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Traversing the Wormhole: Investing in Fun

Former Funzio execs talk about their new startup Wormhole Games and how many companies forget to build a fun game

There's a new competitor in the social mobile game space, and it's aiming to become a leader, according to co-founders Jamil Moledina and James Kelm. Wormhole Games has a vision of social mobile games that can reach a wide audience yet appeal to hardcore gamers; their first game is planned to arrive in the second quarter of this year.

Wormhole Games' co-founders have broad experience in the industry. Jamil Moledina headed up the Game Developers Conference for several years before transitioning to a senior business development role with Electronic Arts, and then moved on to serve as VP of business development for the recently-acquired social mobile developer Funzio. James Kelm was senior worldwide product planner at Apple for the iBook, then worked as a product manager for Google for mobile advertising before also joining Funzio as producer. The two have assembled a founding team in San Francisco that's already hard at work on their first game, with initial seed funding from private investments. GamesIndustry International spoke with them about their vision for the company and the industry.

"We felt there was a need to create more fantastic, fun, gorgeous games for tablets," said Moledina. "This has been a long time coming for James and myself. We've both worked at large companies, and one of the things we realized was there's an opportunity to take what's really been fun in the industry and bring some of that over to social mobile. Many mobile games that are doing well still have a lot of legacy to them. They still look like Facebook games, like Flash games in a way."

Moledina and Kelm have a simple plan. "It seemed like there was very much a follow-the-leader pattern at work in the marketplace," said Moledina. "We figured if it's all about follow the leader, we should plan to be the leader. We should introduce something relatively new to the market. For us it's about distilling some of the really great gameplay styles that have existed and bringing them over in a way that's natural and form-fitting for the 2.5 minute, five times a day play style that's proven so successful in social mobile. We're inspired by examples like CSR Racing and Clash of Clans, which introduced a high degree of visual fidelity and multiplayer play. For us it's about actual fun in an actual community - actual social play, to help create the kind of passion, excitement, and stickiness of games that are inherently fun."

The key difference for the games Wormhole is planning is to combine accessibility with depth of play. "Every game that we make will be broadly accessible; everyone can pick it up and play it and get into it," Moledina said. "It will seem natural and instantly recognizable in terms of the play style and what you need to do to win the game. But at the same time, there is enough depth to really geek out on what you're doing in the game. Think of it as something that has almost casual, broad-based appeal, but also has almost midcore/hardcore monetization to it."

Essentially, it's the old Trip Hawkins formula for a great game - simple, hot and deep - translated to a mobile game. "There's a lot of wisdom that comes from folks like Trip and Bing [Gordon] and all the great guys at EA and the traditional game industry, that proved how to make a great game and how to make them stick," said Moledina. "The one thing about the incumbents, though, is they're very much locked into doing what has brought them success in the past. So it's very difficult to put that philosophy in place. James and I, now that we're in a startup environment, have the freedom to put our vision into action, start from scratch and build with that in mind."

"We figured if it's all about follow the leader, we should plan to be the leader"

Jamil Moledina

It's a very crowded market that Wormhole is going into, which creates more than a few challenges. "Every game market is crowded, so one of the challenges is to create something that breaks out, that gets word of mouth, that is so inherently fun that it just catches fire on its own," noted Moledina. "That's something that dovetails with our plan to be the leader. If you're focused on simply copying what exists, if you insist on playing that game the incumbents are much better equipped to do the copying. They have much more advanced copying capability."

Kelm looks at the community Wormhole can create as a key factor. "I think about it in terms of community," Kelm said. "I think a lot of the success on past titles that we've seen has been the formation of a collection of players that engage with each other and stick around the game longer. It's a crowded market, but tablet is a little less crowded than mobile."

Wormhole has a vision of how to build games, but what about specific games? "We do plan to put out successful games on a repeating basis," said Moledina. "We do have two game concepts we're incredibly thrilled with, and one is already in production." Kelm added, "We've probably kicked around a hundred game ideas at this point. The first one is under way, the second one is roughly 30 to 40 percent specced, and we have rough placeholders for three, four, and five."

Free-to-play is the business model Wormhole Games is built on. "From our point of view, that's the future," said Kelm. "It's certainly well proven, but I'm not going to sit here and say all games are going to be that way," said Moledina. "There's certainly huge success on the paid side; for example, Angry Birds and the blockbuster console business. For us we're seeing this is where the growth is. If you're a startup, and you're trying to carve out a new piece of the market, this is the way to do it."

Moledina sees vast market potential for tablet games, and it's only getting bigger. "Tablet is its own market, with Apple having over 100 million tablets out there worldwide. Twenty-nine percent of Americans have a tablet device of some kind," Moledina noted. "It's a marketplace that isn't necessarily dominated by any particular game company. Free-to-play opens up the opportunity to get so many people playing a game that you develop an extraordinary data set to improve the actual quality of play, to facilitate matchmaking, and a whole bunch of other things."

"I think a lot of companies enter this space without truly having a sense of fun"

Jamil Moledina

Wormhole is beginning with iOS games, but is planning on adding Android support. "The way we're writing code envisions a multiplatform future," said Kelm. There's opportunity on the way, says Moledina. "If you look at platforms in terms of marketplaces, things like the App Store and Google Play have proven themselves to be mass appeal ways of reaching an audience and commercializing software. It stands to reason to us that those types of marketplaces are going to be the ones that truly inherit the living room. By developing games that are tablet-centric, we are developing expertise that facilitates large screens, that facilitates connectivity that comes back to the way people like to engage each other in the living room environment."

Wormhole Games is ultimately focused on the games and making them compelling, which Moledina sees as the key to everything. "The part we've put a lot of time and energy and attention into is the inspiration, the design, the fun," said Moledina. "I think a lot of companies enter this space without truly having a sense of fun, a philosophy of fun about their company or the products that they bring to market. The exceptions speak for themselves, things like Angry Birds that just jump off the screen. People don't really ask about platform in that context; they talk about the extraordinary experience that has transcended platform and even medium."

Moledina continued, "From our standpoint, the key is investing in the design, focusing on what is going to be new and interesting to the audience, what is going to actually promote word of mouth. A lot of companies make a business out of exploiting the cost of marketing and all the different ways that are used to overcome the challenge of a crowded marketplace. Building a fun game from the outset, having something that propels its own word of mouth, is the very first investment a company should make, and that's the one we've made."

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Steve Peterson avatar
Steve Peterson: Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.
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