How Zynga Boston’s Shutdown Birthed Proletariat, a New Mobile Studio

3/12/13Follow @curtwoodward

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there weren’t any security guards hustling them out the door. At day’s end, the 50 or so suddenly unemployed people headed to Charlie’s Kitchen, the bar across the street from their Harvard Square offices.

Talking to Sivak about the sudden shutdown now, it seems like the whole thing is still a bit stunning to those who went through it.

“One of the guys who is a game industry veteran said it was like his fourth or fifth studio closure. So it’s something that happens in the game industry. But I was personally never expecting it to happen,” he says. “I think what happened was, we just got caught in the middle.”

There was a lot of emphasis right away on staying connected and helping people find jobs—especially the younger workers, Sivak says, who didn’t have as many connections in the close-knit game industry.

Some of the former Boston team ended up going to San Francisco to continue working for Zynga. Others went to startups around the Boston area, while some explored work for studios or contracting their services to other game developers.

The team that would become Proletariat was feeling out all of their options, Sivak says. But they eventually were drawn toward working with each other, giving it a shot on their own as a mobile game development studio—an idea that had cropped up when the five of them were still at Zynga and realized you didn’t need a huge company’s resources to make a fun, successful game on mobile platforms.

“Dan Ogles, who is our CTO, came over to me when we were out at the bar that last night and said `We should do this. Let’s do it,’” Sivak says. They met up and started running through their options together, but it soon became clear that the startup route was the most appealing.

Within a few weeks, they met with a lawyer, and Proletariat was born. Along with Sivak and Ogles, the company is made up of art director Damon Iannuzzelli, chief creative officer Jesse Kurlancheek, and director of engineering Joe Mukai.

Intrepid Labs CEO Mark Kasdorf let the gang crash at his company’s shared work space for part of November, while everyone figured out their finances—the company has been seed-funded by the Zynga severance checks, along with the occasional contract development work—and they’ve been there ever since.

Proletariat’s first game was a super-simple app called Hug the Sloth—a cute little diversion that lets you dress up and play with an animated sloth in a tree. It was a practice run that had one of every feature you might want to include, Sivak points out: An in-app purchase, leaderboard, simple interaction, and so on.

Last week, Proletariat released Letter Rush. This iPhone game is a bit more complicated: Words zoom in from the right side of the screen, and the player has to spell them out by tracing a finger across a set of jumbled-up letters at the bottom before the words hit the left side of the screen. It’s fun and challenging, just fast enough to get your concentration fired up but simple enough to progress through while you’re waiting for the subway.

The experience has also helped Proletariat get a feel for the difficulties of fixing bugs on the fly and working through Apple’s approval system, not to mention standing out and getting downloads amid hundreds of thousands of other apps available.

Up next will be a bigger step forward, Sivak says. Proletariat is working on a tablet-first, core strategy game aimed at younger male gamers like themselves.

The young company is also looking into its options for financing. In the past, publishers held the keys to the safe in the gaming world. But the rise of Zynga and other Silicon Valley gaming companies have opened some doors to the venture and angel investing world.

Proletariat is banking on its experience with one of the industry’s biggest names, no matter how its star may have fallen, to help move those conversations along a little quicker. Its team knows a lot about how the industry works, has insights into how huge games are scaled quickly, and has a proven record of working on money-making titles for a major, high-pressure company.

After all, it would be pretty cool if something as terrible as the whiplash-inducing shutdown of Zynga Boston led to a successful new startup growing in its wake.

“Personally, for me, I don’t have grudges against people. I don’t know how I’d feel about Mark specifically,” Sivak says of Pincus, laughing. “But there are a lot of people I like and respect, and they had things they needed to do.

“It feels like a breakup. There was anger at the beginning … [but] all of us have talked about how our significant others and friends have said, `We haven’t seen you this happy in so long.’”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • Drew Hession-Kunz

    Boston- 2nd tier- come on, Curt, Austin is 2nd tier, Boston has 25% of the market, and has more startups per capita than silicon valley

    • curtwoodward

      I guess in my formulation Austin would be third or fourth tier ;) Not meant to be a slight against the Boston area of course, but I will say that’s the general consensus nationally – the “first tier” being occupied solely by SF/Silicon Valley.

    • jim

      @drew its not about Boston or Austin …its about the article and this great startup story…I love how people always find a way to make things about themselves

  • fjcmclgm

    Boy did Zynga plow through the game community and leave a wake of carnage and failure. I’ve heard the folks in Baltimore are heart broken after Zynga just swooped in and fired them all. What a wonderful company.