Nothing ventured, nothing gained: Signia Venture Partners Jamil Moledina on innovation and emotion in social and mobile

You find the most amazing things in the most unexpected places. Like, say, a champion of independent creativity, genuine play, and real innovation… all in the social games space. Until recently, Jamil Moledina was responsible for managing platform and partner strategy at Funzio. $210M later, the company was acquired, and Moledina was invited to transition into a new and exciting role as Entrepreneur in Residence at Signia Venture Partners.

I met him as my last my interview at Casual Connect in Seattle, expecting to talk about the virtues of Funzio, its new parent company GREE, and the wonderfulness that is the booming of the mobile-social games leviathan. What I got instead was one of my favorite interviews of the week. One which fulfilled the highest calling a conversation can fulfill: the changing of one’s perspective.


Jamil: “I’m happy to announce that I’m now an Entrepreneur in Residence for Rick Thompson’s Signia Venture Partners. Rick was the primary investor in Funzio, as well as a number of other great startups like Rumble Games. There’s a fairly deep game portfolio there that Rick is out in front of. He takes a real interest in supporting games and game technologies that are on the cutting edge.”

Eli: Could you elaborate on the idea of cutting edge? 

Jamil: “Something that’s really near and dear to me is the idea that the traditional console space – which has tremendous commercial success – has mastered this sense of creating fun. So when people talk about how advanced mobile and social has become, I really don’t feel they’ve scratched the surface. You hear people talk a lot about blue ocean opportunities, and from my standpoint we need to be looking at green land opportunities. Start peeking out of the ocean and onto the land.”

Eli: Are you referring to the idea that social games should start employing tactics that perhaps traditional gaming his mastered?

Jamil: “Well yes, there are certain things console gaming does extremely well, such as integrating the idea of truly playing with your friends. And here there have been some fantastic advances like Draw Something – which has you truly playing with one friend. Moreover, it uses unique to device functionality in its idea of real finger painting. It’s not just ‘tap, click,’ or using a virtual joystick. And I think there are several things there that are completely huge opportunities.


“It’s about more unique-to-device true social play,with the integration of things like stunning 3D visuals…. and you see that in things like CSR Racing. And CSR Racing uses skills! Which is another thing you see in traditional console games space. Unfortunately a lot of the ethos in the social and mobile games space is such that people think ‘we can’t push accessibility to the point where we’re alienating people, or requiring too much skill.’

“But I think there’s a safe amount of skill. An amount necessary to improve these games and keeps the concept of fun in your mind, so that you want to return because of a sense of play, not…”

Eli: A psychological check list?

Jamil: “Yes, yes! Exactly.”

Eli: What would you say the balance is, then? We’re dealing with a whole new audience here. A demographic who – three years ago, before the rise of social games – perhaps didn’t know what experience points were, what levels were. They’ve mastered a very steep learning curve very admirably. For these “social game players” there’s a point at which traditional mechanics might take them out of their comfort zone. Where do you feel the middleground is?

Jamil: “From my standpoint, a great guideline for understanding how to calibrate skills in lock step with people’s comfort level is the history of the traditional game industry. If you look at games like Pong, Space Invaders, Pac-Man, these are universally accessible. My daughter loves Pac-Man and it’s a wonderful thing to see because she’s four years old! And even she can figure it out. But one of the things I think alienates the larger audience of potential consumers is this idea of a 24-button controller, which says, ‘you have to know what all these buttons do. You have to know what all the combinations are.’ For a novice player, you kind of have to look down.”

Eli: It’s very much like the difference between touch typing and the “hunt and peck” approach. 

Jamil: “Very good comparison. And you see it there too – a vast majority of people do not know how to touch type. And the principle is the same with complex interfaces. This is one of the reasons the Wii was so successful. It’s a much more intuitive thing to do, to pick up and use gesture controls. And that’s one of the great learning processes that the traditional industry has had to go through: the transition to a much more natural user interface. And I think Microsoft has done wonderfully with its Kinect. 

“I think an example of this middleground – and it’s not necessarily all that revolutionary to say this – is the Angry Birds franchise. Foremost, with its slingshot mechanic, it uses touch controls spectacularly well. And another thing I think gets ignored is that it’s such a strong and vibrant brand and IP. So at the end of the day, the fundamentals of this industry are the same no matter what platform you’re on: it’s about building a great game.”


Eli: And as a result you’re starting to see things like the reverse migration of Angry Birds to consoles… PS3, [Xbox] 360, 3DS. I think we’ll probably see a lot more of that happening.

Joel: If the console space survives!

Jamil: “Well… we’ll see, right? I think not too long ago everybody was counting Apple out, in the early to mid ’90s. I think at that time if you would have asked the question, ‘which companies are going to be dominating the game industry in ten to fifteen years?’ and then say ‘Apple!’ you would be laughed at. This company that, what? Had been founded in and around 1976, that made computers that were a fraction of the percent of the market share? That company is going to dominate games!? Not a chance. 

“So from my standpoint, I think people should still keep an eye on [console] companies like Microsoft. They’ve learned a lot from their XBLA experience. A company with great resources, and with a pedigree in games, has a very strong shot.”

Eli: You briefly mentioned that social games need to start questioning assumptions and perhaps moving away from some tendencies? What behaviors of the genre do you feel need to be abandoned?

