Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Announcing Spry Fox (my happy new company)

How do you change the world?  For me one of the brightest opportunities to have a meaningful impact is by creating games. Video games, board games, games inside name it.  We are living amidst an explosion of game innovation that will shape the very culture of our society. In the past 15 years, I've had the honor to work at some of the biggest companies in our industry and seen this opportunity growing.  And I'm humbled by the fact that well over 16 million unique players have been delighted by the games I've designed.  Averaging a million plus players a year is a good start.

Now it is time to push games even further. I’m pleased to formally announce the birth of Spry Fox, a new kind of game development studio that I’ve co-founded with my good friend, David Edery. The fearless Tom Buscaglia is our general counsel.

What do I mean by "new kind of game development studio?" Put simply: we focus on the business and design aspects of game development. We do not employ developers and we do not outsource. We create games by partnering with other talented individuals whose development abilities we respect, and everyone shares in the profit. In this regard, Spry Fox functions somewhat like a modern movie studio -- we form teams around a project that everyone is passionate about, and the team disbands when the project is done (or, in the case of a free-to-play game, when the projects stops generating meaningful revenue). With a bit of luck, a team will gel nicely and may reunite many times (ala a Kevin Smith production), but it isn’t strictly necessary. We work together on what we love, and we part ways when our interests diverge.

Such a system puts the incentives where they belong: the team is focused on making a great innovative game, not on compromising the soul of their idea (or the creators) to ensure the survival of the studio.

Game studios of this sort have been attempted in the past, but the most prominent attempts have focused on larger, more expensive projects, which plays against the strengths of the distributed model. More importantly, previous studios appear to have been fixated on the debatable benefits of "outsourcing," as opposed to building true partnerships with outside individuals and firms who are treated as integral to the creative process and who share in the profit. We believe that by building small, tightly-knit teams, we can make this work.

Most importantly, we have no interest in becoming yet another middleman in the increasingly crowded digital publishing space. When I am involved in a project, I play a major role in every aspect of a game’s design, including building the UI, architecting the major gameplay loops, fine tuning the balance, mentoring and directing the art production (when I don't just pop out the art myself.) When David is involved in a project, he is deeply involved in the design (particularly with an eye towards monetization systems), the in-game writing, and all aspects of the business including marketing and distribution. We are not publishers. We are co-creators.

Spry Fox is focused primarily on emerging opportunities in the digital game market. For now, this means two things: web-based free-to-play games for various demographics, and downloadable titles for emerging platforms like mobile. Our reasons for focusing on these two things are straightforward:
  • There are strategic benefits to focusing on under-served markets
  • As noted earlier, our development model likely works best with smaller teams
  • We don’t enjoy waiting two+ years to discover whether our game will resonate with fans or not.
Some of you might wonder if developing "web-based free-to-play games" qualifies as targeting an under-served market. I've written about this in the past and I’d argue that there is no opportunity more compelling at this moment in time. The ratio of quality content to potential consumers is vastly out of whack on the Web relative to the console ecosystem or the iPhone app market. Despite the fact that 99% of all Internet-enabled PCs have Flash installed, boasting an audience more than 10x the size of even the most popular game console, you can literally count on one hand the number of really good Flash-based F2P games in any particular genre. That's our kind of market.

Because our teams are (and will continue to be) relatively small, we need to focus on design methodologies that deliver the greatest amount of bang for the buck. That means user-generated content, procedurally generated content, and multiplayer mechanics that don't require a constant influx of expensive content. So that's exactly what we've started doing.
  • We’re building on my previous work with Andy Moore to create a bigger, more engaging, multiplayer version of Steambirds that will fully capitalize on that IP’s potential (with an intermediate version in the meanwhile).  Can we resurrect turn-based games for an entirely new generation of players?  Why not try?
  • We’re working with Andre Spierings to evolve the impossibly cute Bunni into the fully social experience we have always known it could be.  I've been immensely inspired by the vision of what Spore could have been. 
  • And we have two downloadable games and one exceedingly unusual flash MMOG in the works, (but unfortunately I can’t share any more information about those projects at this time!)
As these projects ramp up, I've been having immense amounts of fun doing some consulting across a large slice of the gaming universe (console games, f2p games, serious games, etc). Here I've again been partnering with David over at Fuzbi. Unfortunately, there is limited time to work with everyone, but I'm happy sharing my thoughts on design with forward-looking teams passionate about changing the world.

I can’t wait to share more with you all soon. Thanks for reading this post and for all your comments and encouragement in the past. And if you think you'd like to work with Spry Fox (or Fuzbi), don't hesitate to drop me a line. We're more than a little busy right now, but the future is always just around the corner. :-)

take care,