By L.A. LOREK
Founder of SiliconHillsNews.com
Fashioned after Angry Birds, the game features a slingshot to fling caricatures of protestor Anna Hazare and others at Indian politicians. The game took just three days to make using the GameSalad creation platform.
“Angry Anna speaks to games as communications tools,” said Michael Agustin, co-founder of Austin-based GameSalad.
In its first week, people played the game more than 250,000 times. The viral game, created on HTML5, the web’s publishing language, allowed it to reach an audience quickly. Players could log on to the game using their computers without downloading additional software or plug-ins. They could also easily share the game by embedding it on websites or posting it to Twitter or Facebook. It’s just like a YouTube video and that’s what the GameSalad founders set out to do when they created the company. They wanted to develop the “Youtube” of game creation platforms online.
“We wanted to democratize the creation of video games,” Agustin said, during a recent interview at the company’s new headquarters at 9600 Great Hills Trail.
And that is what the GameSalad Creator does. It lets anyone design, publish and distribute games online, regardless of their skill level, with easy to use, drag and drop tools that require no coding. GameSalad games can be published to all kinds of platforms including iOS devices like the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch, Mac desktops, or to the Web.
So far, people have built and published 30,000 games with the GameSalad Creator. That includes more than 40 top 100 games in Apple’s App Store.
“We see 1,000 new games a month,” Agustin said.
The GameSalad Creator tools are easy to use and that appeals to everyone from professional game developers to kids.
Abdulrahman Al Zanki, a 15-year-old in Afghanistan, created Doodle Destroy in three days using the GameSalad tools. It has been downloaded nearly 1 million times. He’s since built eight other games for the iPhone and iPad.
Conner Haines, an 11-year-old CEO of FlipFlopGames, builds games for kids with cancer using the GameSalad platform. He creates the games for free and any proceeds from the sale of a game goes to the Make A Wish Foundation.
“I really like to think of game or app ideas and just bring them to life and let the whole world play or use them,” Haines wrote on his website.
Agustin formed GameSalad, formerly known as Gendai Games, with Tan Tran, and Dan Treiman in 2007.
“We wanted to enable people to create content easily online,” Agustin said.
It’s working. GameSalad is the number one platform for iOS development and boasts 300,000 developers, Agustin said. The company has 42 employees in Austin, San Francisco and Los Angeles and 20 contractors and it is hiring.
“We are always looking out for top folks,” Agustin said. “We’re one of the largest game companies in the world.”
Initially, Agustin and the other founders bootstrapped the company for three years. That is they put their own money into it and ran it off the revenues generated from the business. They joined the Austin Technology Incubator in July of 2009 and worked out of its offices until recently. GameSalad graduated last month from ATI.
ATI’s former IT and Wireless Director Bart Bohn met the GameSalad founders at a 2008 Texas Funding Symposium. He then invited them to the 2008 Wireless Seed Stage Forum and the 2009 Entrepreneur’s Lounge at SXSW.
“Michael, Tan and Dan and the rest of the crew are extremely passionate about what they are doing,” said Bohn, now CEO and founder of AuMANIL. “The time they spent working on GameSalad early on has really paid off.”
The founders got a product up early, sold games and funded their company with the proceeds, Bohn said.
“It let them progress farther in the maturation process,” Bohn said. “It gave them a better vision of their company and they could move faster when they raised money.” They could also hold on to a larger ownership stake, he said.
The GameSalad founders also saw the potential early on in the mobile space, Bohn said.
Venture Capitalist Aziz Gilani with DFJ Mercury in Houston first met Agustin at SXSW in 2009.
“I knew he was going to do something great, but was unconvinced about the market he was going after (desktop casual games.) We still kept in touch, and spent some time together at SXSW 2010,” Gilani said. “He had shifted his focus to iOS which was an area that I was much more excited about. After SXSW I went back to Houston and bought a Mac so that I could install and play with the tool. I was floored by how easy it was to create games and knew we had a hit on our hands.”
Houston-based DFJ Mercury led a $1.1 million seed investment in GameSalad in July 2010. Then in March of 2011, the firm participated in the $6.1M Series A financing led by Steamboat Ventures, Disney’s venture capital firm.
With the venture investment, Disney Executive Steve Felter, who previously worked as chief operating officer of DigiSynd, a social media marketing company Disney acquired, became the chief executive officer. He works out of San Francisco along with Agustin, who became the chief products officer. Frank Coppersmith also joined GameSalad last year and he oversees the Austin office as the company’s chief operating officer. Previously, he served as vice president of finance and administration for Austin-based Challenge Online Games, which Zynga acquired in 2010.
The competitive advantage GameSalad has is its intense focus on making game design accessible, Gilani said.
“GameSalad was designed from the ground up to be a code-free, yet insanely powerful game design tool that anyone can use,” Gilani said. “That is an extremely hard feat to accomplish, and is only possible because of Michael’s heritage from Carnegie Mellon’s Entertainment Technology Center.”
At Carnegie Mellon University, Agustin studied with Randy Pausch, professor and founder of the Entertainment Technology Center. Pausch died in 2008 from pancreatic cancer. He wrote The Last Lecture, which became a New York Times bestseller.
Pausch pioneered the non-profit Alice project, an innovative 3-D environment that teaches programming to young people via storytelling and interactive game playing.
Pausch made quite an impression on Agustin and his quest to democratize the game development and distribution industry. Agustin received his master’s degree from Carnegie Mellon and his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas in computer programming.
“GameSalad was also blessed by making several smart strategic decisions early on,” said Galini with DFJ Mercury. “They were building games with HTML5 before it was trendy. They also decided very early on to deeply engage with their community of developers, enlisting their biggest contributors as “Sous Chefs” and having an extremely open dialogue with them about the company’s direction. GameSalad understands that it can’t be successful unless its game creators are successful, so their opinions have a huge impact on the direction of the company.”
In 2012, GameSalad is focused on its game developers and looking for more ways to generate profit for them, Agustin said. It is also going to expand the feature set of its existing tools and focus on distributing games internationally. Europe is the second largest market behind the United States for GameSalad and it’s looking to expand into Asia.
On Austin’s North side on technology row, the GameSalad offices, outfitted with IKEA furniture, are filled with game developers. Posters of its games developed by its own programming team, hang on the walls.
“They are very focused and very dedicated,” Bohn said. “They went out and learned a bunch from a lot of people in the industry. Their passion and their ability to listen and evolve and take feedback and incorporate that into what they are doing has helped lead to their success. I’m so excited for what they are doing. I end up being a huge cheerleader for them.”