The industry has shifted a lot over time — the move to always online, the rise of mobile, etc. Every time a platform launches, a technology emerges or a political shift occurs, it’s likely to impact games. These shifts lead to opportunities, and each time the game business continues to grow. I’ve lived through a number of shifts… console transitions, aggressive price drops, fighting off disintermediation, free-to-play, the rise of mobile, etc., and have spent a lot of time thinking about that sort of thing. It’s what caused me to leave EA for Zynga many years ago.
More recently, the pandemic, the move of games into the center of culture, and global competition have made me think about what the next generation of game companies might look like… at the risk of sounding like Cranky Kong, let me meander a bit about the past and come back to why Fortis could only exist today.
Long ago, my eventual Tiburon co-founders (Jason Andersen and John Schappert) all worked and lived in California. When it came time to start a company, we decided to move to Orlando, Florida. Why? Because it was cheaper and we thought we could survive a lot longer and make more games. All three of us were engineers and we knew games were a talent-driven business because in those days many Super NES and Sega Genesis games were being developed by small teams, 1–2 engineers, 1–5 artists, and a producer. Three engineers meant we could build three games, and as a self-funded developer, games meant cash flow.
When we told people in the game business we were moving to Florida, the biggest question we faced was talent; nobody in Florida had video game experience. We found talent by being scrappy, scouring the Apple ][GS and PC emulator scenes looking for people who could write optimized assembly language and relocated them… We recruited passionate people from universities and relocated them. Post EA acquisition, we bought a game developer in NJ and relocated the team to Orlando. I learned talent exists everywhere, and people who wanted to live in Orlando were thankful for the opportunity to work in games. [With Fortis, opening the talent aperture and recruiting globally was a no-brainer.]
Building an independent game studio, getting acquired by Electronic Arts and working to become a premier studio within EA was fun, challenging, and memorable. Entertaining millions of players and “owning” gamers in August with the launch of the latest Madden NFL game was certainly a career highlight. As an “independent studio” within EA, we were built around an office in Maitland, Florida, where the majority of the team worked from and had relocated to be nearby. From a technology standpoint, at EA-Tiburon, we used Polycom for vidcon and Cisco for sharing screens when working with groups in different locations. From 2010–2021, I saw the same independent studio model applied at Zynga and WB, using slightly different technologies, but a very similar setup.
The independent studio model is prevalent within large game publishers, these studios are generally owned but work pretty independently. The publisher cares most about getting a “gold master”, a version of the game the publisher can distribute to millions of people, and the publisher tends to care less about the game-making craft and leaves it up to the studio building the game. Thus independent studios allow studio heads to have autonomy, a bespoke set of values and a culture shaped in their fashion, which are usually very different from the publisher that owns the studio. The independent studio model is also used within “digital only” publishers, Zynga, Tencent and Netease come to mind, and the bet is on the game leader’s vision, passion and autonomy to build something they believe can win in the market. Companies like Tencent and Netease have thousands of developers and will greenlight multiple games in the same genre and will let the best game win. If you take this to the extreme, Apple, Google and Steam have “democratized” game development by reducing friction to publish a game and they put out thousands of games per year and let the best game win. While the independent studio model has led to a lot of success, the downside is it leads to silos, different tech stacks, different talent standards, and minimal cross-studio sharing, even though the same publisher may own the studios. For the independent and venture-funded studios, the outcomes are binary, success or closure/acquihire. Over the years, I’ve had to do layoffs and shut down studios; it is the worst part of the job because most of the time, the talented people affected were doing their jobs. Now, the independent studio model is focused on winning in the market; studio closures and layoffs are a casualty of this focus.
