Thursday, June 30, 2011
Interview with Howard Marks, Gamzee
Story by Benjamin F. Kuo
Earlier this month, Los Angeles-based Gamzee (www.gamzee.com), a new game company founded by Howard Marks, the co-founder of Activision and Acclaim Games, announced a seed round of funding. We caught up with Howard to hear about what Gamzee is all about, and where he thinks the next big thing in games is going to be.
What is Gamzee all about?
Howard Marks: We started our business in April. The reason we started, is that we realized that Facebook would soon be releasing a new version of Facebook based on HTML5. Their view was that HTML5 would allow them to replace the notion of having to download a Facebook App into your phone or tablet, and release them from the idea that they have to have nine different apps on different platforms, and have to maintain all of them. That would also give them one, unified platform for Facebook on the web, mobile tablet platforms, and so on, so that every time they release a new version of their platform it will work on every mobile phone, whether that was Android, Windows, or Blackberry. The second benefit of that, is that when someone builds a Facebook app, they can run anywhere, and you will not have to build your own app for the phone. Right now, those Facebook apps only work on the web. Our concept, in making games, is to format them in HTML5, make them available for every platform, and in particular, sit on top of the new Facebook platform. We're way early on that opportunity, of course, because it won't exist until a few months for now.
When did you decide to start Gamzee?
Howard Marks: I was the co-founder of Activision in the early 1990's, when me and my partner, Bobby Kotick, became the largest shareholder of Activision, and restructured the company. We started the firm from scratch, basically with just ten people. We organized the resurgence of the company, then I left in 1998 and started a business in distance learning. I returned to the gaming industry in 2005, when I started Acclaim Games, which we then sold to Playdom. I left after the transition in January, and started Gamzee in April. It was just a couple of months of rest, not much, but I spent most of my time thinking about the next thing. I spent quite a bit of time with Facebook, Googke, and all of the other different players in the industry, and tried to draw from that what I thought would be the best opportunity possible.
There's been a dramatic shift in recent years from the traditional videogame model, to social, mobile, and casual games. What are game companies going to look like in the future?
Howard Marks: In 2005, when I started Acclaim, I believed the future of games were free to play, online games. Today, it's not far from what I thought it would become, though it didn't grow as fast as I thought it would. Facebook really saved the day, however, with games of Facebook which are free to play online. I didn't predict Facebook, but I just thought something would happen in that area. I think now, mobile games and tablet games are becoming important, because people will have three to four times the number of mobile devices than PCS, and they are spending a lot more time with mobile devices than their PCs. Theoretically, you can play your game on your PC, then leave your PC and continue to play that game on your phone, or on a tablet, or whatever you choose. In many ways, those devices are a better platform, although there are some negatives to it--you certainly can't do things like World of Warcraft on them. But, most importantly, when you make those tablets and phones a social platform--which they are not today, but will once Facebook really delivers on a social platform--you'll be able to click and play games, and you won't have to download installs any more. It's not for every game, but it will initially be great for casual games as those phones get better, the software gets better, and we'll eventually see 3D, multiplayer games as well. There is a tremendous opportunity to be early in this market, to be first in the mobile social games market. It seems a logical market to exploit and to try and do something.
Are you finding Gamzee is different that what you've previously done at Activision and Acclaim?
Howard Marks: It is different. HTML5 requires a skill set which is different than making games for the web, which were traditionally done in Flash, or for online games, which were in C++. Because of that, we automatically see a different type of talent and skill set. It's also much faster to develop on HTML5 than it is with other, traditional languages, like Flash. Flash is not a game programming language, and actually started as an animation tool. It has evolved into multimedia, but making games in Flash is actually really difficult. It turns out that HTML5 was designed for the web, and there are plenty of tools designed around it which are really fancy. It already has a big community round it, and it's an open language, whereas Flash is a closed system. I personally think that will make it easier to create games and some real interactivity. On the other hand, since we're at the beginning of the cycle, things are always difficult and not easy, we've got to do lots of experimentation ourselves, which is not easy. But, we're at the beginning of a new era. I think that the reason it will be successful is that it is available 100 percent--on every platform, on every mobile phone, every tablet--all of them have HTML5 on it.
How fast do you think the market for HTML5 games will develop?
Howard Marks: I think Facebook has a tendency to change markets in a significant way. They've proven that in many ways. They've proven that with social networking, proven that with apps, proven that with Facebook credits. They're an amazing company, which makes things universal very quickly. The Like button is a good example. Facebook is saying, look guys, we're building our next platform in HTML5, we're going to allow people like Howard and Gamzee to make games right from the mobile platform, and you can monetize these, and you don't have to write apps specifically for Apples iPhone or anything. That certainly can change the outlook within months. We think it could be a very fast process, and that's what we're counting on. I don't think we'll have to wait even two years for it to happen, with Facebook I think things could happen in just a couple of months, making it the de-facto way people will use a lot of content on their phones. I know lots of budding companies making games on the iPhone, who are spending a lot of money converting those games to Android. They're frustrated, and they haven't event looked yet at things like Symbian or Windows Mobile at all. Blackberry isn't on their roadmap. If you could make your app work everywhere, that would be better.
Will the traditional game makers be able to adapt to this new environment?
Howard Marks: What happened with Zynga is a great example. When there is a new platform, there will be new entrants as well. And, I would say that most existing players will be coming in later, because they'll have difficulty transforming their engineering teams and products plans to a new platform. They're so busy with what they're already doing. I think HTML5 is going to allow new entrants to come in, but it will also allow existing, aggressive, and smart companies to convert or pivot their business. I do have to tell you that,.by and large, the big companies are not doing anything, which I think is shocking.
Will you be launching a single title or a portfolio of titles at launch?
Howard Marks: We're building a platform, starting with one game. You have to start somewhere. Once we've started that first game, we'll go through a rapid development cycle and eventually have multiple games at the same time. Our goal is to launch with Facebook, and our goal is to have one or more games several months later. We're hiring engineers aggressively to meet those goals.