The Five Year Pivot

“Ode” was created by Vincent Carrella,

I was thinking about how to summarize this podcast about my life and career, and kept coming back to “Shit Happens, Pivot.”  Basically I founded three companies in the interactive business, then went through gut-wrenching change about every five years in order to stay solvent. There were no roadmaps, no mentors…so naturally I made every mistake possible.

Oftentimes pivoting was necessary because of changes to hardware and operating systems.  We not only needed to change our development tools, especially in the pre-Unity days. As we discovered with the transition from PC to mobile, along with new hardware comes changes to  distribution channels (app stores) and business models (free to play). This affected game design as well as game genres, and required a complete mind shift to game services. In other words, most of these pivots were excruciatingly difficult.

You can listen to the podcast, or if you are interested in the abbreviated version of the twists and turns, so far, in my 30-year career, here goes.

  • I pivoted from academia to business, because i couldn’t stand the politics of university life and I wanted to make a difference. Doing memory research with nonsense syllables didn’t seem like the way to “put a dent in the universe.”  (Steve Jobs)
  • I went from being a design consultant to creating my own products, and completely underestimated how difficult that would be. Let’s face it…anyone who comes up with a character called “Mutanoid” deserves to fail!
  • I developed CDROM products for kids, until that business imploded at retail. Turns out, selling games for $0 isn’t a sustainable business model. Reminds me of the poor health of the kids mobile app market today.
  • I pivoted to digital distribution and decided to target women customers. They weren’t playing a lot of games at the time, but I knew women (like me) loved detective TV shows and books. I figured that if I just created content that was more appealing to women, they would come. Serendipity struck, and I sat next to Dick Wolf (the creator of Law & Order) at a benefit dinner. I persuaded him to make a game, the first one licensed by NBC Universal.  We went on to develop and publish many more games based on TV shows, like Murder, She Wrote and Criminal Minds, and distributed them through downloadable portals like Big Fish Games.  It was an excellent business while it lasted, but after about five years, smart phones came along and decimated sales.
  • How hard could it be to make mobile free-to-play games? The game mechanics seemed simple enough (e.g., match-3), the graphics were mostly 2D, and the app stores handled the financial transactions. We got lucky early on, with a mobile game called Atlantis: Pearls of the Deep. Google loved it, and promoted it heavily. Quickly we had a couple of million players. And then what did I decide to do? Instead of continuing to develop content for our game, update it and service our existing customers, I made the classic mistake. I assumed we should immediately start work on the sequel. I clearly didn’t understand the “games as service” model, and threw away the best chance our company had of building a robust  mobile business.
  • While still designing and developing games for mobile, I next pivoted to Augmented Reality. I was intrigued with the technology, plus it was obvious that there would be lots of opportunities in education, in addition to gaming. We won a Google competition to create a product for their new AR platform, which launched us into the world of computer vision. We needed help, however, and the decision to pursue this challenging new technology necessitated further changes that ultimately led to my joining HitPoint Studios, where I am currently, happily, President.

One thing I must make clear before closing. While I made all of the mistakes chronicled here, I have been truly fortunate in the people I have worked with over the years. Some amazingly talented, and kind people, without whom I’d have no stories to share.

As Stanley Kunitz concludes in his wonderful poem, The Layers:

Though I lack the art

to decipher it,

no doubt the next chapter

in my book of transformations

is already written.

I am not done with my changes.