Seismic Games opens doors with $2 million in funding for the “next wave” of social games

Los Angeles-based Seismic Games has secured a $2 million first round of funding to put toward reinventing social games. The round was led by DFJ Frontier, venture capitalist Tom Matlack and had participation from a handful of unnamed investors with deep ties to the entertainment industry.

Founded by gaming industry veterans Greg Borrud (Pandemic Studios, EA), Eric Gewirtz (Pandemic Studios, Activision) and Chris Miller (Vivendi Universal), the trio have console hits like Star Wars: Battlefront, F.E.A.R and The Saboteur under their belts and are hoping those successes can be translated to Facebook. The company is one of many social gaming startups founded by former console developers hoping to pivot into social games, and faces competition from the likes of Outplay EntertainmentRow Sham Bow, LootDrop and Rumble, all of whom have AAA console talent and years of industry experience behind them.

Even as the cost of doing business increases on the platform, Seismic’s CEO Greg Borrud is confident that the combination of character driven gameplay and real-world events will make Seismic’s first game a hit when it debuts later this year. Inside Social Games had an opportunity to talk to Borrud, and while he didn’t reveal much about the company’s upcoming first game, he did reveal the development philosophy behind it.

Inside Social Games: You’ve talked a bit about creating the “next” generation of social games. What do you mean by this? 

Greg Borrud (pictured, right): When we first looked at the we were incredibly excited by what was there. It’s a larger audience than what we’d been making games for previously and social game companies are creating new ways of reaching their audiences and tapping into the free-to-play monetization model.

But, I think we’ve hit a point where there has to be more than analytics-based game design. The Zyngas of the world have perfected this idea of looking at how gamers play and post-launch tweaking the system to get the most out of every single user.  At some point you perfect that so much that you lose the heart and the soul and the entertainment value of the game.

We want to take some of the things we’ve done when we were making console games and marry that with the analytics-based approach to game design to create a hybrid that captures all the viral marketing but gives players something new, fresh and really compelling. I see 2012 as embarking on the second wave of social games that will become deeper and more complex. Our goal is to be part of that conversation.

ISG: The cost per install (CPI) can be quite high on Facebook. What’s your plan to gain traction on the platform?

Borrud: Whenever you’re making a game, you’re thinking about user acquisition. The first thing you’ve got to do make a high quality game. If the game is great on a platform like Facebook, the game is going to spread, so we’ve put a lot of thought into how we can create a game that’s unique, different and compelling — something that people want to play and will encourage others to play. Secondly, we’ve raised some funds so we’re going to advertise. We’re going to go directly to our target audience and pull as many players over as we can with the funds that we’ve got. Lastly, the nature of the product that we’re making allows for a lot of sponsorship opportunities, and that allows us to tap into a lot of what’s happening in the world, and by drawing those things into the product, that allows us to reach new groups through their own viral networks, bringing those users into our network as well.

ISG: Sponsorship opportunities?

Borrud: This ties into our concept of tying the real world with the virtual world. As you get closer to the real world, products fit better and make that virtual world feel more real. As we introduce real-time content, we have an opportunity to grab branded products, sponsorship and promotions and infuse them into the world we’re creating. From the gamer’s perspective, it makes the world we’re creating more alive and more like what they see when they walk out the door.  For sponsors it means deep integration, but not in a forced way like what’s happening in some games now.

ISG: We know you and the other founders have a lot of console experience – how are you applying that experience to social games?

Borrud: We’re trying to avoid being a hardcore product for a small group of people. We want to draw on light RPG elements but it’s from a point of making the game more compelling. We’re surprised that in social games there’s not a lot of character-based games. What we’re talking about is how to get closer to the character and how to add more customization to it so it’s even more unique. It happened in traditional gaming and I think it’s going to happen again in social gaming.

The last thing I want to do is attack a model that’s done incredibly well, but I think there’s an opportunity to take customization even further. There’s a difference between customizing my personal space and building customization around a character. A character is much more personal.

ISG: You’ve also mentioned user generated content, which isn’t something you see all that often in social games. How will this work?

Borrud: This is a cornerstone of what we’re trying to do. Facebook is user generated content and we think the game should be the exact same thing. This has been done before in console and open world games, and we want to give the player those tools so they create something new that they want to share. User generated content will be a reflection of the player into every game we make, not just our first game.

ISG: How do you plan to integrate real-time content into a social game?

Borrud: This is an opportunity we haven’t really had in traditional games, but [with Facebook] we’re communicating with the player constantly. Companies are constantly tweaking their games and we looked at this as an opportunity not only to refine the gameplay dynamic, but to start to blur the lines between what is happening in the real world versus what is happening in the virtual world. Real-time content means something’s just happened in the real world — how can that be reflected tomorrow in the game? That’s an opportunity to do something unique and different and to get players to come back to see how the game and how their character in the game is reacting to it. We’re talking about a “ripped from the headlines” feel to the game.

ISG: That reminds us of sci-fi stories, where you have characters who play online games and the characters they play become extensions of their personality and their real lives.

Borrud: That’s exactly right. People have dabbled in this, but with this audience and Facebook and everything being tweaked post release we saw it as an opportunity to bring the real world into a virtual world.

ISG: Obviously you’re focusing on Facebook, but what are your plans for other platforms?

Borrud: Facebook is a platform for us in the same way the Xbox and the PC are platforms. We develop our games as much as we can to be platform agnostic so it can move from Facebook to Google+ to an iPad with a little bit of work but without having to re-write the whole system. That said, Facebook is the predominant platform and that’s our clear number one focus. It’s got a huge number of users, a great infrastructure, a low barrier of entry and great viral components.

ISG: You mentioned iPads — are you planning to be cross platform at some point?

Borrud: You can’t just port a game over and have it be as successful. You need to think about the platform, the play styles and the play habits of people and design the game in such a way that it enhances the experience and makes sense on the platform. That’s absolutely in our plans for the future, but for a launch strategy, we’re clearly focused on Facebook.