Some start-ups have tremendous origin stories. Fortress Fury developer XREAL is not one of them.
"My son was wearing a Minecraft T-shirt, and I was with him when we were going to play some tennis," Howard Marks told GamesIndustry.biz. "And there was a guy who came over and said, 'Hey you like Minecraft? Do you know CaptainSparklez?' My son of course replied, 'Yeah, I know who he is.' I said I don't know who he is, then the man replied, 'I know his grandmother. She's a friend of mine, we have dinner together and she tells me all the great stuff he's doing.'"
Marks, who helped launch the contemporary version of Activision in 1991 as well as the free-to-play game publisher that wore the Acclaim Games moniker for a number of years starting in 2005, smelled an opportunity. Once he found out that CaptainSparklez was Jordan Maron, a YouTube gamer with 8.6 million subscribers, he sought an introduction to Maron's grandmother, who helped bring the pair together. Before too long, the pair had co-founded XREAL.
"I didn't realize how intensive a process it is, and how it's much more than a 9-to-5 for the developers. They're hard at work coding and on-call all the time. Huge amounts of respect to them for doing that."
"Howard and I had been in touch for a few months discussing possible ideas for game-related things to work on, and I was interested in trying to do something that was an original idea for mobile," Maron said. "eSports are so popular at the moment that I thought it would be great to do something that was competitive and real-time. But I still wanted it to be accessible to anyone who just wanted to pick it up and get the hang of it in five minutes, really quick games that work for the mobile environment. Fortress Fury is what came out of that. I [considered] combining popular elements like building and then battling back and forth, and that's where the concept came from. Then we took it and made it into a game."
That last part happened with the help of Santa Monica-based Collision Studios, whose previous work includes 300: March to Glory on the PSP and the iOS version of Mattel's word game Scramble. Maron said the studio had between five and seven people working on it at any given time, with himself in the role of creative director. He doesn't have any sort of technical background in game development, so Maron said he points the team toward the features they should be working on and what needs tweaking. Naturally, Maron has also been talking about the game to his audience, chronicling the development process for them and allowing them input on things like the name of the game, the logo, and what features should be integrated.
Fortress Fury has been in development since last August. The game launched in the middle of last month, and has already been downloaded more than 1.3 million times, and that's with Maron only really pitching the game to his own audience so far. Once the development team has a few more features in the game, Maron said he plans to start pitching Fortress Fury to other YouTube creators as good fodder for their own audiences. The experience of courting YouTube coverage isn't the only new perspective Maron will gain from this endeavor; as one might expect, he's already gained a greater appreciation of what goes into making a game.
"These are huge fans and they want to be respected. They want to be treated with authentic relationship opportunities, not slammed or used for something they're not there for."
"I didn't realize how intensive a process it is, and how it's much more than a 9-to-5 for the developers," Maron said. "They're hard at work coding and on-call all the time. Huge amounts of respect to them for doing that."
Even if Maron is new to the development side of things, his value to XREAL is undeniable. Money and experience are awfully helpful when making a game, but even they can't guarantee a success in a market so saturated with options.
"The question was how to build communities of players and how much does that cost," Marks said. "If you look at the industry today, people are spending millions of dollars to acquire users. And it's not clear to me that these are the users that are core to your game.
"In this case, we have a big advantage because Jordan has an extraordinary community of fans and they just love him," he added. "That is a pretty powerful relationship--to be very careful with, and very respectful with--but it's very powerful. We have to be careful with that advantage. These are huge fans and they want to be respected. They want to be treated with authentic relationship opportunities, not slammed or used for something they're not there for."
Maron also drew careful boundaries around how he would market the game, saying, "I just want to make sure that anything that I'm showing to people who are watching my videos is something they'll be interested in and that they want to know more about versus just spamming them with, 'Download! Download! Download!' I want to make sure the videos are interesting and something they'd enjoy independent of whether or not it's my game."
"We may be slightly ahead of our time on the mobile side because so far most of the eSports you see are PC-based entertainment experiences..."
For Marks, there are a lot of parallels between the eSports scene right now and the free-to-play market during his years at Acclaim. He saw the success Nexon had with early free-to-play attempts in Korea, and knew it was only a matter of time before the model reshaped gaming in the West as well. So when he looks to Korea and sees what a cultural phenomenon eSports has become, it has a familiar feeling to it.
"I see the same thing happening with eSports," Marks said. "I think in the next 5 years you'll see the industry moving toward games that are played socially, but also with competitiveness and skill and audiences--audiences around famous YouTube people but also famous game players who are professionals."
Marks thinks Acclaim was actually ahead of its time on the free-to-play front, but he's confident XREAL won't face the same fate.
"You have people like Brandon Beck at Riot Games who've proven the model on a global basis, so I don't think we're ahead of our time. We may be slightly ahead of our time on the mobile side because so far most of the eSports you see are PC-based entertainment experiences... But I think it's just starting at this point. We're not that early.