games reporter

Players get voice in creating Net games

A new video game company based in Chicago, Sevenlights, is developing original properties via the Internet, essentially creating new intellectual property that gamers will be able to help shape before the product is transformed into a big-budget game.

Tim Harris, Sevenlights co-founder and CEO, says the hope is to expand the IPs over time into comic books, merchandising, TV and film. The first game in development is "The Continuum," a fantasy game that will launch in April; the second is a sci-fi adventure titled "Pulse Gate," which will debut in January.

"We're creating a business model based on digital goods and iterative IP in the Web space, then expanding to downloadable client-based applications," says Harris, who with Sevenlights co-founder Mike McCarthy launched Publicis-owned Play, the first advertising agency dedicated to helping marketers leverage the power of interactive games. "This lets us keep the burn rate down, test and adjust IP and launch in bigger ways with proven, original IP — essentially a radical adjustment of the typical video game business model."

Instead of investing $10 million-$20 million on a game and then hoping it finds an audience and makes money, Sevenlights will launch its role-playing games and allow players to tell them what does and doesn't work.

This first iteration of the game will work on practically any PC and will be browser-based. Harris says that once Sevenlights has received enough feedback and has grown the IP into a brand with which gamers are familiar, a second iteration will be released offering 3-D gameplay and more advanced features. "The Continuum 2.0," for example, will launch in January 2009.

"Both games will be free to play, but there will be a subscription option for those players who want to delve deeper," Harris says.

Sevenlights looked at the pen-and-paper gaming marketplace, which grosses about $2 billion annually. They also looked at the video game strategy category, part of the $25 billion global video game business.

"We think these games will appeal to anyone who likes turn-based video games as well as table-top games," Harris says. "We expect north of 50,000 people to play this game, but we'll turn the corner on profitability when we top 15,000 players."

Harris says that because the new games draw from different yet related genres, they will be familiar to players.

"You'll be able to play through your Web browser," Harris says. "It will be easy to pick up and play, but it will be very deep. This will look like a casual game, but it will have the heart of a hard-core game."

Because the technology created for the first game can be used again, the one-year development time of "Continuum" will be cut to six months for "Pulse Gate." It still will take about two years to develop the 2.0 versions because they will be more of a traditional 3-D gaming experience. Harris has eight full-time employees in his downtown Chicago office and about six contract workers developing the games. For "Continuum 2.0," he expects to add 20 more staffers.

"We're dedicated to the pay-for-digital-goods space," Harris says. "Our thinking stems from the fact that a lot of people have bought $50 games at Best Buy, brought them home, and they sucked."