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Q&A: Riot's Merrill On Targeting The 'Midcore' Gamer

Q&A: Riot's Merrill On Targeting The 'Midcore' Gamer Exclusive

July 10, 2008 | By Mathew Kumar




Los Angeles-based game studio Riot Games, which has been operating in stealth mode for some time, has just announced it has raised $7 million in investment.

The firm, which is targeting community-heavy PC online games, has also added to its board of directors, now including former JAMDAT CEO and EA Mobile executive VP and now Benchmark partner Mitch Lasky and FirstMark partner Rick Heitzmann (an investor behind web properties like LiveGamer, weplay, and Clickable).

The company is preparing to debut its first online title, and Gamasutra sat down with president Marc Merrill to talk about the company's plans to reach the "midcore" gaming audience.

Why did you and your partners start Riot?

Marc Merrill: To summarize a really long story, Brandon Beck and I are long time friends. We actually met in Switzerland back when we were teenagers at a leadership conference called JLU -- Junior Leadership University or something. We were some of the few guys from the U.S., and it turned out we lived fairly close to each other went to rival high schools, that sort of thing -- so we struck up a friendship. So we've had a long term relationship, and we've both always been interested in games.

Ever since we were in college we were always talking about getting into games. It was never really a case of "if" but when we'd jump ship from our respective careers and get into games. The reason we've created Riot right now is that we have a fundamental thesis that there is a lack of a certain kind of content in the online games space.

What I mean by that is that we're focused on what we'd call the "mid-core" audience. We want to develop content for this kind of gamer, that isn't satisfied by Diner Dash or Bejeweled, but on the other end of the spectrum, they're not really interested in getting into a deep hardcore that's going to require a massive time commitment to pay off.

It's the kind of gamer that probably has an Xbox, let's say, but there isn't a lot of content online that analogues to that kind of experience premium, cool content that's also accessible.

So what would that content exactly entail?

MM: We're talking about replayability, and also, I know it's an age old, clichd mantra, but simple to learn and difficult to master, either through design or through emergent gameplay.

For example, basketball is a cool game even though all you're doing is running up and down a court with a ball, but it's fun because of who you're playing against, or the tactics you use So it's very replayable.

From our perspective this is true of a game like Counter-Strike too. It's very polished and streamlined and has a cool replayable game experience. That's the kind of experience we'd like to create.

I'm more of a Team Fortress 2 fan.

MM: Love Team Fortress. I mean, I love games in general, from Guitar Hero to anything else, but there are a lot of great examples of why that works -- there are cool achievements people keep playing to get, there's a strong online community, and it's competitive for the guys who want to compete, but it's still so accessible for the casual players who just want to stop in and play for a while. We've got a lot of respect for Valve and other developers who do stuff like that.

Along those lines our first title is what we consider the ideal game to launch our company strategy with and establish our brand with online gamers. We want to start creating a community around our games and around Riot. We really want to integrate with our users.

Can you talk about the Riot technology platform you're working on?

MM: The platform is there to service and operate our games. There are a lot of neat community features, and we're structuring it to be a platform that scales so we can give our players what they want -- you know, add community tools or facilitate other methods of play, whatever they're interested in.

Are you looking at solely online distribution -- a Steam like service?

MM: Online primarily, but retail is really important we think. We'll definitely have a retail presence, but we are an online company, so there would be no reason to not facilitate digital distribution as much as possible. But we wouldn't ignore retail.

Anyway, I'm surprised that Riot Games is your entry into the industry, with the names attached and the investment!

MM: Well, Brandon and I are both business guys to start off with. Brandon was a managing consultant advising Fortune 500 CEOs on how to address their issues in their organizations. I was running a marketing department for one of the largest media companies in the U.S., and we both had kind of this corporate "big company" experience, but never lost our passion for games.

So we think we've worked hard to marry this real authentic passion for games content with our understanding of organizational structure, marketing, investments and financing that we've learned from the business institutions. We think we probably have a pretty different approach compared to most developers. We're going to be self publishing our games, and we're developing our own robust back-end platform.

We think there's never been a better time to go direct to consumer than now, so it's pretty exciting.

What are Mitch Lasky and Rick Heitzmann going to bring to Riot?

MM: I think Rick and Mitch are going to bring different angles. Rick is a very forward thinking guy in the venture capital world; one of the best guys for adding value -- a professional at building organizations and helping organizations grow and thinking about strategic issues.

Mitch is a similar story, but much more game focused. He obviously has a long history and track record of success in the games industry. They're both kind of mentors to us and we both look up to him and it's been helpful for us to leverage their expertise in a variety of challenges that we've faced, from recruiting to organizational structure, to financing, to content strategy, to marketing, you name it and they're able to help us face it.

How big is the company now?

MM: We have about 30 employees, and we started in September 2006 -- that's when we started our office in LA. We've kind of had this slow growth period where we've been adding staff and building up the core infrastructure and core team, and now we're ready to go out of stealth mode and almost ready to reveal our first title.

You know, one thing I do want to say is that I love this company. I'm really excited about it, about the teams we put together. I think we have a phenomenal group of guys. It's a fun place to work we definitely subscribe to the work hard play hard mantra. We want to build a really cool company that's here to stay and can grow and can scale, so we're really dedicated to providing an awesome atmosphere to work in.


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