Game Lab, From Bocoup and Atlas, Looks to Fund Open Web Game Developers

Big video games studios are a bit old school, with everything from game design, production, execution, and financing done in house, says Boaz Sender, a JavaScript programmer at the Boston-based Web consulting firm Bocoup. But they’re about to go the way that the old Hollywood movie studios did, he says, by outsourcing many of the operations they once tightly controlled.

Sender says that’s all going to happen as a result of traditional video games moving to the open Web, which is a set of standardized, royalty free, HTTP- and HTML-based technologies for building network software. The software design principles and content policies behind it focus on consumer empowerment and third-party integration, he says.

“When you move to the Web, one thing that becomes a lot cheaper is distribution,” says Sender. This enables younger, scrappier startups to get involved in building games, and encourages other startups to sprout up that are developing related games software, for functions like game authoring, payment, advertising, and managing player identities.

Bocoup is looking to seed this trend via Game Lab, a small games incubator it’s running with Cambridge-based Atlas Venture with the “goal of funding companies that help the games industry move to the open Web.” It’s particularly focused on HTML5, the emerging new standard for programming Web pages and services.

Bocoup’s 15-person team has spent two years helping companies develop and adopt open Web technologies, through events, evangelism, and consulting for customers like Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla. Sender founded the firm, which consists of a group of (“especially elite,” according to Atlas) JavaScript programmers. They work closely with other Web design-focused consultancies.

Game Lab’s funding model varies from startup to startup, but it could potentially invest in seed rounds for existing companies, help new companies form and seed those, and participate in Series A rounds, says Sender. Atlas is supplying the capital and Bocoup is bringing its expertise in open Web technology to the teams. Entrepreneurs in the Game Lab also get close mentoring from Atlas, and the option of working out of Bocoup’s open source hacker space.

“It’s about how we’re going to fund the building blocks of the open Web games industry,” says Sender. Bocoup is also working with its Game Lab entrepreneurs and others to develop a framework called Abacus to make it easier for developers to build HTML5 games.

Game Lab recently funded its first team, Mikeal Rogers and Max Ogden. Sender didn’t disclose their exact product, but the blog post mentioning the deal says they’re working on identity management for games.

HTML5 has become an increasingly common path for taking games online because it HTML5 content works well on any device with a Web browser and can be customized for specific devices, while the older Flash animation standard from Adobe results in an experience that looks exactly the same across a computer or Web browser. “It runs poorly on mobile devices; there’s no way to progressively enhance the experience,” says Sender. Apple doesn’t support Flash on its iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch devices, and Adobe recently announced it’s ditching its Flash Player for Mobile.

Meanwhile, devices and browsers are getting fast enough to handle the complex graphics, processing, and audio requirements of games. And browser vendors are working to make their browsers friendlier for games developers.

“This is kind of like pushing the platform forward. It’s the Wild Wild West—the HTML5 games gold rush,” Sender says. Also, Facebook recently introduced an app enabling third parties like Zynga to run games in HTML5 on the iPad. The idea is to give consumers the option to choose between native iOS apps and Web apps, which is where HTML5 comes in.

Sender ultimately sees games as a way of expanding the presence of HTML5 and open Web standards. “The open Web’s viability hinges on the crossover to consumer technology,” he says. “Games are the biggest thing in consumer tech.”

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