Nearly a decade ago, I took a leap to become one of the technical founders of a small company called NextGame — soon to emerge as iWin, Inc. What drove me was building innovative, quick-to-market experiments that:
- Involved play
- Told meaningful stories
- Connected people
I believed that if I could hit on those three key notes in innovative ways then the things I helped build could usher in an entirely new form of mass market entertainment. I honestly believed in the power of play and that iWin’s games could significantly ratchet up people’s overall sense of happiness and fulfillment by stimulating their imaginations while forming real relationships.
Over the years iWin pivoted from skill-based online games to a downloadable games to social games, from tournament-fee to in-game-ads to subscriptions. From Java to C++ to Flash. Working in conjunction with CJ Wolf, an imaginative, risk-taking, and market-savvy CEO, I spent most of my work days designing out “Version 1.0” products — coordinating talented teams of artists and engineers to take crazy ideas and, through a Frankenstein-like process of digital alchemy, make them live.
Some of the products I worked on failed miserably but most were viable little audience-builders and revenue-generators. A rare handful became big enough successes to spawn entirely new lines of business. But looking back, almost none of the products hit simultaneously on those three idealistic notes of Play, Story, and Connectivity.
When Facebook’s platform opened up and “social games” began to gain momentum two or so years ago I saw a glimmer of hope in bringing those three forces together. I felt excited and charged-up in a way I hadn’t been since those early iWin years. And the eventual revelation that the virtual goods model was actually pumping out some serious cash was icing on the cake.
One of the new social games I helped tickle into existence using duct tape, spit, and static electricity was a little nugget called Family Feud. It combined a fantastic, classic game show format (one that makes unread people feel like champions of trivia), a truly together-with-family-and-friends social brand, along with an original and meaningful viral hook. Tens of millions of players later, the game has done more than addicted a good chunk of Facebookies — it has become the focal point of iWin’s new strategy and I believe it will transform the company from a shrink-wrapped casual game publisher into a true contender in the social game — indeed, mass media — industry.
But an odd thing happened as a result of this success. My little “I-think-I-can” and “try a bit of this and a bit of that” company now needed discipline, focus… coordination. There was no longer a strong need for the mad scientist. The disruptor in me had to constantly bite his tongue and let the talented game-devs around me dig foundations deep and skyscrapers high.
Now… to digress a bit… an inspirational American businessman I hold in great esteem is George Washington Carver. Before Carver came on the scene, Southern agriculture was basically monoculture — that is, focusing only on one crop: Cotton. Other crops were considered bad business.
Against all odds for a man of his skin color, this “Black Leonardo” combined his skills in scientific invention, hucksterism, agricultural engineering, and art to develop, teach, and build upon practical uses for peanuts, soybeans, pecans, and sweet potatoes. By understanding every aspect of numerous industrial processes he was able to combine wasteful by-products into hot new commodities. His vision ultimately expanded the overall economy and helped impoverished farmers grow more varieties. This meant families could rotate their fields to keep soil fertile, avoid catastrophe by relying on just one source of income, and overall break the downward cycle of cotton dependency. More to the point, Carver helped jolt the world awake with instant coffee and he spread mainstream the perfect, chunky deliciousness of peanut butter.
I don’t claim to be even a tiny peanut-shell-scrap of the man that George Washington Carver was, but I have had some success at shaking up monocultures and turning crap crop to peanut butter.
Enter into the story another American businessman I have long admired: One Trip Hawkins, the CEO of Digital Chocolate, founder of EA, and about as close as you can get to a real-life Video Game Titan. Trip and I occasionally bumped into each other throughout the years and had brief but deep chats about the directions of our respective companies, where the markets were going, and the pros and cons of various emerging platforms. Talk with him long enough and you’ll see that Trip is indeed an apt nickname. He’s got some Ideas with the capital-I.
The last time Trip and I met we were both in good moods. Much like iWin, Digital Chocolate has had an amazingly successful year due in large part to their own Facebook games such as Millionaire City. But Trip then spun a compelling tale about Digital Chocolate’s direction: A story that involved not just entrenching and building off their social game momentum but pulling back a bit, looking future-ward, and thinking through bigger, badder, gapless ways that social networks, smartphones, TV, and the wider web itself can work in concert to give the world broader connected gameplay and deeper story.
And so… Peanut Butter… meet Chocolate.
As of November 1st, I will jump aboard as Digital Chocolate’s VP of New Platform Development. I’ll work with Trip and his world-class and world-strewn team, researching, interconnecting, and building upon cutting-edge game mechanics, business models, and technologies.
I’m certain it will be an unrivaled, and utterly delicious, education.