I love Philadelphia, although I certainly did not always feel this way. It’s important to me, for a number of reasons, to discuss how I perceive the current state of the city, but I do feel that I should first describe my own personal history, which I hope will inform the latter discussion. This first posting is intended to set the stage for two further pieces; one on the current state of this city and another to describe what we are working to do at Philadelphia Game Lab.
Where I Come From…
I was born here and lived in other cities before returning, and probably would have left a decade ago if not for family. When I was small, I lived in an Irish area that’s now posh, by the Schuylkill, where I played between trains in the railyard, near the slaughterhouse (which makes me sound even older than I am), my family left there as a wave of idealists moving to Germantown, not with the idea of gentrifying, but being in a diverse place, then on to England, where my father taught savage Europeans the value of direct marketing. Much of my life has been a combination of the cold-eyed use of quantitative data he inspired, and my own interest in collaborating with brilliant people in creative and technical initiatives.
I began my professional life as an artist, working in film, and funded myself as a grip in films and music videos in Philadelphia and NYC. I was then attended the American Film Institute in Los Angeles as one of the youngest people accepted into the program. While there, I worked with some amazing people, including Wally Pfister, with whom I collaborated on enough projects to know that he was a better cameraman than I was by a vast margin. Under the impression that I must be an inadequate cameraman, I decided that I would rather work with people like Wally, as a director and producer. It turns out that he’s simply the best cameraman in the world, so I may actually have been the second best, but the margin of difference could still be more than my ego could take. I was lucky to have worked with him on a number of projects after that in those roles, including a couple where we came to Philadelphia to film in locations here. I had always liked messing about with film chemistry, and the then dominant black box post production technologies, but in the early 1990s, I was increasingly involved with desktop postproduction. I did the first PAL edit on Avid in the US, and I remember having to look at tape to see eyeline in closeups (so poor was the digitized quality), so it was clearly a very crude beginning.
In 1994, I was back in Philadelphia, and talked a bunch of talented and creative friends into taking three months to build an interactive broadband narrative for the web, called Root. -And, yes, we knew that only a few dozen people at universities would even be able to view it, it just seemed like something that needed doing. Three of the 20 people involved in the project actually knew what a web browser was. One of the three, Chris Neitzert, led the technology implementation, I had met him at a party where we almost came to blows over film trivia, and he was then working at a parking lot. -He went on to be a “scientist” at Razorfish, and all sorts of other great stuff. When we were done, we set everyone in a room and people were blown away by their own work. I doubt we could have done it without the presence in Philadelphia of Nate Gasser at Libertynet, who was kicking ass in ways that most people couldn’t see or understand. By 1997, I was fully engaged in interactive work only, and the smaller team that had carried on after Root had cycled through doing some very cool artsy stuff with NYC entities of the time, as well as some commercial clients. At that point, though, it was clear that clients were where the money was, and no one but me was interested in that path.
Around that time, I met Brad Aronson, who is the only advertising person I’ve ever met who fully lives up to the promises he makes of data usage and personal integrity. -He’s also brilliant in his insights. We had a beer and discussed data in marketing, and I offered to build him a database solution that would work better than his spreadsheets. -Without fee, because I thought what was he was doing incredible, and I just wanted to be part of enhancing it. Instead, somehow, he hired me as chief technologist, and I joined him for a great year. He later sold his company to another firm, which was sold to Microsoft. After a year at ifrontier, a friend asked me to help build a new interactive division for Devon Direct, and since I’m clearly a bit obsessed with marketing data, and direct marketing entities live there, I left ifrontier to be executive producer at Devon Digital. At ifrontier and Devon, I had been involved in deep integrations of marketing into websites, including negotiations for fees. In 1999, I too, had tired of commercial client relationships, and negotiating cheap big ad placements was becoming a bit too much like shooting fish in a barrel. I realized that we in advertising were the primary revenue source for some apparently very large sites, and were not paying them nearly enough to sustain them. Worse, the content was not at all compelling, and I couldn’t see why anyone would find value in it. Fortunately, while at ifrontier, we had had a couple of clients in the game industry, and that was increasingly interesting to me; in large part because I think it’s a lot more fun to build stuff that people actually love, than to try to slip off passable content to marketers. I was looking forward to the upcoming launch of Playstation 2 in the following year, and realized that it was an important time to get out of advertising and into games.