The independent studio model is “safer” for publishers because as a publisher the goal is to find a studio that has built a similar game and apply the publisher’s might: marketing, licenses, and distribution to the game. Larian built one of the top RPGs in Divinity Original Sin 2 before building Baldur’s Gate 3, and as a publisher, this is a “no brainer”. Yes, publishing can amplify a strong game, but if we double-click on the studio and team, it comes back to something I learned early co-founding Tiburon: the basic ingredients of a great game is talent and iteration. Candidly, EA made an incredibly risky decision to move Madden NFL ’97 (PlayStation and Saturn) to Tiburon, a 17-month-old developer who had only built games with small teams on 16-bit consoles. Madden NFL was a huge success in the 16-bit era, but the console transition proved challenging and NFL GameDay shipped with the PlayStation launch, while Madden NFL ’96 missed. While it ended up being a good decision, Madden NFL ‘97’s success was due to the strong brand and because EA pushed us to launch in September rather than the “traditional” November Football Friday launch. The console transition and Madden NFL ’97 put Tiburon on the map and led to investment from EA and ultimately acquisition. That said, it was our first game with four engineers and ten artists, and while Madden NFL sold well, it wasn’t a great game, and it took us four to five iterations of the game to hit our stride. The comfort of the sports business is product market fit was established. As a developer we could focus on building the best team we could and improve iteration speed, by learning from our successes and failures and improving tools, decision-making, and processes. After Madden NFL ’97, we were able to translate our talent and iteration into other games like the NCAA Football, NASCAR and Tiger Wood Golf, all while continuing to bring big new features to the Madden NFL product line.
A lot of the foundations of Fortis’ “Global Studio” concept come from my learnings while building Tiburon. There is so much value in having a “do what it takes” culture, a strong focus on our players, shareable technology and workflows, coding and documentation standards, and a team that understood what it takes to build great games and was trained on our processes and technologies. A more recent example of a studio model that worked was at Zynga San Francisco during the height of “social games” on Facebook. I left premium games in 2010 because I believed free-to-play was the future and if I didn’t evolve, I would become a dinosaur. The talent I met at Zynga SF was incredible, the engineers had created a back end capable of massive player scale, and the product management and data culture blew my mind. Not everything was perfect, but iteration speed was off the charts, when a product manager would learn something about the platform or customers on their game, by the following week, every other game in the portfolio had introduced the change. The teams within Zynga SF worked well together, and there was a shared Vision and Mission that the company rallied around.
In 2020, the world changed because of the global pandemic, forcing a change in how we work, while proving that it’s possible to run a company when everyone is at home. I was at WB Games at the time, and our three mobile-only game studios had less than 300 people. In contrast, when I was at EA-Tiburon, we were ~600 people, which made me question why our mobile studios needed to be subdivided, “why can’t we take all of this brain power and talent and work against creating a portfolio of hits?” The reason was simple: we had studio heads and an independent studio model that already existed, and changing the underlying structure would lead to months of reorganization and stall all game progress. From this experience, “Remote First Global Studio” became a fundamental underpinning of Fortis, starting the company as a single team with a shared vision, mission, and values around building great teams to drive innovation, collaboration, and the creation of great games. What we can do today that we couldn’t do five years ago is build a global team with a unified culture.
A Remote First Global Studio has a second key feature… access to global talent. Gaming is global, and where there are gamers, there are people who want to make games. It’s how I started; a love of games turned into wanting to make a game. I grew up in Iowa, and to get an opportunity to make games, I had to move to the Bay Area. I’ve shared some of my experiences in Orlando, FL, over the years, we must have relocated thousands of people to Florida. That has gone away, at Fortis, we embrace talent from all over the world, and the other cool byproduct of this is diversity. When we talk about diversity, we talk about our team looking like our audience of gamers, and we can back this up with a global and diverse team. Our value proposition to the leaders of the companies we acquired in Portugal, Romania, and Brazil, is the opportunity to be part of a team creating games for the global market, versus being contract labor for a big game franchise. Our leaders worldwide hear the same messages at the same time; gone is the idea that you have to be at HQ to be part of the leadership team.
The fascinating thing about these changes is that when the world changed, the companies that drive the industry haven’t evolved with it. I get it. It’s too complicated; you have leases, leaders with certain expectations, and existing technology… but it creates an opportunity.
At Fortis, we want to create worlds that matter; we want our game designs to challenge minds, to build communities and meaningful connections. And we are working hard to develop our company culture to drive our vision and mission. We are so fortunate to have the capital support to pursue an uncompromising vision and it’s why, after three decades of working in the game industry, I am as excited as ever about what is yet to come.
Authors: Steven Chiang