Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Interview with Greg Borrud, Seismic Games
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
How do you take what you've learned, having been part of the growth and creation of the traditional, videogame industry, and apply that to the new world of social games? That's what Los Angeles-based Seismic Games (www.seismicgames.com) is looking to figure out, headed by Greg Borrud, Eric Gewirtz, and Chris Miller. We caught up with Greg Borrud, formerly the co-founder of Pandemic Games, to hear more about what Seismic is up to. Seismic is venture backed by DFJ Frontier and venture capitalist Tom Matlac.
Greg, thanks for talking with us today. Tell us a little bit about Seismic?
Greg Borrud: We started Seismic about a year ago. All three of us have been working together for quite awhile, since Activision, fifteen or sixteen years ago. We started in the traditional game industry, and saw the industry grow from video games as a niche industry, to basically everyone playing video games at some part of their lives. You now have kids, students, parents, and even grandparents who have video games as part of their daily life. Because of that, we were excited to start a new company, focused on one aspect of social gaming, on Facebook.
What made you decide to focus on the social gaming opportunity?
Greg Borrud: We'd done quite a bit in the traditional gaming space, and seen the industry grow. But, it now has grown so much that innovation there is very challenging to do. It's mostly incremental innovation, such as creating the third or fourth, or even fifth iteration of a very popular game. At our core, game designers love to come up with something really compelling, to create a great piece of entertainment, and try new things. Trying to do that in the traditional game space, with a $30 million, $40 million, or $50 million dollars budget is really challenging. Companies are incredibly risk adverse, for good reason.
However, if you look at the social gaming side, things are much more reasonable. The audience is completely new, and they have very little expectation. So, we saw the opportunity to work our game design skills, to try something new, and take on a few new risks, and hopefully break into the market with something new and fresh. That's one of the things that really excited us about the space. It reminds us of the traditional gaming space of the mid 90's, full of innovation and new opportunity. Ironically, we have not seen as much innovation as you'd expect to see in the social gaming market, because even though the budgets are relatively low and you can still turn out new product in a short amount of time, the industry has fallen into a big "me too" product cycle. We're not sure why that happened, but we're surprised by the lack of new games and new innovation happening. We're hoping to bring something new and fresh, and others are doing the exact same thing.
Why are social game makers already in a rut?
Greg Borrud: I think the social games industry has been growing up at light speed. Where it might have taken the video game industry ten, fifteen, or maybe even twenty years to mature, the social games area has matured in a couple of years. I think the rapid growth has perhaps led to risk aversion. We think, though, if you take everything we've learned from developing video games over the last fifteen years, and combine that with development in the social gaming space over the last couple of years, combine that with traditional storytelling and character development, you'll start to see more entertaining things. I think if you find the right hybrid of crossing those two elements, you'll be able to create some sort of new gaming genre.
Our focus on that is through a couple of things. One, is we believe firmly that the focus should be on characters, because character-based games are more compelling. If you look at the mid 90's, there were the same kind of games you see now on social, such as building games like SimCity and Civilization. But, those evolved and focused on characters, which caused the whole industry to grow. If SimCity was popular, when you took it to the Sims, it became a phenomenon. I think the same thing is happening or will happen in social gaming. Farmvile, Cityville, and other world building games are great, but I think people will want more, such as games focused on building their own characters, social relationships around those characters, and customization.
Also, there's a couple of things that social games can do that no one else can do, such as focus on real time content. Because we're constantly connected to the web, we can change the game, literally, daily. While developers like Zynga are using that to manipulate the games to maximize monetization, we think we can also do it to enhance the timeliness of the games. If something happens in the real world, how do you take that real world, and tie it into the game the next day? Ripped-from-the-headlines gaming is something no one had talked about much, but in Facebook, that's absolutely something you can take advantage of. The other thing, is user generated content. Lots of what people like to do, is express themselves on the web. Another big feature we're focusing on, is on giving tools to users, and fun things they can do, so they can create their own thing, share it, and compare it with their friends. More than visiting each others' farms and cities, you can literally create some kind of entertainment, along the lines of YouTube, and share that with your friends. Those are the kinds of innovations we're trying to focus on, combining the learning we gained over fifteen to twenty years with lots of the new develops we've seen over the last few years.
Are you Facebook only, or does it go beyond that?
Greg Borrud: We've always developed with cross platform in mind. We've tried to do that, moving from PC, to Xbox, to Playstation, and developed our code the same way. Keeping that in mind, the company is singularly focused on the Facebook platform now. Facebook has hundreds of millions of users. If we're able to tap into that audience successfully, we've got something. To take that to multiple platforms should be relatively easy. Certainly, we will be moving to mobile and tablet in the future, and our technology is built to do that, but philosophically, we're very focused on Facebook.
As someone who has been in the industry for a long time, were you surprised by the sudden surge in the social gaming market?
Greg Borrud: It was a little bit of a surprise, but not entirely. I remember at EA, there were discussions where you could see the seeds of this being planted. I remember John Riccitello, the CEO of EA, talking about the move to digital entertainment, and being able to have a more direct communication with the consumer for a while. Valve Entertainment was talking about video games as a service, not as a boxed product. These conversations were happening in the traditional game market, but the problem is that the companies have become so big, the infrastructure is so large, it was really hard for them to able to adapt to what was happening. It took a new platform, Facebook, to get enough people together so that new companies would start adapting and doing new things, to really innovate on the social gaming side. There was a perfect storm of all those things coming together, a new audience, and ultimately tapping into a new demographic, which I think of as the audience which had been playing Minesweeper for 30 years, all of the sudden having this incredible world of entertainment opened up to them. So, there was an audience ready, Facebook had been created, and there were new companies who could adapt as fast as they needed to.
How soon will we see titles from you?
Greg Borrud: We'll be releasing in the next couple of months. We've tested our game internally, and will be doing closed external testing in the next few weeks. The nice thing about the social gaming space is going live is literally flipping a switch. There's no manufacturing, no retail space, and one thing we can do is ship the game when we're good and ready, and it's been tested and tweaked to where we want it to be. There's no exact timeframe, but it will be in the next one to two months. Even better, once we ship it, we don't forget about it. That's when the fun begins. The team will be fully engaged in conversations with our audience, adapting the game play, changing and modifying behavior, and play patterns depending on what people are doing.
It sounds like it's really a return to the roots of gaming?
Greg Borrud: It really is. It does fee likel that. We've got a small team, only 20 people instead of 200, and a small team which is really passionate about creating something they can share with people. It's completely reminiscent of that mid 90's PC market, with the difference that it's a rapidly difference audience, because we're developing for all types of game players, not just the hardcore, niche gamers.
Thanks, and good luck!