I should mention that around this time I co-founded Philadelphia Area New Media association. Others, especially Ian Cross, were more involved in the conception, but I appreciated what he was thinking, and was one of three official co-founders. There was then a point of high-bubble, when folks felt the group should be more than just a bunch of folks having beer, and that it should grow up and charge fees. As part of that, it was integrated into the Eastern Tech Council, and I quit the organization. I felt that Panma’s primary value was actually in just folks having beer and talking; my leaving the organization, combined with new focus on games, meant that I effectively left contact with the local tech community.
I began to look around, and realized that I would have to enter games through marketing, and with Brad Aronson’s recommendation (as he was EB’s agency of record at the time), I began in marketing in Electronics Boutique’s new online division. Fortunately for me, in addition to Brad representing EB in online, the company had a terrible agency doing offline advertising. When I arrived, EB had already committed to a $10 million broadcast campaign for their new website. Now, in overall terms that wasn’t a vast sum, but I pointed out at the time that it would be completely wasted. The company felt it couldn’t back out gracefully, and I was the new guy, so I agreed to do anything I could to help. One thing I did was to get Spike Jonze to agree to direct the spots for a pittance, but the agency then offended him somehow so that he backed out. This story is significant primarily in that it’s how I went from marketing to business development. After the campaign ran, and EB looked at data, it became clear that the broadcast campaign had been worthless. We had a followup call with the agency, going through the deck that they had provided to pitch the campaign. I noticed, mid-call, that there was a page of the presentation that spec-ed a very high projected conversion rate of viewers to sales. On that number was an asterisk, with a note at the bottom that said “data from DMA” -the Direct Marketing Association. I pointed out that their expected conversions were for direct mail, not broadcast. Combined with this event, I suggested that a game industry entity with as much brand value and physical footprint should be getting a lot of value from strategic relationships and not worry so much about conventional marketing. There’s nothing that pleases a retailer as much as telling them not to spend money, and backing it up with data. I eventually became vice president of business development for the chain as a whole, and was fortunate to work under a CEO (Jeff Griffiths), who could see that the industry was moving away from physical media, and toward new technologies. He gave me wide latitude to push to alternative distribution, and when we were purchased at the end of 2005, I was in the process of negotiating licenses for us to publish games on consoles. During my time there, I also negotiated deals with mobile carriers, all of the big publishers (for weird stuff), launched the first triple-A online offering (with Enron’s backing, but that’s another story), as well as some fun mobile stuff with in-store bluetooth distribution of symbian games from devs who largely went on to success in the iPhone world. I also tried to convince Valve to go to a focus on online distribution a year before they did, but they (correctly) felt the time was not yet right for them.
When Electronics Boutique was purchased, I asked our CIO, Seth Levy, if he would do me the favor of ensuring I was the first person laid off for being unwilling to relocate to Grapevine, Texas. I should also mention that I respected Seth enough that when I first started at EB and he said “you’re a perfectionist, perfectionists never last in retail; you’ll be gone in six months!” I stayed six years to prove him wrong. However, since my value was entirely in being in a position to negotiate strategic deals, that value was minimized by that facts that I would be leaving soon and that GameStop took much more of a pushback position against changes in the industry.
About a year and a half before I left EB, a couple of guys from an existing tech company (outside of games) came to me to present add-on packs for games. These add-on packs were on discs and added content to existing games. If you’re not familiar with the game industry, pre-ubiquitous-connectivity a lot of publishers would sell such packs for big titles. But these guys had no relationships with publishers and their content didn’t look that great. I told them that it wouldn’t go anywhere. They asked me to wait and said they’d download better stuff into the game from their servers. They downloaded a clown army, and I told them that was their model. I then worked with them through issues over time. When I left EB, I had a list of projects I wanted to get into, and I asked this company (funded by Intel and others) to sell me the technology; they replied that their backers wouldn’t accept this, but would fund a new entity. At this point, the owners had been forced out of New Orleans by Katrina, and it seemed intriguing in a lot of ways to form a new company there at this time. We called the company GameFlood, for obvious reasons and because we hoped to facilitate a flood of content. I commuted to New Orleans for a year, when it was largely me and relief workers on the planes, and worked with asset developers all over the world, to populate what we were building. GameFlood carried on for a few years after that, but my vision had been of direct to consumer in game sales, and the technology wasn’t ideal for that, although the folks at GameFlood did some very neat stuff for small developers. -It may be that Unity’s latest efforts will specifically include much of what we had hoped to do, so I look forward to following that.
