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Back in the mid-2000s, everyone on Myspace was automatically friends with co-founder Tom Anderson, but Chris DeWolfe boasted a real-life relationship with the internet icon. The pair founded the social networking platform together and grew it into the most popular website in the U.S., with more than 135 million unique monthly visitors during its heyday.
DeWolfe, 53, has a knack for getting in on the ground floor of booming industries. Following the $580 million sale of the social network to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. in 2005, he and fellow former Myspace execs Colin Digiaro and Aber Whitcomb and former 20th Century Fox exec Josh Yguado bought gaming startup MindJolt and rode the boom in the now $109 billion digital gaming industry to turn the company, since rebranded Jam City, into one of the world’s biggest mobile game studios. Today, the 10-year-old private company has 700 employees across nine studios, including international outposts in Toronto, Buenos Aires and Bogota, and raised $145 million in 2019 from investors including JPMorgan, Silicon Valley Bank and SunTrust. In addition to releasing popular titles Cookie Jam and Panda Pop, Jam City has made strong ties with Hollywood studios — including an ongoing collaboration with Disney — that have led to its development of free-to-play mobile titles for such marquee properties as Harry Potter and Frozen.
Ahead of the Feb. 20 launch of ambitious action shooter World War Doh, the engaged father of two daughters invited THR to Jam City’s Culver City office to discuss staying ahead in the hyper-competitive mobile gaming market, how social media has changed since the Myspace days and his enduring friendship with Tom.
Why did you transition from social media to gaming?
The decision matrix came down to, should it be music? We had just gotten done doing all these deals with music companies, and it was heavy brain damage because that industry was changing in a big way. It just didn’t seem like a lot of fun to me. The video space was pretty locked up with YouTube. But the gaming space was changing so rapidly. Twenty years ago, the majority of games were more hard-core, built for younger men and played on a console or PC. It was very clear that this was all going to migrate to mobile. The first iPhone was just coming out. So, instead of just making games like Madden and Grand Theft Auto, there would be a much wider swath of games and demand from other demographics.
What lessons did you learn from Myspace that you now apply?
The main thing you learn is that everything is always in a constant state of flux, and every time you think you are beating your competitors, things can change overnight. It’s one of those things that I admire about some companies like Facebook; they always seem to be focused on what their competitors are doing in a lot of ways. With games, it’s the same thing. There’s 500,000 game developers out there and many, many millions of games. You always have to be thinking about getting a deeper understanding into what consumer motivations are and why they are playing Harry Potter instead of spending time on Instagram or Netflix.
What are your thoughts on how social media has evolved?
The really tough thing about social media is that people are so finicky. If you don’t make multiple acquisitions, it’s very tough to be relevant. We all know there’s been massive amounts of positive effects, but there’s also the other side we have to deal with, when anyone can upload anything. As the government gets more involved, it’s going to take a bigger and bigger social media company to deal with regulations.
How does Jam City’s collaboration with Disney work?
We have licensed multiple games from them, and one of the largest studios that created several of the Disney games [Rainbow Road] ended up becoming a Jam City studio. They now work on our Disney license games [2019’s Frozen Adventures]. We work with a lot of IP owners. Before we even start a game, we’ll have a storybook and character guidelines that everyone has to adhere to. We have a good understanding of how important staying close to the canon is. It takes a special collaborative relationship, which we think we have a pretty unique ability to manage because we have an amazing studio where the majority of the people worked on Disney IP for many, many years.
In January, Scopely bought Fox’s game studio from Disney. Did you bid on it?
We did not. There are a lot of factors that go into which companies you bid on and which ones you don’t. At the end of the day, there are lots of opportunities, and you can’t do every single one.
How do you make games stand out in such a crowded marketplace, particularly when there are multiple titles for popular franchises like Harry Potter?
Ours was the first major Harry Potter mobile game, so it was a little bit easier for us in that it had massive pent-up appeal. We had a very specific conceit for that game that allowed people to experience the world of Hogwarts and attend the school. We hit the widest swath of Harry Potter mega-fans because it’s truly an immersive storytelling experience with a deep narrative, and that’s what people really like.
Do you consider social media companies or gaming companies your biggest competitors?
It’s definitely social media, but games are becoming more social themselves. Almost all our new games have an element of competition, whether it’s friendly competition or it’s collaboration. It’s just a lot more fun when you’re doing something in a group environment. That competes a little bit with the time that you may be spending on Instagram or Snapchat or Facebook.
Where is the mobile gaming industry headed in 2020?
Right now, it’s really easy to take a game that’s out there, add a little bit to it, then release your own game. We don’t think that’s going to work anymore. We believe in innovation, and you get that by taking some chances, including taking different game mechanics and mashing them together in the right way. Games are getting more complex.
Are you still friends with Tom from Myspace?
Yeah, but he’s gone [from L.A.] a lot. I think he’s doing some real estate here and there, he’s enjoying himself. He’s always wanted to travel. I ran into him on Sawtelle [a street in L.A.’s Japantown] maybe six months ago, and we had a nice catch-up.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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