Charles River Ventures Offers Startup Support at Game Developers Conference
Look for Boston’s video-gaming community to transplant itself en masse to San Francisco next week for CMP Media’s Game Developers Conference (GDC), which, for gaming industry professionals, is like the Consumer Electronics Show and MacWorld and the Olympics wrapped into one. This year there’s a new option on the GDC agenda for budding gaming entrepreneurs: a special series of sessions called Startup Launchpad, sponsored by Waltham’s Charles River Ventures.
Charles River probably directs more money and expertise toward the gaming industry than any other Boston venture firm, and the Startup Launchpad organizer, CRV principal Susan Wu (herself a fiercesome gamer, we hear), is the company’s point person for the gaming industry. Wu, who’s based at CRV’s Menlo Park office, says the firm’s goal in putting together the Launchpad is to “revolutionize the gaming business from the grassroots level” by helping independent developers (and those aspiring to be independent but trapped inside large game studios) explore starting their own companies.
One of the sessions will be devoted to the ins and outs and raising venture capital (and will include local entrepreneur Nabeel Hyatt, founder of CRV-funded Conduit Labs), while another will focus on “Lessons from the Front Lines”—gaming company CEOs’ stories of the obstacles they overcame (or didn’t). GDC and CRV also plan to kick off a business plan competition for gaming entrepreneurs, with applications due starting in May and the first round of winners announced in September at the Austin, TX version of GDC.
I spoke with Susan about the Launchpad track yesterday afternoon.
Xconomy: What are you hoping to accomplish with the Startup Launchpad?
Susan Wu: I was essentially just trying to find ways to encourage more innovation in the gaming industry. There is a strong entrepreneurship support network in the Web industry but there is really no parallel in the gaming industry. Most of the game designers I know complain constantly about working conditions at the large studios. But there is an exciting opportunity right now for them to start new companies of their own and take more control over their careers. I thought, why not bring some of the entrepreneurship resources that exist in the Web industry to the gaming community?
X: You’re talking about the opportunity presented by casual games, Internet-based games, right? Not the big games like Bioshock that still take huge studios like 2K Boston years to produce.
SW: Right. I think the big trend we’re observing in the social media and social entertainment space is that there is a plethora of platforms opening up, from the Xbox Live Arcade to Facebook, that make it easier for independent developers to earn revenue streams from their applications. Also, customers are becoming much more accustomed to consuming interactive content online and in Web channels. So there is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to build for new platforms that are not chained to the old revenue models.
Club Penguin is a great example. It was started by people who were not traditional game developers, but worked out of a small Flash studio in Kelowna, British Columbia, and the reason they were able to grow so quickly and so successfully is that they got carried on Miniclip.com—an online distribution channel. So they didn’t have to go through the traditional channels to get their content into the hands of kids. That kind of innovation is only going to increase. I see in the next two to five years a major structural change in the gaming industry.
X: When you talk about bringing entrepreneurship resources to people in the gaming industry, what resources are you thinking of specifically?
SW: The Startup Launchpad has a few different components. One session is designed to help entrepreneurs understand how to raise money. It’s a pretty daunting process for new entrepreneurs, even more so when you come from an industry where people haven’t done it before. Are VCs scary people? Are all the reports of shark-like behavior accurate? We go from that, all the way to other sessions such as startup CEOs sharing their insights about what it’s like to be the CEO of a game-based company—the struggles, the channel issues, the hiring issues, all of the stuff that exists in the Web industry that’s been institutionalized. We’re trying to bring that to the gaming industry.
Another component we’re launching is this new business plan contest, to encourage the flow of innovation. We’re doing this in collaboration with corporate development people at places like Tencent and Electronic Arts, which are surprisingly active in making investments. In addition to their acquisition activities in the gaming space, they are also interested in smaller companies. They are aware of the fact that some of the best innovation in the space is coming from external activities, not internal.
X: What kinds of people do you hope will attend the Launchpad sessions and enter the business plan competition?
SW: We are not especially looking for serial entrepreneurs. We are just looking for really talented people who may want to experiment. Maybe they have a good idea and something interesting to contribute, and here is a low-commitment way for them to get involved in entrepreneurship. Low-commitment in the sense that they don’t necessarily need to leave their jobs, but they can put together a small team on the side. That’s what people are doing with Facebook games right now, where there are some really decent monetization opportunities. You don’t need to leave your full-time job, but you can experiment and get some feedback.
I live in Silicon Valley, and everywhere I go, in every Starbucks and Safeway, there are entrepreneurs talking about starting technology businesses. But that doesn’t exist in the gaming world. And the first step of encouraging innovation is to give them some proximity and some awareness of what it’s like to be an entrepreneur.