After leaving GameFlood, I briefly joined Greg Costikyan’s Manifesto Games project as president. Greg is a brilliant man, both in how he designs games and how he thinks of the nature of games. We had historically been on panels at places like GDC, with me representing digital distribution for evil big retail, and Greg representing indie development, and smart folks generally. I always liked Greg a lot, and was very intrigued by what he was working to do. In the early 2000′s I would always challenge Greg that if he could find me a dozen great indie titles in a year, I would have EB publish them and put them on a dedicated rack, but there were just never enough. -Which I know sounds unbelievable now. He had launched Manifesto in 2005, but was having trouble getting enough traction for next steps. I think he hit the issue that “innovators” most hate to run into, that this was a “visionary” project, especially as the industry passed through a technology change as he was working to get started. When he launched, there were few indie titles, but beginning to be more. However, the form of the existing titles tended to be Windows executables, delivered without the app store integration that we see now, and that adds value and continuity. Hence, he wasn’t able to curate as powerfully as he would have liked, and the games sold didn’t add to his potential for future sales. When I joined, it was to change the model into something with more integration into the store functionality, as well as to add browser-based content. However, I think we were too late in working to make this new iteration, and everyone really had the old version in mind still. I left when, after a few months, an article by Dean Takahashi panned the old model Manifesto, and it seemed that the original concept was too firmly embedded in everyone’s mind for us to effectively move to another approach.
In between all of these roles and sometimes around them, I have consulted for a variety of entities in the game industry. Usually, I take one of two roles. The first is to help companies to explore new opportunities and to model and negotiate industry relationships. -I have done this for retail and publishing concepts, and lately in the crossover to education and health. The second is to look at projects in games that have not succeeded and to help define the issues and possible remedies.
In 2009, I co-founded a company called superfluid with a physicist friend, Brana Vasilic (a really smart and incredibly moral man) and Douglas Rushkoff (a “futurist” and leading thinker in the value of the “sharing economy”). It was my first project in some years outside of the game industry, although the model was heavily inspired by my work with indie game developers and perception of their needs, and the transaction functionality by in-game currency models. We engaged with a lot of great people in building this, and worked through the whole “tech startup” model, including presenting at NYTech Meetup. The core idea was to find a way to facilitate online trust and project management in ways that would allow more volunteer projects to achieve completion; in part by ensuring reciprocity. The best parts of this project were conversations with people who truly believe in new models of collaboration and good, including the Ithaca Hours, time bank and LETS people, as well as economists working in more sophisticated ways toward some of these same goals. In building the site, and looking at usage, we realized that there are many, many people who will generously volunteer their time and resources toward projects they think may be credibly completed, and our system did support that. However, on the user side of the system, we came to recognize a barrier; that the vast majority of Americans have a hard time asking for help or reminding volunteers that promised help is late, and that very few people are of a nature that will allow them the confidence and resilience to manage a project. Hence, our options were to either create a system that would succeed as none had before in effectively helping ordinary folks to manage projects, or to build the system solely to bring together that small part of the population that already builds its own projects successfully. As the latter tends to already have all of the contacts, and favorite software, that it needs, we chose the former path, and were beginning to work to build it, with Karthik Swaminathan who was already involved in other projects. The project was moving slowly, and although it had a bit of glamor, due in large part to both the Rushkoff connection and growing interest in online currencies, I was spending increasing amounts of time in NYC and more time than I cared to in speaking with Austrian school economists.
This brings us to the summer before last, and I’ll diverge a bit to my personal situation at the time. I was married when I lived in LA and stayed married until the mid-2000s. Throughout my time at EB and after, I lived in Germantown and for most of that period was in others cities at least 25% of my time on game industry business. I have three children from that marriage, who are all wonderful humans. I couldn’t choose to leave Philadelphia, but I would say that from 1998 until 2009, I really didn’t live here. The Philadelphia of my childhood was a racist pit of Frank Rizzo, and the Philadelphia of my young adulthood was a place in which no one wanted to stay and almost all businesses formed in the suburbs, to avoid the city. -More on this in Part 2.
