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A Story Of GameLayers, Inc.

November 10, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 8 Next

[In 2007 Justin Hall co-founded GameLayers, a company with an ambitious plan to transform web surfing into a massively-multiplayer online game, using a Firefox toolbar.  GameLayers took on $2 million in funding and developed this toolbar game PMOG / The Nethernet, as well as two social RPG games for Facebook before ultimately shutting down in 2009.  The following article, taken from Hall's website, takes a sustained look back at the entire ride, and includes links to supporting business documentation, design documents and data.]

Between 2007 and 2009 GameLayers made a multiplayer game across all the content of the internet. I was the CEO of GameLayers and one of the co-founders.

Here I'll share stories and data from this online social game startup. This story covers prototyping, fund raising, company building, strategic shifting, winding down and moving on.

2006 Grad School Project

In 2006, I was an MFA graduate student at the University of Southern California Film School Interactive Media Division. I was living with M (name and likeness redacted by request), a creative writing major at USC.

A reformed journalist, I attended grad school to learn to make the kinds of software I'd only written about before. I was watching people play World of Warcraft and I wanted to have those kinds of immersive persistent social travels through dataspace. WoW looked like fun!

But I couldn't focus on one MMO -- too much time investment required. How about an MMO (massively-multiplayer online game) for life on the web? M and I teased out ideas for a role playing game mapped to web surfing, so you can earn points for doing what you're already doing!

First Draft of PMOG - D&D attributes for surfing the web

Mentored by a number of agreeable engineers, I rigged up a single player prototype, using a Firefox extension that saved my web history to a file, then parsed that web traffic with PHP to give myself Dungeons & Dragons-style attributes. Surfing a lot of Flickr gave me high dexterity but lowered my constitution. Surfing the Wall Street Journal raised by intelligence but lowered my wisdom: hand-coded game values for a few sites. M made art for each of the attributes; with some art from M it was enough to present at a conference Aula summer 2006 in Helsinki, Finland.

Game maven Alice Taylor was in the audience. She and Matt Locke at the BBC had a mandate to sponsor innovative educational interactive media projects. The BBC gave us a $20k grant to build a game to teach people web literacy, on the condition we hire a British programmer.

PMOG: The Passively Multiplayer Online Game

Late 2006 iFrame version of PMOG built with BBC funding

So now this became PMOG: The Passively Multiplayer Online Game. From fall 2006 to spring 2007 we worked: myself Justin Hall as producer/web monkey, game designer/writer M, and a UK game engineer Duncan Gough whom we found through our friend Matt Webb.

Mid-2007 Firefox sidebar version of PMOG (zoom out)

The BBC grant and the confines of Scott Fisher's Interactive Media Division (IMD) at USC provided a fine place to incubate our idea. We were supported and stimulated and challenged by smart folks with a good deadline and feedback mechanisms driving us towards a playable experience. IMD Professor Tracy Fullerton helped us run PMOG paper prototype tests; between the IMD and Alice Taylor we had good oversight to keep us focused on building a coherent experience in a finite amount of time.

Giant poster used to promote PMOG during a poster session in the lobby of the March 2007 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. Illustrations by the most excellent Colin Adams.

My last year there I was able to take a class "Business of Interactive Media" with a long-time game industry idol of mine, Jordan Weisman. He has started multiple successful game production companies based on new media and new markets. He shared data from his work with the class, giving me the spreadsheet tools to model the cost of running a business and launching projects. Now I could begin to imagine how to sustain and grow a new game idea.

We showed PMOG in the IMD May 2007 and we had 1,500 players! Duncan built a basic Firefox sidebar to host a working web annotation game with character records and user generated play objects across web sites, much of the functionality that we'd initially envisioned for the game. It felt like a game, or at least a fun web toy, with a chat room filling up with return players.

Here's some pictures and research documents from that early PMOG era.

As we shared our work online, people suggested we could raise some investment. We had a new type of game experience, a creative use of the Firefox platform. Maybe we were building some valuable part of the online entertainment landscape. Maybe we could be an internet startup! I had worked for some internet startups in the 1990s (HotWired, electric minds,, but I didn't really have a sense of how an idea turned into a business. Turns out you can raise money on an idea, and a prototype is even better!

This was mid-2007. The web was booming -- new services were being funded and taking off. There was a sense that you could grow an idea into something large, and it would make money from your large audience, or it would be acquired by Yahoo!/Microsoft/Google.

So we began presenting the game idea to venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. It was amazing to understand that this amateur game production could be seen as an economic vehicle.

Article Start Page 1 of 8 Next

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E McNeill
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Thanks for writing this. It's a perspective that rarely gets highlighted, but it's far more educational than the usual success story.

I get the sense that there's a lot of denigration of the "lifestyle business" in the tech world. Why, I wonder? I get why VCs wouldn't bother with it, but it seems like a lovely life for the founders, and there's often the opportunity to expand once the company has found a comfortable footing.

Rachel Helps
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I remember being a shoat in PMOG years ago! I loved the steampunk aesthetic and "guided tours" of various internet things, it's too bad you couldn't make some money out of that part of the game (i.e., increasing traffic for other sites).

