Chalking up latest wins and losses in the local videogame scene

Image from the forthcoming game The Flame in the Flood, from the Cambridge game development studio The Molasses Flood.
Image from the forthcoming game The Flame in the Flood, from the Cambridge game development studio The Molasses Flood.

2014 has been a turbulent year for the Boston-area videogame industry, from the shut-down of BioShock-maker Irrational Games in February to this week’s layoffs at Turbine, a division of Warner Bros. that creates games like Lord of the Rings Online. Another big hometown studio, Cambridge-based Harmonix Music Systems, named a new CEO and laid off about 37 people in May.

Adding a bit more news to the mix…

Many former Irrational Games employees have left town, taking jobs at game studios in Austin, Baltimore, Los Angeles, or San Francisco. Some have found jobs outside of the games field. But Irrational alums have also formed at least four new ventures based here.

The Molasses Flood, headquartered in Cambridge, is a six-person startup that is developing a wilderness survival-themed game called The Flame in the Flood, for Mac and PC. The team includes artists and engineers with experience at Irrational, Harmonix, and Bungie. And they blew past a $150,000 goal this month for their crowdfunding campaign; so far, they’ve raised $169,000 with about three weeks to go.

blackgloveDay for Night Games, founded by former Irrational writer Joe Fielder, also has a Kickstarter campaign that’s underway now; their goal for The Black Glove is $550,000. “There’s a group of six of us, mostly in and around Boston, currently working from our homes and meeting up together when we need to collaborate directly,” Fielder writes via e-mail. “We’ve also been working with a bevy of talented freelancers, most of them also formerly from the BioShock series.” If the Kickstarter is successful, Fielder says his hope is to rent space in a co-working facility in Cambridge.

The third startup from Irrational veterans is CodeBeast, a new software development firm offering services to the game industry. And the fourth, founded by Alexx Kay and Shane Mathews, is called Rafters. They’re in the early stages of development on a spy game called Covert. The game, Kay explains, is “based on the fundamental tension between the popular fantasy of being a James Bond/Jack Bauer type, fighting evil around the world — and the ugly realities that such work can often entail. If we succeed, we’ll be feeding the spy fantasy in the moment-by-moment gameplay, but subtly subverting and commenting upon it on larger time scales.”

Two other game startups have quietly vanished: one shut down, and one acquired for an undisclosed amount. Rgog Games was founded by serial entrepreneur Ofer Gneezy, previously CEO of the telecom company iBasis. The company released one Facebook game, Galaxy Master, in 2010. Gneezy says he and his small team stopped working on Rgog two years ago, but “it took a while to shut everything down.”

“I found that you have to get a best-seller,” Gneezy says. “It’s like writing a novel or making a movie. If it doesn’t catch on as a best-seller, it will not make money.” And Gneezy adds, “I think you have to crank out a lot of games to find one that is really catching on.” For Rgog, getting players to keep coming back and playing its game was a challenge, he says.

Gneezy was among the investors in Boston-based LuckyLabs, a company I first wrote about in 2011. LuckyLabs’ founder and CEO was Steve Kane, who had previously sold Gamesville to Lycos for $207 million in 1999.

scantopiaLuckyLabs initially built mobile games like LuckyBingo and Talking Angry Drunk Santa. The company raised more than $5 million from Atlas Venture and several individuals, including Gneezy. LuckyLabs launched a game called Scantopia in January, which invited consumers to use their phones to scan UPC codes on products and potentially win money. The scanning was intended to generate useful information for consumer product companies — and the app to potentially become a new marketing channel.

But LuckyLabs was quietly acquired over the summer by another venture-backed startup, InfoScout, which focuses on collecting data about shopping. Kane says that LuckyLabs’ Boston office has closed, and two employees moved west to join InfoScout in San Francisco. (The company had about 10 employees at its peak.) A price tag wasn’t disclosed.

“Acquiring consumers on the mobile platform is a nightmare,” Kane says, noting that most new apps do it by purchasing advertising on other mobile apps. “It’s expensive and getting more expensive every day, and the [player] retention numbers are just abysmal.” LuckyLabs’ games have disappeared from the iTunes and Google Play marketplaces.

What accounts for the continuing attraction of the games industry, given the immense odds stacked against producing a hit — and then another one after that?

Forrest Dowling, President of The Molasses Flood, explains it this way: “People engage with games on a level that you don’t really see with other media. There are not many other forms of entertainment where someone spends hundreds of hours engaged with something, as they do with a game. Also, the challenges you face in making a game are never solved problems. You can’t look up the answer. So one thing that doesn’t happen in the games business is just boredom. You’re never punching a timecard. You’re always finding new challenges and taking them on every day. That’s why people love the industry.”

The next major product launch from the local videogame cluster happens next Tuesday: Harmonix releases is long-awaited collaboration with Disney, Fantasia: Music Evolved.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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