Passion, Casual-ness, & Money: Themes from MIT’s Business in Gaming

4/10/12Follow @xconomy

If you saw some odd costumes wandering the streets of Boston this past weekend, chances are they were en route to a games-related event (I’m talking about you, Anime aficionados). The one I attended, MIT’s Business in Gaming conference, contained more suit-clad attendees than outlandish hairdos and capes (thank goodness). The event draws investors, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and developers to discuss the moneymaking aspects of the industry.

The MIT event capped off an exciting few weeks of news for game companies like The Tap Lab—which nabbed seed funding—and OMGPOP—a Spark Capital-funded startup recently acquired by Zynga—so there were plenty of fresh insights from the two panels I attended, on the subjects of finance and how to run startups. Below is a quick roundup of quotes and takeaways and that struck me the most, in no particular order.

—A lot was said about the subject of getting money as a gaming startup: It’s easier to raise a $100k than ever before but harder to raise $5 million (Zynga Boston general manager Fareed Mosavat); game developers are having success raising money on Kickstarter (angel investor and Harmonix veteran Mike Dornbrook); entrepreneurs should focus on building a great product and “don’t be in the business of looking for money” (Monty Sharma, managing director at MassDiGI). Panelists’ opinions were nuanced, but the general consensus was that investors will be attracted to a top notch team, disruptive idea, and product with a bit of early traction—all concepts that can be extended far beyond the gaming industry.

—”Very often that first round is all that’s necessary,” said Dornbrook. That sounds to good to be true, but he quickly followed up this statement by noting the importance of being first. “Every time there is a major change in this business, there’s opportunity for a short time period to make a splash with a very low budget,” he added. Dornbrook expressed his hope that a recent investment, The Tap Lab, succeeds in this way. That startup recently raised $550,000 and is blending location-based gaming, virtual goods, and the real world in its newest release.

—”I think we still haven’t gotten to all the people in the world who want to play games,” said Zynga’s Mosavat. He pointed to the recent gangbuster success of DrawSomething by OMGPOP, the near-failing mobile game startup that was scooped up by Zynga for $180 million last month. “DrawSomething is drawing text messages—it’s barely a game,” he added. This wasn’t said to knock the game, but to point out that there are plenty more of gamey activities that developers can tap into, and that “what we used to call casual games are not casual enough.”

—”I love hiring people that are a little bit nuts—they’ll be completely devoted to what the vision of the company is,” said Aaron St. John, co-founder of HitPoint Studios, based in a barn out in Western Mass. All this to say that passion is what game companies look for when scouting fresh talent, especially if they’re startups that can’t offer as much in the way of salaries.

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