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"It used to be all we had to do was make a game fun" - Gwertzman

PlayFab CEO lands $2.5m in funding to create tools that let devs worry about games more than their backend

James Gwertzman wants to save the games industry, and he wants to do it with his new backend-as-a-service startup PlayFab. The co-founder and CEO today announced the finalizing of $2.5 million in seed funding for his company, and spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about just how a cloud-based provider of tools for building and managing online games could do that.

"I think what's happened in the last three years is that games-as-a-service has been such a technologically heavy endeavor, that the companies that have basically been the most successful, with a few exceptions, are companies that have huge amounts of technology and often come to this space from a more mechanistic, money-focused background," Gwertzman said. "As a result, you have a lot of leaders in the industry right now who came to this with more of a focus on mechanics and systems than they did on fun. I had friends who interviewed for a job with Zynga a couple years ago and they said they got through an entire day of meetings with all sorts of really smart people, but no one talked about fun the entire day. They were focused on systems, A/B testing, analytics, and so on. Somewhere along the line, we as an industry became in danger of losing that focus on creativity."

"[Y]ou have a lot of leaders in the industry right now who came to this with more of a focus on mechanics and systems than they did on fun."

That's where Gwertzman hopes PlayFab comes in. During his eight years as an executive at PopCap (2005 to 2013), Gwertzman saw the difficulty developers faced in trying to make the transition from games as a one-time purchase to games as a continuing service. PlayFab offers tools intended to make that move easier, from hosting multiplayer matches to handling cross-platform accounts, scaling servers, running leaderboards, or monetizing virtual goods. It's also supporting a handful of commonly used game engines, including Unity, Unreal, Cocos2d-x, and Xamarin.

The initial round of funding has come primarily from angel investors, with Gwertzman receiving no small amount of assistance from his contacts in the industry. PopCap co-founder Jason Kapalka chipped in, as did early PopCap investor Larry Bowman, ex-Kabam COO Chris Carvalho, Arena.net founder Patrick Wyatt, Startup Capital Ventures, and well-travelled gaming executive John Spinale. And even though PlayFab is still in the early startup stages, it has something of a running start with its technology; PlayFab is built on Uber Entertainment's UberNet technology, which the studio has been using in games like Planetary Annihilation and Toy Rush. New outfits are also beginning to adopt PlayFab, as Tetris rights-holder Blue Planet Software recently signed on to use it.

"Games-as-a-service came first, and everyone quickly realized that to power a game as a service, is a dramatically more involved, more expensive proposition than building a game as a packaged good," Gwertzman said. "I had a ringside seat for that when I was at PopCap. PopCap made that transition, and it was really, really hard, especially for a company like PopCap that puts quality and creativity so high on its list of ambitions. It used to be all we had to do was make a game fun. Now we not only had to make a game fun, but we had to do like 50 other things to be effective with a game as a service."

The mobile market's shift toward games-as-a-service models isn't the only trend PlayFab is looking to capitalize on. Gwertzman said it could also help alleviate some of the problems with a mobile ecosystem that seems slanted toward the rich getting richer.

"What hurts a lot of game developers is that in order to compete on mobile, you have to have all this stuff: you have to build operations, all these services and technologies," Gwertzman said. "There's such an investment you have to make in order to be competitive, it's really prohibitive. If you can't crack that top 50 or top 100 list, it's very hard to be competitive."

PlayFab wants to dramatically reduce cost of getting games to market, to the point where even games that don't make the top 100 lists on the App Store or Google Play can still support a viable business. Of course, PlayFab won't solve everything. Gwertzman said there are still huge challenges facing the mobile industry, like customer acquisition.

"All too often what it means is paying for customers," Gwertzman said. "And that's not a great model. This idea that I've got to basically buy my players doesn't sound like the right way to do this. Authors don't talk about paying to acquire readers. I think we as an industry need to do a better job on the discovery side so the top 10 lists stop being the main way players find out about our games. "

"We might not hear quite as much about mobile in the next few years because the new buzz will be about virtual reality, but mobile's not going away."

There's also the possibility of the next big thing coming along and stealing some of mobile's buzz. And while Gwertzman acknowledged that virtual reality looks to be huge, its success doesn't necessarily have to come at the expense of mobile gaming.

"What we've seen is every new wave of technology gets a huge spike, but it tends to be additive. So mobile's huge, but people still play console games. And console games are huge, but people still play PC games. So I think every wave comes along and ends up adding to, not replacing, the last wave... We might not hear quite as much about mobile in the next few years because the new buzz will be about virtual reality, but mobile's not going away."

Even if the mobile market is changing faster than the challenges facing it are being fixed, Gwertzman said there's never been a better time to build a game company.

"There's way more people out there making games today than at any other point in the industry's history, ever. And I think mobile deserves a lot of the credit for that explosion in opportunity. So despite some challenges, there's still never been a better time to build a game company, especially with the quality of the tools that are available to you."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.