SM: Where did you get the idea for your current venture? What is your domain experience in the segment? Any particular reason that led you up to this venture?
JW: I co-founded my first startup in 1997, with that same roommate from Boston. While trying to raise capital and recruit a head of engineering, the potential VP ended up recruiting us into SegaSoft Networks. I became the Director of Product Development. We started from scratch and made an amazing start to building what would have looked like Xbox Live Arcade, had it shipped. (Our system was eventually sold to Nokia and became the gaming network for the N-Gage.)
On top of the great technology, great team, and the fact that we were getting paid to make a video game network, the head of the (parent) company was an inspiring man. Okawa-san lived in Japan when the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was his dream to end war by uniting the children of the world through multiplayer gaming, and he used some of his billions to make sure a modem shipped with the Dreamcast console. Unfortunately, SEGA couldn’t hold itself together.
After ‘vacationing’ for a luxurious 14 hours, I moved next door to Macromedia to help spin Shockwave.com out as the premier internet entertainment destination. We quickly built a sizable audience of well over 10 million monthly unique visitors. This was before most ‘normal’ people had Internet access, period, let alone broadband. I ran product management and then the games business, which was responsible for most of the traffic and revenue but was definitely the less sexy part of the company.
I found myself in the fortunate position to lead the team building the first purely digital internet game service. On May 1, 2001 we launched a downloadable game product that was a composition of ten Midway games including Spy Hunger, Rampage, Defender, Joust, and Tapper. The game was free to try but a $20 credit card charge was required to purchase and own forever. The reasons to buy were to play full-screen, offline, and to have access to the arcade operator settings that controlled difficulty. Those arcade machines were meant to eat quarters quickly, which could be very frustrating, whereas we wanted to sell people an experience optimized for longer sessions. The user experience was simple, compelling, and sold beyond expectations. A new industry was born!