So, in 2011 I was in Philadelphia, drawn more and more to NYC by superfluid, but also, at the same time, during the prior year, I had met the woman I later married. She is from Boulder and a new Philadelphia true believer. She mocked me for not knowing anything at all about the city I lived in. -Seriously, I hadn’t been to a restaurant in this city for years, I just figured that was something for me to do in other towns. In any case, I did begin to get out, and I was really enjoying what Philadelphia had become, at the same time that I didn’t actually like how NYC had changed. In addition, I was deciding that I would really like to spend time helping to facilitate the trends I was seeing. People were doing very neat stuff, and smart young people were staying in town, rather than fleeing after graduation. Personally, I think that an element of these changes is widespread, in many other regions as well, with educated people leveraging what they’ve learned from a decade of social media to understand the high value of physical community and infrastructure; including a sort of bounceback from the idea that one can work anywhere, so we may as well be on an island, mountain or Portland, OR.
That was my situation, when Moira Baylsen, from the Arts, Culture and Creative Economy group in city hall invited me to participate in a panel discussion around starting a creative company in Philadelphia. As part of my presentation, I included a couple of slides of games developed by entities in Philadelphia. After the panel, when the floor was opened to attendees, two of the first to speak said, respectively: “People need to know that Philadelphia is a hub for game development!” and “We need to teach investors here that games are a great investment!” While Philadelphia is truly a great place to execute creative technical projects, we have lower per capita professional involvement in games than any other large city in North America and are eclipsed by Baltimore in this area. To the second point, it’s probably never a good idea to try to teach investors what to invest in; both because it’s seldom viable, so won’t get you the highly knowledgable investor you want, and because games are not a great place to splash funds. At the same time, game are great specifically because they are usually not part of the conventional tech startup ecosystem, with its need for venture capital.
The term of art “tech startup” implies very specific things in terms of a defined desirable model, and is highly investor dependent for implementation beyond early stages. Tech Startups require that a concept be initiated that can scale massively in usage and revenue without directly proportional increase in cost of business. To oversimplify the model, two or three guys get together, one a tech and one a business/marketing expert, and develop a plan and usually a minimum viable online product. At this point, or just after, some element of a group in which they are in social contact provides an “angel round” of $75k-$300k, they then move it forward and with the help of these investors to seek subsequent rounds to scale. A hard thing for places like Philadelphia is that historically people have fled the city (to suburbs or far away), so we lack a mature and active tech community with hunger for this sort of investment. In addition, this is one of the most conservative cities in the US. -New Philadelphia may be different, but the reins of government and mature business are in very conservative hands. Service industry jobs and manufacturing, as with games, seldom fit into this tech startup model, and in truth, the model has elements contrary to the region’s most immediate needs in job training and creation.
Games are not like that. A game developer almost invariably makes a game not because its use will change consumer behavior massively, but because it will fit into current or upcoming business opportunities, on platforms with installed bases of scale. Game development is artisanal and iterative: Rovio made games for a decade before its smash hit Angry Birds. If they had been funded at the start, with gross expectations for rapid growth, they could easily have dissolved as a team, long before creating that success. However, small or indie game developers are generally lean teams that live from one modest success to another, while building resources and talent. A developer of more than two individuals, with more than two games released is quite likely to be successful in being self supporting, at the least. Game developers benefit from social contacts, but not the same sort of financially oriented contacts that are meat to tech startups.
As we departed the platform, Chris Wink, who was moderating the panel on Creative Business in Philadelphia, said that he had never seen a friendly audience turn into an angry mob as quickly as when I had replied to the audience feedback on games. That night I decided that I could either never mention the city’s potential in game development again, or I would need to take an active involvement. That night, I wrote an email to about twenty trusted friends in the game industry, primarily asking the simple question: “if there were a dozen teams doing interesting stuff in games in a place in Philadelphia; first, do you think that would be a good idea, and second, would you actively support it?” Since that week, I have been working actively on the concept more than full time, so you can see what the answer was. We’ll have some further announcements over the next few weeks, and in the meantime, I’ll post about what Philadelphia Game Lab has been doing and what it’s doing next, as well as something addressing the current state of the city and opportunities here.