So I have some news.
It's been an incredible year for me, both personally and professionally. My writing continues to travel farther than I had imagined possible. I've been involved in many exciting projects and I've made many new friends in every sector of the industry. I've also been very lucky (although my entrepreneurial friends maintain you make your own luck), particularly when I received an email from the US State Dept asking me to check my immigration status in July.
After applying many times over the last 20 years, my wife and I had finally won a pair of Diversity Visas (also known as winning the green card lottery). This meant we could legally live and work in the USA as permanent residents, untethered to any one company or industry. It's a type of visa that over 5 million people apply for every year, and you have about a 1% chance in any given year of winning. Which, given how well things have been going otherwise, is frankly amazing timing.
The visa also opened the door to my second big stroke of luck: Hearing the news, a startup contacted me and offered me a creative director position to help them change the gaming world. And the unusual thing is that I think this startup might just be crazy/ambitious enough to do it.
No, really. And that's why we're moving to the USA.
The Big Opportunity
The startup's name is Jawfish Games. They've been in operation for nearly a year, and their story so far is fascinating.
They began as the key members of a technical team which specialised in developing fast and reliable multiplayer servers for an online poker service. However (owing to a variety of reasons stemming from the US government's clampdown on online gambling) that business became non-viable, and the tech team members found themselves out of work. So they matched up with a guy named Phil Gordon and founded a games company with a rare skill set.
Why, Phil asked, was it that so many social games had asynchronous, content-led designs? Why did they always have to nudge, beg and cajole users to return? Why was it that certain action-based games (such as social poker or Blitz games) didn't seem to need that nag factor so much? How many games would be improved by the addition of multiplayer? And finally: why wasn’t anyone really doing this right yet?
So, not the usual async social sim model then. Something very different in fact. They wondered whether there might be a market gap for fast-paced, quick-turnaround, synchronous multiplayer games, and whether they might be the team to deliver on that promise. So they set to work and created a demo game named Word Rack to test their theory that even the simplest games would work well in multi.
Word Rack is a very simple competitive game in which players vie to win a mini-tournament by making words during 30 second rounds. They play concurrently and can see each others' progress on a leader board next to the game. At the end of each round, the worst player (or players, depending on which game type you play) is eliminated and the remaining players qualify for the next round. Eventually there's a winner, who is rewarded with some virtual chips.
It's pretty simple stuff, initially intended only to function as a test environment to try out some technologies, but actually it's a lot of fun and its results so far have been very encouraging. Word Rack seems to attract very long average game sessions (30+ minutes per session, many players playing 2 or more sessions per day). It has a high frequency of repeat visits, indicating that it could have traction. It has had almost no marketing or promotion (which is why you've likely never heard of it), but for those that do happen to run across it, it seems very sticky.
So Jawfish is onto something, although quite what that is remains an open question, one that I'd like to help answer. As many of you know, I am hard on the many trends in gaming that I consider rooted on false premises or stuck in ruts. I believe that emergent play is the most important part of determining whether a game is fun, and the most likely determinant in whether it will show traction in the long term. Without the joy of winning while mastering fair game dynamics (fun), trying to make a game sustain in the long term is a pretty thankless task.
Video games are an art as they are today and often best interpreted through the lens of sports rather than board games. And their future is tightly wound with free-to-play economics. Though we come from very different places, the Jawfish people believe those things too. So together, we form a tribe. Fast multiplayer gaming is the sort of thing that could disrupt what we think we know and shape the industry's next big gear-shift.
How could I not be a part of that?
In and of themselves, those are interesting reasons to join a startup and help to mould it. As a consultant I see many companies who really struggle to understand that the games business is really all about traction, but Jawfish certainly grasps how important it is. However that's not the only reason my wife and I liked them. They also demonstrated great character.
When I first mentioned on Twitter that I had been selected for a visa, Phil offered me a job on the spot. We had done a little consulting work earlier in the year, and the team were big fans of What Games Are. Nonetheless, the offer came out of the blue. We decided that my wife and I should visit Jawfish, spend some time in Seattle, and see if there was, as they say, a good fit.
We were not disappointed. We all got on famously right from the start. It turned out that Jawfish is a group of funny, welcoming and gracious people all too happy to help with all of our needs. Of especial importance was the fact that my wife's career also has to be satisfied by the move (we do not have children, and so we both work full time) - and the team took this in hand. Richard Averitt, the COO, particularly made a point of setting up some introductions and contacts for my wife in the Washington wine industry (wine is very much her passion and profession).
They were not at all pushy. If you'd flown two people from Europe and put them up in a nice hotel, you would think that you might be. But not these guys. They were just happy to be considered as a potential company in which I might choose to work, and if not then no harm no foul.
If I sound a little overheated in relaying all of this, apologies. However it's hard not to convey just how much it feels like the opportunity of a lifetime: to make a dramatic difference in the way that games are played today in line with the values that I hold most dear. In a city that we could very easily grow to love. With a group of great people to make it real. Seriously, how often does that happen?
What's The Role?
While Jawfish has a great technical team and superb ideas, they don't yet have a depth of game design experience from which to draw. They have great instincts, but could use a more experienced perspective on why some things work better than others, and to see beyond immediate issues of development and measurement and how they could be fashioned into something bigger. They know that this insight is a skill set that they lack, and they believe that I have it. They want me to be the creative lead who helps harness their engineering and art talent, refine their ideas, mechanics, helps set the game direction and gets all Steve-Jobsy (if needs be) about the execution.
However What Games Are and my other writings will not disappear or be co-opted. They'll remain 100% independent. If I want to write a post that bemoans the state of Jawfish because I think it's all going wrong, that's fine. Also: What Games Are will not become the blog that only talks about fast multiplayer gaming. Its mission remains broad as well as deep. My book also still continues (and I hope to have news on that in the new year), and will be completely independent of the company.
But moving to Seattle and joining Jawfish does mean that I won't be accepting consulting work beyond February. Consulting has been a wild and fascinating ride these last three years, but creative direction is a serious endeavour of responsibility and trust, and I have to treat it thus. I'm perfectly serious when I say that there is the gem of something at this company and what it's trying to do, so - win or lose - it deserves all of my attention.
So Long London
I'm really looking forward to going but also sad to be leaving. I've lived in London for nearly 11 years, and made many friends along the way. I am reliably informed by some of them that there will be at least one London Games blowout party to celebrate my leaving (at last!).
Hopefully I will see many of you again, perhaps at GDC or elsewhere. I also hope the games community in Seattle will welcome me with open arms. Fellow gamedev rogues who live there tell me that it's a vibrant (if damp) town and state with much to see and do, and an industry to match. Also it helps that Seattlers (Seattlans?) seem like good folks in general.
It being America, however, this means I will finally have to learn to drive.
See you on the flip side!