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USA 2014Video Coverage

Gavin Teo and Comcast Ventures are Committed to Games | Casual Connect Video

August 6, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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“Gaming startups should consider a media partnership strategy early,” Gavin Teo said during his panel at Casual Connect USA 2014. “The right IP – like FF6, Despicable Me, and even Kim Kardashian can provide a major advantage in distribution.”

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Gavin Teo, Investment Manager, Comcast Ventures

Gavin Teo is an Investment Manager at Comcast Ventures, where he invests in early stage companies with a focus on the connected home. He says, “We love working with entrepreneurs and thrive on helping them take their ideas to a global stage,” and points out, “CV is a returns-oriented fund with the strategic resources of Comcast NBC Universal.”

A Commitment To Games

Teo is an avid gamer who plays on console, mobile and PC. Currently, he is playing Forza 5 on Xbox One and says, “it showcases all the capabilities of this console generation – AAA graphics; transmedia content like the Top Gear integration; and advanced big data features such as a Drivatar that learns your driving style and earns you points by competing in the world when you’re offline.” He also points to the advances of AAA titles on mobile, citing his favorite iPad title, Xcom: Enemy Unknown. He shares, “I am a huge Xcom fan and played all of them on PC, but loved Enemy Unknown on my old 360 and was pleasantly surprised that it plays just as well on iPad.” Teo describes investments in FanDuel, Iddiction, and Trion Worlds, led by his colleagues at Comcast Ventures, which “are all gaming companies with well-developed cross-platform and transmedia strategies”.

A F2P Bias

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He insists, “F2P works at both the hardcore and casual ends of the spectrum.”

Teo is also a former Product Manager on Farmville, so he admits to a bias for F2P business models that can harness the broadest potential reach. He insists, “F2P works at both the hardcore and casual ends of the spectrum.” However, he notes that it can also lead to a bias toward optimizing for short run user pay revenue – whale hunting, price discrimination, steep difficulty curves, and pay gates are common and effective. He doubts that iOS will relax rules allowing gaming apps to charge subscriptions, which limits user pay options. He asserts that F2P is a positive force in game development and says that the most successful publishers will find a way to optimize for both reach and monetization, and believes that “new advertising models are emerging that will make games look more like media properties.”

A Developing Perception

When asked about an emerging trend in gaming, Teo points to the rise of eSports and livestreaming of gaming content on platforms like Twitch. “Twitch is a social phenomenon with 50 million monthly viewers who consume almost 2 hours of gameplay video per session,” he says. Today, livestreaming of core genres is happening at scale on PC and console. He expects it to spread quickly to mobile as well. He is interested in platforms and content genres with low content acquisition costs, including UGC, which have broad reach and appeal and high consumer engagement. Teo mentions other Comcast Ventures investments led by his colleagues who focus on the MCN and content space, including Fullscreen, Tastemade, and CreativeLive.

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Teo mentions other Comcast Ventures investments led by his colleagues who focus on the MCN and content space, including Fullscreen, Tastemade, and CreativeLive.

Teo expects the rise of the professional eSports athlete to be the next big trend in the games industry. The US government is now issuing athlete visas to eSports athletes to come to the US and compete in major eSports events. He points out “20M fans watched the DOTA 2 International this July, which had a prize pool in excess of $10M. The winning team, Newbee, walked away with more than $5M. Competitive gaming is beginning to eclipse major sporting events in fan reach and prizing.” Consider that in context of the $3M prize Djokovic won by taking home the Men’s singles title at Wimbledon, which drew 17M viewers this June. He asserts, “big ad dollars will chase eSports like it has other sports.”

When not playing console games on his Xbox One, Teo is a distance runner and enjoys using consumer health apps, such as Runkeeper and Nike+, that are at the intersection of fitness and gaming.

 

Studio Spotlight

Red Hot Labs: Sons of Zynga Forge Bridge to the Beyond

May 31, 2013 — by Vincent Carrella

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Amitt Mahajan is on a mission, and it’s a dangerous one at that. You see Mahajan, and his partner Joel Poloney, are tight-rope walkers. They’ve strung their wire between the once lofty tower of social gaming on Facebook and the rapidly rising rocket ship of social-mobile. They’re walking that very narrow line between art and science as they attempt to leave one world behind, building on their early success at Zynga, to stake a claim in the new world beyond.

