How to Be a Gaming Entrepreneur

So you want to launch the next Farmville? Here's how, as told through a game-design document.
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This story appears in the June 2011 issue of . Subscribe »

It is the year 2011, and you are a cubicle farmer who dreams of fame and fortune. Smartphones and social gaming platforms like Facebook have given everyone--even you, especially you--a shot at making millions with a hit game.

You've heard the tales of Zynga and Rovio: The first rose from humble startup origins in 2007 to become the overlord of Facebook gaming with offerings like FarmVille and Mafia Wars, and now boasts a valuation of roughly $10 billion. The latter is responsible for the Angry Birds iPhone game, which morphed into a multimillion-dollar franchise, complete with multiplatform apps, plush toys, console titles and a feature film in the works, all within a year and a half.

Now it is your turn.

Play Modes: On your quest to become a video game entrepreneur, play using one of the three gameplay modes: beginner, intermediate or advanced.

Experience Level: Beginner
Description: For novices with no gaming background, casual, Flash-enabled game titles are best because they are easiest to develop and distribute.

Character: Robert van Gool, a smooth-talking ex-PR guy who founded and self-funded casual gaming company Gonzo Games in 2008.

Base: A brightly painted two-room space in downtown San Francisco and a 10-person office in Manila, Philippines.

Story: Van Gool quit PR to do something "fun and somewhat recession-proof." He came up with a money game concept: Potty Racers, featuring a stick figure wheeling a porta-potty down the hill and jump-flying it as far as possible without--er, spilling it. Obviously, his pitch to Nickelodeon's Addicting Games Network was successful.

30+: Flash and iPhone games published or under development

14: Employees

$500,000: Revenue by this time next year

Developer. Van Gool found a great developer by browsing portfolios on He chose wisely: From start to finish, it took six weeks to complete the game.

Publisher. He scored a licensing deal with MTV Networks, which, fortunately, promotes the hell out of Potty Racers. But, van Gool says, he would have taken any publisher for his first game just to get it out there. Barring that, he would have handed out the game for free and hoped it got enough attention to score him a deal on a second game. (Hint: "Hang on to as much intellectual property as you can, in case the game takes off and becomes franchise-worthy.")

Mochibot. Van Gool uses this free service to track how many times a game is played and how many websites have picked it up. Mochi ads are also a way to earn a little extra money at first.

Challenge: To maintain control over Gonzo Games' intellectual property, van Gool wants to grow with little or no outside funding, which means he has to plug revenues right back into the company, making growth slower and business riskier.

Strat: Research. Every game element is strategic. Van Gool looks into popular themes, trends and game mechanics (stick figures, poop, jump flights) to find out what people like to play. The result? He says 80 percent of his games are successes.

Upgrades: Introduction of freemium game elements, starting with the summer release of Potty Racers 3; plans to hire another five people in Manila and an executive in San Francisco; experimenting with different platforms and longer gameplay formats.

Kellee Santiago
Kellee Santiago
Photo© David Johnson

Experience Level: Intermediate

Description: For those with game development skills, creating a unique console game title could capture the attention of a major console publisher looking to stock digital shelves.

Characters: University of Southern California grads Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen, both still rocking the chill student vibe. They co-founded thatgamecompany in 2006 and scored a three-game PlayStation Network deal with Sony Computer Entertainment.

Base: A narrow, second-floor corner unit owned by Sony in Santa Monica, Calif., with a fully equipped test-play room that doubles as a lecture hall for staff lunch presentations on Wednesdays. (Chen's last contribution: "The HiStory of China." Yep, all 5,000 years of it.)

Story: The pair spun tgc out of their final school project, Cloud, a free, downloadable PC game that experimented with a different kind of gameplay: one with no death or time limits that still provided an emotional experience. The title, about a boy in a hospital bed dreaming of flying through the clouds, went viral, with 350,000 downloads in three months. Sony came knocking.

3: Console games--in order, flOw, Flower and the forthcoming Journey

12: Employees

7x: How much more expensive the production costs were for Journey versus flOw

Prototype. According to Santiago, in order to get into console games, they needed to have made a console game. (Hint: "At the very least, you should prototype early ideas in Flash to have something to show at competitions and festivals.")

Playtesters. They had to prove that people wanted to play their games by getting them into playtesters' hands. Santiago says they recruit from universities and online developer communities like TIGSource.

Designer-producers. Unlike at other studios, all tgc employees are designers and producers. After all, Santiago says, to make a different kind of game, you have to make it with a different methodology.

Challenge: A post-PlayStation future. Tgc will have to tackle more than one project at a time and figure out where to evolve next.

Strat: Positioning. Tgc stands out because the company deliberately makes games that other studios don't--ones that have a "unique voice and viewpoint on the world." Pitting themselves against everyone else would put them at a huge disadvantage.

Upgrades: Looking into rich opportunities in casual gaming on phones and browsers.


Experience Level: Advanced

Description: Developers with the skills to impress YouWeb founder Peter Relan with their social game concepts will benefit from his Midas touch. But the pressure's on: Says Relan, "I'm looking for the next Zuckerberg, the next creative genius that will change the world."

Base: The top floors of a downtown Burlingame, Calif., office, boasting all the standard startup perks: catered lunch, well-stocked kitchens, open workspaces--and lots of young people wearing big headphones.

Character 1: Suren Markosian, co-founder of CrowdStar, the social gaming company that developed Happy Aquarium and It Girl and is Zynga's closest competitor.

Spec: Telepathy. Can sense what different markets want. Even middle-aged women from Texas.

Power: 150 employees by the end of this year, up from two in 2008; the company is profitable and has more than 100 million gamers.

Strength: CrowdStar is experimenting with different platforms and will release its first mobile games this year.


  1. Inventing new entertainment instead of cloning existing game concepts--like boyfriends. In It Girl, you "flirt" to get a boyfriend, who can either be reliable but not give much point advantage or unreliable (because he can dump you) but give you a lot of advantage.
  2. Hiring hungry talent. Markosian didn't have a background in gaming. "I picked it up," he says. "People who have a passion in this industry are always welcome, and I've had a lot of luck hiring young people and being surprised by how good they are."

Character 2: Jason Citron, 2004 Full Sail University valedictorian who developed the iPhone game Aurora Feint and founded the world's largest mobile social gaming network OpenFeint (think Xbox Live meets Facebook for mobile).

Spec: Superhuman strength. Can stay awake for several days straight when working on a project.

Power: There are approximately 75 million players, 5,000 games and 18,000 developers using OpenFeint technology.
Strength: The company recently raised $12 million in funding, and is doubling team size this year.


  1. Being open-minded. "The thing you start out doing is never the thing you end up doing," Citron says. OpenFeint was his fourth idea at YouWeb, after a dating site and a card game.
  2. Taking advantage of trends. Citron's ideas evolved with the changing market. Right now, he says, the biggest opportunities in development are in mobile--probably on a digital download platform like the iPhone--using the "more forgiving" freemium business model.

Character 3: Rajat Gupta, founder of iSwifter, a Flash game streaming service that allows instant play on smartphones and tablets.

Spec: Shapeshifting. Can somehow switch seamlessly from enterprise software to consumer gaming.

Power: The company launched in December, but already has deals with game companies representing around 40 million players.

Strength: iSwifter is doubling the number of employees to 10, stat.


  1. Delivering a solution. Until now, bringing a Facebook game to the iOS took several months. Now there's no need for upfront investment or to wait on Apple to approve updates.
  2. Being nimble. Early-stage startups don't have control over a lot of things, Gupta says. So you have to be able to separate the signals from the noise and shift directions to keep sight of the end goal.
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