’s critical. That’s been the main reason, there are a couple other reasons as well, it’s not a cost thing.
BI: Is that what the funding is for? Saw you guys announced you raised $2 million.GB: We started raising money about a year ago and we had an idea of what it was gonna take to build our first product. Through the course of raising money we probably doubled that amount to make sure we weren’t too conservative. It’s a Series A round — but really it’s a seed round, the round was structured more like a Series A. It’s really our startup costs to develop our first product and do some basic marketing.
As a seed round we were effectively looking for a lead angel and the person we were introduced to was a guy named Tom Matlack, a Boston-based investor. He signed on and from there we added a number of other angels in Los Angeles that have a lot of connections in the entertainment business. Once we had the lead angel on board, literally within a week or two we were introduced in DFJ Frontier (Seismic Games’ other investor) through an agent in Creative Artists Agency.
We started making the rounds in January last year and we closed on April 15. It was a little more than 4 months going from the first conversation to closing. Matlack has done some investing in the games space, mostly on the publishing side. He was looking for an opportunity to get into the space and we were introduced through our lawyer at Shepherd Mullen. We talked to Tom and we hit it off right away, he had the right attitude. It was one of these great meetings and we had several conversations after that.
BI: Are you guys considering third-party publishing?
GB: We’re not focused on third-party publshing right now, but we are certainly building a platform for that in the future. We want to focus on our first product and our first platform on Facebook. Growth is gonna come from expanding on other platforms and mobile. We have our next four or five games lined up. It’s not a focus on day one, we want to make sure we establish our first games.
I think you’re going to start to see the Zyngas of the world start to do more publishing. It happened with traditional console game developers. You’ll see the big players publish games without just outright acquisition. It’s the way to compete, it’s about having a slate of products that you’re able to move users between.
We think we can do a decent amount of that on our own with our own development resources. That said if there’s a team out there that’s perfectly in mind with our audience, that is absolutely the growth trajectory of our company and that’s definitely something we might do. We want to establish ourselves first and foremost as a top-notch game developer
BI: What does your release schedule look like?
GB: We’ll definitely have one coming out this year. We could have more than one, it depends on how we go with our first product, do we continue to build onto our first product or move onto the second or third one. The plan is to release multiple products this year. The development cycle is somewhere between six and nine months.