Founders of Red Hot Labs
Joel Poloney and Amitt Mahajan, founders of Red Hot Labs

But Red Hot Labs, newly founded by Mahajan and Poloney, is well-funded and well-poised to make such a crossing. After all, Poloney and Mahajan are the brains behind the Ville-games that provided Zynga with so much of its early zing. The question now is, just how hot is Red Hot? Building blockbuster franchises like Farmville and Castleville is incredibly difficult. But building a company that can create them is Sisyphean. Can its two young founders roll that huge boulder back up the hill? All signs point to Yes.

The lightbulb moment came for Mahajan during his stint as Zynga’s CTO in Japan. It was there, immersed in a society thoroughly inundated with mobile devices, that he saw the future.

“It made sense that when I came back to the US, we would try to get ahead of that curve here.”

“In Japan, I got a chance to see what a mobile first society looks like,” Mahajan said. “Everywhere you looked, people were utilizing their phones as their primary means of communication and entertainment. Every other TV commercial was for a social game, so I knew that it was only a matter of time before that phenomenon spread to the US… It made sense that when I came back to the US, we would try to get ahead of that curve here.”

Mahajan and Poloney knew they wanted to start a company, but their general thrust didn’t gel until they left Zynga. They saw promising potential in what was then still a nascent and evolving mobile landscape and formed Red Hot Labs as a sort of technology and know-how bridge between what worked in the old world of web-based social games and the new frontier of always-on, always-connected handheld devices.

Notes at Red Hot Labs“Our core belief is that the mobile ecosystem is still new and undeveloped,” Mahajan said. “The tools and infrastructure we had available when we were building games for Facebook does not yet exist for mobile and there is an opportunity in applying what we learned building FarmVille and other mass-market games at Zynga to mobile devices.”

Red Hot see gaps in the app development ecosystem. So they’re investing in their own core technology early, and taking their time doing it right, believing that will pay off down the road. Red Hot plans to create their own tools and services to fill those gaps that still exist, and that inhibit growth, in the mobile space as it pertains to app development. And their approach is both wise and humble. Having come off such success at Zynga, one might expect to find arrogance or even cockiness at Red Hot. Not so. Mahajan espouses a cyclical philosophy of perpetual learning that is almost Zen-like in its emphasis on leveraging the skills and talent of its people as both teachers and students.

“I measure our success in that regard by not only how successful we are when people are working with us, but how successful our alumni are even after they have left Red Hot Labs.”

“My aim is for Red Hot Labs to be a place of continuous learning,” Mahajan said. “Everyone here is a teacher and everyone here is a student. We aspire to work with people that inspire us to grow and do our best work. I measure our success in that regard by not only how successful we are when people are working with us, but how successful our alumni are even after they have left Red Hot Labs.”

Mahajan is serious about what he feels sets Red Hot apart. He sounds more like a University Dean than game studio CEO, but such a mindset is not altogether altruistic, it’s also good business. It’s like a brick-and-mortar store that prides itself on customer service except in this case, the employee is the customer. When a person feels respected and taken care of, that person not only works harder and more productively, but moves on with a positive and gracious attitude that yields dividends in the form of referrals, reviews and collaboration in the future.

Bingo Blast™, Red Hot’s first game, released on iOS and Android in March. It was featured on Google Play and, according to Mahajan, is doing very well. But it’s really only the beginning of what Red Hot has up its sleeve. It’s the technology beneath Bingo Blast that’s the real differentiator. Red Hot’s game-agnostic server architecture allows them to run multiple games on the same set of servers by employing some unique trade-offs in how data is stored and updated, enabling them to deploy games very quickly using their unique approach.

Though technology is a key component of Red Hot’s strategy, it’s game-play and brand loyalty they are most focused on. They are building processes around the collaboration between what Mahajan calls ‘intuition-based designers’ and metrics-driven product managers, leveraging what they learned at Zynga – both what did, and what didn’t work.

Working Hard
They are building processes around the collaboration between what Mahajan calls ‘intuition-based designers’ and metrics-driven product managers, leveraging what they learned at Zynga – both what did, and what didn’t work.

“We’re a retention-first company,” Mahajan says. “That means respecting the player and building a long-term relationship with them by delivering entertainment first. We’re always looking for win/win experiences where the player constantly experiences new unique types of fun and we are compensated for our efforts. It’s not always easy to do, but searching for those opportunities is what differentiates us and makes this an incredible adventure.”

