Risk and Reward: GoCrossCampus Morphs Into Casual Games Site for Teams

4/14/09Follow @wroush

If you’re a startup that organizes giant games of Risk on college campuses, it doesn’t matter how many thousands of dorm residents you can recruit to participate—there’s still a fundamental flaw your business model. It’s that the game and the semester eventually end, and everyone goes home. The antidote? Keep people involved year-round by moving the competitions online. That’s what Manhattan- and New Haven, CT-based PickTeams is trying with its new team-based casual games website.

Backing up a bit: In March 2008, when I last wrote about on-campus gaming, a rivalry of sorts had emerged between two startups vying to take over the market for Web-mediated campus territory games, or “social online sports,” as they’ve also been called. Both were descendants of Old Campus Tree Risk, a game that engulfed the Yale University campus during the spring 2007 semester. GoCrossCampus, founded by Yale undergraduate Brad Hargreaves, was the first to turn the campus Risk idea into a business; it was followed shortly thereafter by Kirkland North, founded by Gabe Smedresman, who had staged the original Yale game and written the Web code behind it.

A lot can change in a year. Both companies have adopted new names, and as I learned from Hargreaves yesterday, they’re taking the original concept in very different directions. Kirkland North is now called Turf, and still focuses on map-based strategy games involving real-world locations such as college campuses or city neighborhoods. Last month GoCrossCampus rebranded itself as PickTeams, and morphed into an online casual games site. In fact, it just introduced its newest game yesterday. It’s a “tower-defense” game called Pocket Towers.

GoCrossCampus screen shot“We realized that the opportunity here is a lot bigger than just one game or just the college market,” Hargreaves says. GoCrossCampus’s Risk games had succeeded in large part because they were team-based, with students throwing themselves into the competitions to defend the honor of their dorms or schools. And the team or guild model has also proven successful among hard-core gamers like World of Warcraft devotees. But team-based play has been pretty much absent from the casual gaming world—the closest equivalents in the casual-game are probably the online tournaments run by WorldWinner (profiled here last year). That’s where Hargreaves’ nine-person startup, which has seed funding from New York-based venture firm Easton Capital and angel-investing organization WGI Group, saw an opening.

“What we had done with GoCrossCampus, basically, was to create a casual, team-based game,” says Hargreaves. “But when we looked at the proliferation of casual game aggregators out there, they all had pretty much the same games”—variations on single-player games like Bejeweled and Diner Dash. “So we set out to create a platform for casual games that would all be team-based.”

Alpha Blitz screen shotBy building a site where casual game players can represent larger entities like their schools or their favorite sports teams, PickTeams can tap into the same spirit of rivalry that animated campus Risk, Hargreaves explains. And the strategy also gives the company a year-round business. “Up to now, the biggest problem we had as a business that we had to address was not that people weren’t interested in GoCrossCampus, but what happens after the games ended,” says Hargreaves. “We’d get 10,000 players involved in the games, and then at the end of the semester we’d lose them all. That’s something we wanted to minimize as much as possible.”

At PickTeams, players start out in virtual lobbies, where they can see into rooms where matches are being organized or start their own. Right now, they can choose between Alpha Blitz, in which teams race to find the longest words in a 4-by-4 or 5-by-5 grid of letters, or Pocket Towers, where teams buy gun-equipped towers and place them in rows across a field in an effort to prevent an opposing team’s forces or “creeps” from crossing. Teammates can coordinate tower placement using a chat interface.

Teams play for the glory of their school or their favorite professional sports team. “We built a leader board system where the points you win apply not just to yourself but to your college or your team,” says Hargreaves. “So we’ve combined affinity networking with a casual gaming site.”

Pocket TowersPickTeams hasn’t abandoned GoCrossCampus. The PickTeams website is still where campus groups keep track of the big real-world matches going on across dozens of campuses. But even GoCrossCampus is going virtual. The company’s next synchronous casual game, Hargreaves says, will be an online-only version of the the game—”GXC,” as it’s abbreviated. “We’ve heard from a lot of people who want to ability to play team-based territory-acquisition games without having to wait for one of our on-campus games,” Hargreaves says. Now they’ll be able to start a game anytime. And bringing in that pool of ready players should also help keep the lobbies full at Alpha Blitz and Pocket Towers, Hargreaves hopes.

Though the mechanism isn’t in place yet, PickTeams plans to monetize all this by emulating WorldWinner’s tournament model, where players ante up a few dollars to enter and have a chance at winning a prize pot. As at WorldWinner, most of the cash will go back to players in the form of prizes, but PickTeams will keep a small percentage of every pot.

At first, PickTeams itself will set up the tournaments, but later on, it will provide the tools for players to set up private brackets, just as in online fantasy sports leagues, Hargreaves says. PickTeams also makes money by showing video ads from the San Francisco-based VideoEgg rich media advertising network.

The whole model has evolved quite a bit since last year, when the company’s only revenue streams were the corporate sponsorships it sold for individual GoCrossCampus events. Indeed, PickTeams is leaving the bulk of the hard-core campus Risk market to Turf. Hargreaves says he keeps in touch with Smedresman, and the latest indications are that “they’re going in the direction of developing a more intensive game experience, on the bleeding edge of the technology,” says Hargreaves. “Whereas we’re more interested in building a community and in the emotional aspects of the competitions. I don’t think of them as primary competitors anymore. Our audiences are starting to be very different.” Which makes for less controversy—but is probably better business.

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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