Jamil: “I’d like to see us move beyond bribes. So many of our [social] games are motivated by, as you put it, the checklist. Almost this Pavlovian response mechanic where we need to get back to point and click for no reason. Now, at the same time I don’t want to imply that these are things we need to cast aside completely. There is a lot in the genesis of this type of play that actually works, like the notion of a metrics-driven thought process. I think that’s the baseline. A lot of the traditional game industry was basically shoot from the hip. It’s far too risky to do that these days.

“But I think people feel like the market is crowded or mature only because everyone is repeating very similar patterns. Almost as with sci-fi, where you see so many dystopian novels, or stories of robots taking over. And make no mistake! I love all the original, unique versions of these stories: 1984, Terminator, Road Warrior. So it’s important to be careful in just how dismissive you are and acknowledge that things have been done, and done well. Farmville was done well! But let’s see what else we can come up with.” 


Eli: I think at a broad level what this says is that we may need to start questioning the assumption given to us by the social game landscape that data – while important – is the only thing that’s important. That we may need to abandon the idea of designing from the data foremost, and design instead from the fun. Would you agree?

Jamil: “I think we’ve learned a lot based on applying metrics from the ground up. I would say that a successful company, however, needs to start integrating all of it at the ground level. It has to take a data-driven approach, but it also has to take a fun-driven approach, and not get into a holy war between the two. They’re both essential. Yes, some of the greatest successes in the game industry have come from drilling down deep and asking where the fun is. 

“Once you establish that, the rest… analytics, data… is there to support that.”

Eli: Switching gears a little bit, the means of distribution and visibility are also proving to be key challenges in this climate. With no brick and mortar stores to browse for two hours, and virtual shelves stocked with over 650,000 apps in the App Store alone, doing things like beating the pavement and e-mailing writers is only going so far.

Do you feel like we’re approaching a landscape where – just like the mechanics in social games – this problem needs to be solved?”

Jamil: “Well the wonderful thing about places like Silicon Valley, where I work, is that once a clear problem is identified, a lot of very smart minds start to work on how to solve it. On the one hand, I will say that Apple’s ranking system is wonderfully democratic. It gives every developer a chance to rank. The notion that you must spend to improve your chances has some validity, but there are so many unique things that can be done. 

“I go back to a small story about an app called AutoCadWS, which had no visibility and the company was having a great deal of difficulty getting the attention of Apple. They were in such a strict vertical. So they started looking at their strengths, and they were experts at user interface. They started designing interesting ways to approach other territories, and designed things like a video for the Italian market of their app being used to straighten the leaning Tower of Pisa

Furthermore, they started replying to each one of their customer service calls within an hour, and on those calls, asking for testimonials from their users. So now they have all these wonderful cases of people using it, and the app soars to 10 million downloads! Long story short? They were acquired by Autodesk. So direct marketing – this creative direct marketing – is something that the game industry could learn a lot from.”


Eli: And what about the fundamental design of something like the App Store itself? Are there changes or tweaks there that would help further improve this process?

Jamil: “Well I think whenever you talk about something like this, it comes down to emotion. There is a powerful effect from this sense of word-of-mouth promotion, that is tied to people’s emotions. You look at the acquisition of Instagram. It’s a photo-sharing and taking app, so what is going on there? The bottom line is that people care about pictures, and the idea of posting something and seeing it get 75 “likes” almost immediately. Pictures of your bosses in compromising positions, cute animals, babies. People love it. 

“That level of emotional contact is not truly present in games, and I think improved discovery in the App Store…I think it’s about creating tools, and integrating tools, that allow games to exploit our attachments to one another. And would I would say iOS 6 has some really interesting innovations that support this idea.”

Eli: I think another really interesting thing – and something that I’ve been hearing a lot at this conference [Casual Connect] – is this sense that indie developers are interesting in the notion of helping one another promote content to perhaps bypass the issue of visibility. 

Jamil: “I think there’s already a high level of behind-the-scenes communication happening with these indie developers where promotion is happening without any money exchanging hands. And another thing about these companies – companies like Spry Fox – is that they focus on fun. I wouldn’t really shed a tear over games that are basically analytics commoditized, if they couldn’t find a way to survive the rising cost of user acquisition. But if a company like Spry Fox can continue to thrive based on word of mouth, that says something.

“And this is exactly it. The hidden assumption, perhaps the basis of this whole market, is that people want to play something because their friend told them it was a good game. So mechanisms that support word of mouth are really the ones that have an opportunity.”

Eli: Absolutely. And with the Facebook “Like” button coming to iOS 6… something that seems like such a small innovation will probably end up doing wonders. Just seeing your friend “like” Pocket Planes, or like a game that wasn’t on your radar before. 

Now I was hoping to continue down this path of emotion for a little bit longer, because we’re talking about emotion as the key to discovery. I’m curious: as time goes on, are there any current franchises that exist that you feel will emerge as the “Mario of mobile?” That will have that resonant emotion?

Jamil: “Now that’s a very tricky question. Because if you look at the titles we mentioned at the beginning of our chat… titles like Pong; you didn’t have a connection with those games when they came out that was necessarily emotional. At least not at first. Not until you had real, meaningful experiences with them. So perhaps there aren’t any games or brands on the App Store that feel like ‘classics’ in that same way as Mario just yet. But for me, I look to games like Firemint’s Flight Control, which had mechanics that just immediately capture the power of touch. I think there are titles that fit the bill, and I would look to creative individuals in particular to see what brands they come up with.” 

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