Balancing the art and science of game development has been the mantra of many studios before them, but Red Hot seems to have the chops to actually pull it off. If they can achieve on mobile what they managed to do with Farmville in the now ancient social-Facebook past, we could be looking at the next Zynga…or perhaps, the next Zynga acquisition target.

GDC Online

Brian Reynolds Addresses What Game Designers Bring to Social Games

October 12, 2010 — by Gamesauce Staff

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Zynga's Brian Reynolds giving a keynote address at the GDC Online in Austin, Texas

More people have played FrontierVille than all of Brian Reynolds‘ previous games combined.  The man known for his work on Civilization II, Alpha Centauri, and Rise of Nations, has been with social-game publisher Zynga for a year-and-a-half, which is a long time in social games, he jokes.

Speaking at a keynote for GDC Online, Reynolds told mused that “Probably more people have played FarmVille than any other game, at least on a computer.  And that’s kind of cool.”

Not everyone wants to work on social-network games, but Reynolds responds by citing their increasing complexity.  “The games are getting more interesting, and more fun to work on.”  The days of a one-mechanic based game, or two-mechanic based game are over, he says.

“FrontierVille was kind of an experiment,” continues Reynolds, adding that he was lucky that a game he made previously happened to be the only videogame that Zynga’s chief executive officer had ever liked.  So he took his design skills, and set to work.

The goals were simple.  “We wanted to try another farming game, because FarmVille was the largest thing ever,” Reynolds recalls.  They settled on the FrontierVille, because it has the Wild West for males, and has the Little House on the Prairie for females.  “We weren’t trying to launch out into some radical direction.”

“You’ve heard of waterfall as a way of managing people, and agile…what we use is JSIRSO,” says a smiling Reynolds.  And that means, “jamming stuff in, and ripping shit out.”

You can make them pay to find out what happens at the end of the story.  You can make them come back the next day to find out what happens.”

The worst example of JSIRSO, says Reynolds, was Frontier Jack.  The developers created the character who’s first appearance was just a tutorial.  But he took on a life of his own.  “We started talking like him around the office,” Reynolds says in his best Frontier Jack accent.  It got the team into the mood.  It also showed them the importance of characters. “It all came from this original idea that we jammed in, in a panic, to finish a tutorial for a user-session.”
Then came the idea of adding quests.  “This was a desperate attempt to make our tutorial not suck.”  Reynolds says you can’t put people on a rail for twenty-five clicks in a row.  “Once we put it in, we found you can make stories with quests.  Because the players want to know what happens next.  You can make them pay to find out what happens at the end of the story.  You can make them come back the next day to find out what happens.”

Suddenly, they had a mechanic best-suited to classical game developers.  “We know how to make story, we know how to write.”  Most of what the team did was taking classic gameplay mechanics and adding them to a social game.  Quests, he says, existed before FarmVille.  And they were fun. But it takes a game designer to bring them into social-network games.

According to Reynolds, here’s what game designers bring to social:

  • Balance game systems
  • Write good stories and text
  • Deep game design that plays easily
  • Know how to solve game problems
  • Know the difference between fun and spam
  • Ability to adapt game design patterns in new ways
“If you want to get your revenues up, create virtual goods people want to buy.”

“It turns out that fun monetizes well,” Reynolds declares.  Social game makers think a good game design will retail players, and keep them in a retention box — but Reynolds says it’s the parts of games that are designed by game designers that monetize well.  “The measure of a good design is revenue.”

“Game designers are able to design virtual goods people want to buy,” states Reynolds.  “If you want to get your revenues up, create virtual goods people want to buy.”  He continues by stressing: “We’re in the entertainment industry.”

In order to entertain, Reynolds advises the social network designer to start with a mass-market concept.  “If most of my friends aren’t interested in space aliens, then the social element will never roll for you.”

He also advises developers to “get it running right away.  These games are getting longer and longer to make.  We’re already seeing the ramp.  I’m sure we’ll see social games that take longer than a year.”  But, warns Reynolds, “A bad launch will kill you.”  And that’s because the first people to play are the most engaged, most likely to send viral updates, most likely to buy items.  He encourages developers to ship in top form, warning “You don’t get a second chance  — you must make sure that whatever you’re going to put out is fantastic.”

Reynolds sees this new era of social-network games as a golden one for the classical game designer.  “It’s like going back to 1980, knowing what you know now.”  He concludes, “All of the things we want in AAA games are in here.  We’re just talking to people we haven’t talked to before.”

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