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Interview with Michael Augustin, Gendai Games

Michael Augustin is founder of Gendai Games, which recently launched its GameSalad game creation site at SXSW. GameSalad allows users to create games for the desktop, the Apple iPhone, the web, and on Facebook without having to know how to program. We've been talking with Michael for months about the company, and they finally have come out of stealth and launched a beta of its product. We caught up with Michael last week to hear about GameSalad

Tell us a little bit about Gendai Games, and what the idea is behind your product?

Michael Augustin: Gendai Games is a new kind of game company that combines social media and game development. The word "gendai" means modern in Japanese. We are an 18-month, self-funded startup, based in Austin, Texas with 6 employees.

Our product GameSalad makes game creation accessible to the 99% who don't know how to program. We allow them to make games for the desktop, Web, Facebook, and the iPhone. Players can share games virally over social networks, and non-programmer developers can take advantage of high-growth markets such as iPhone App Store.

Who are the typical people you see using your tools?

Michael Augustin: At first we intended our market to be GenY students, hobbyists, and pro-sumers, who typically act as the 10% of creators/synthesizers of content for sites such as YouTube and Wordpress. Many of these creators are passionate about games and are looking to become game designers one day.

Most recently, however, we've been approached by professionals in the game industry who are looking for a non-programmer solution for iPhone and Web games. In response we are building pro-level features that will allow them to quickly prototype and produce more sophisticated games in a highly-competitive and cost-sensitive market such as the iPhone.

What's your background, and how did you go about starting the firm?

Michael Augustin: My career started in the console business developing games for Activision and Midway. My first job involved working closely with non-programmer designers, creating AI, scripting interfaces, and design tools. There I took the process of designing and implementing game NPCs (non-player characters) from 30 days to 30 minutes. It took longer to discuss and design what a character would do, than to implement and see that character running in the game. Overall, it was an eye-opening experience to see designers create "fun" in an emergent manner with tools that I created.

Realizing the power of design tools, I decided to apply to Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology masters program. As a grad student, I researched processes and tools for the rapid ideation and prototyping of games. In the game industry, there are far too many game projects where the design of the game is decided late into the production after millions were spent. It's like working on a movie without storyboards or even a script.

While I was in graduate school, I approached friends with whom I had been kicking around various ideas for doing a startup. At first we thought we would utilize my graduate research for top-tier game developers, but we realized that we would only have a few clients. So we decided to adapt the research for the long tail of creators. We looked at consumer applications such as GarageBand, iMovie, Wordpress, and YouTube and saw how they democratized the production and distribution of their respective media, but there had not been a good solution for games.

Once we decided on a similar model, we had to find a place where we would start the company. I was living in San Francisco at the time, and the rest of us were dispersed across the country. As an engineer attached to no high-level executive positions or previous startups, it would have been a tall order to raise money from investors. So we decided to move to Austin, where I had worked previously. Austin had the advantage of being a university town, a tech and entertainment center, and having an extremely affordable cost of living.

In the fall of 2007, two of us arrived in Austin to start production on the project. The rest moved over the next year. After a year in development, we reached Alpha with around 200 creators. Six months later we launched our open Beta just before SXSW. We now have over 1400 creators in less than 3 weeks, uploading games every day.

How much does this cost, or what's the business model here?

Michael Augustin: We provide GameSalad Creator as a downloadable desktop tool free for creators to make games and upload to our games portal, which is essentially a "YouTube for games." With ad-support, it is free for visitors to play games online, embed them in a blog, or play them on Facebook.

It is time-consuming to create all the media needed to make a beautiful game. We are building a network of hand-picked vendors to create royalty-free, quality art packs and templates of game components. These vendors would be able to sell their works in a marketplace integrated right in the tool, similar to how iTunes embeds a store within a music player. This way, creators can make well-polished games without having to be a great artist as well.

And just one more thing: we are building an automated licensing solution for creators to self-publish games to the iPhone App Store in sort of a "Pay to Print" model. We will also be offering select creators publishing deals, so that they get the added value of affiliating their work with a familiar brand and publishing services such as testing and marketing. There are many revenue-sharing opportunities in this space.