It was perhaps a little too ambitious as a startup, but man, cool things going on. Are you going to keep making games?

Justin Hall
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Thanks Rachel - great to hear you were in there playing as a Shoat, taking Missions. Some fun concepts there - no one else has managed to make a business out of any of those pieces (Missions, toolbar gameplay, web wide scavenger hunts) as far as I've seen. Maybe some day we'll play across the web in our browsers! Or maybe on the mobile phone, those concepts might work better some day

I joined ngmoco:) as a game Producer, and I helped with a few games. Now I'm working on internal communications here because I get excited about the people I work with and I want to help them share their stories.

Perhaps I'll produce video games again; if you think about game-making as "creating patterns of interaction" I'll be doing that as long as I can put fingers to keyboard :-D

Jessica Irvin
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While I find the story interesting, I'm a bit perplexed why so much of this seems to be focused around the romantic relationship between you and the CCO. This interpretation of running a business would definitely benefit from being stripped of personal details. Your insights about the process of running a games start up are legitimate. The packaging leaves A LOT to be desired. In the end, it seems you're equating your failed marriage with your failed business. I'm just guessing here, but I doubt that one has much to do with the other. Not only that, but that perspective adds nothing to the value of the story - except it seems - to give you an excuse to whine about your ex wife.

Justin Hall
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Thanks for the feedback Jessica! I can imagine the personal parts of this story might have seemed a bit over the top here, if you were looking for a pure business focus. I believe my partner found this account too personal, and that's why she asked for her name, likeness, and links not to be included.

One thing that struck me about this startup experience: all my chips were on the table. My personal and professional life were thoroughly enmeshed. I felt energized by this total immersion during the startup, and then afterwards I realized the huge risk when two major pillars of my life crumbled in sequence.

I meet folks all the time who want to merge love + work. They birth ideas in their homes with their significant other and then they see market opportunities to make products and companies. Filled with love and ambition, they believe they can succeed both in business in partnership, in spite of the odds. Good! And good luck.

Here I want to be honest about the type of situation that I found myself in by mixing romantic and business partnership. This company would not have existed without deep collaboration with my girlfriend and wife, but in the end the stakes could not have been higher: three years later, no company, no marriage. Blam. So, if you're reading this account, and considering a similar arrangement, you might find this prompts you to take a deep breath, to sign up for couples counseling, or at least to understand what you're risking in your undertaking. The personal details I provide to illustrate the high personal stakes!

Jessica Irvin
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To be certain, any mixture of personal and professional life is a risk. The idea that this realization would be a new discovery to anyone is laughable to me. Why else would society have split the two identities so succinctly throughout history?

I also find it interesting that you, apparently, received this feedback from the 'partner' you talk about in such a revered way only to publish personal details about her life regardless. This leads me to believe that you're more interested in the 'juiciness' of that portion of the story and the therapeutic benefits of exposing personal details to strangers than actually bettering the business community.

Auriea Harvey
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Actually, as someone who has a company with their significant other I think I understand why he tells the story in this way. When love and business and high ideas are all mixed it seems like a heavenly combination. It is not automatically doomed to failure. But it does put a couple in a very odd situation. To tell this any other way would only be telling a very small part the story... They made that game that business together, intimately... it is perhaps impossible for him to even separate one set of events from the other. And why should he? This is the history of Gamelayers from his point of view. I didn't find him to be whining about his wife at all. I can totally understand why she doesn't want to be closely identified with this account though... For her it is probably all entwined as well.

On a personal note, I was wondering what had happened Justin. Thank you for sharing the story.

Lennard Feddersen
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I've been in startups my entire professional life and it's very common to see professional and personal lives enmeshed. These days my wife runs her startup in one part of the house, I run my company in another and we meet for lunch to talk about how it's going.

To me, skipping out those details in your story would have meant skipping out part of the story. Not everything is neat and tidy.

tony oakden
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Thank you for sharing Justin,

I also thought that the mention of your partner in the story was appropriate. I thought you presented a lot of very interesting and useful information. Thank you for sharing with us!

I've been involved in a few startups and the only one which has flourished is about as far away from game development as it's possible to get. In my experience game dev is a very hard business to crack and I think a lot more luck is involved than people realize (or that the people who have succeeded are prepared to admit). So don't feel bad, maybe if you'd been in a slightly different place at a slightly different time you'd be CEO of facebook now...

Kim Pittman
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I played this when it was still PMOG. I was in the early Beta and later spent a great deal of time setting up quests and such that drove people through over 1000 websites.

I remember the day I stopped playing, because something was changed and I lost all my lampposts. Well over 2k of them. I was devastated. It had probably taken me 6 months, with a terrible ui, to get them set up and organized into quests.

I spent the rest of my money, mining google to death and then uninstalled the toolbar.

PMOG was awesome, and had some very cool things going on. But any time you ask a player to sink time and effort into something you have to support their investment. Especially if you are going to ask for money from them to keep playing the game.

I look forward to anything you do next, and I thank you for the great experience of PMOG.