Gaming is at a crossroads these days: a decades-old business that has had remarkable staying power banked around classic concepts is now engaged in a battle royale with innovations in areas like mixed reality, AI, blockchain, and networking, as it strives to connect with an increasingly fragmented consumer base.
Today, a startup is announcing $55 million in funding from some big-name backers to mark its own approach on the field. Believer, founded by ex-Riot execs Michael Chow and Steven Snow, is still in stealth and it isn’t likely to launch anything for 3-5 years, the founders tell me. But it has very big ambitions to take on the big players and bring something new into the mix, particularly in large multi-player “open world” games.
“We believe that the open world genre has been capped by a single-player, boxed-product focus,” said Snow, Believer’s chief product officer, as part of an emailed interview with the two co-founders. “We love these games; adventuring in Ancient Egypt or a near-future dystopia is awesome! But it’s time we started having these adventures with our friends.”
It will be doing this with some impressive backing. Lightspeed Venture Partners is leading the Series A, with Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) also participating; alongside this, Bitkraft Ventures, Riot Games, 1Up Ventures, Don Thompson’s Cleveland Avenue, and Michael D. Eisner’s Tornante Company are among those in a previously undisclosed seed round. It’s not disclosing valuation at this time, the two co-founders told me.
Believer at its heart describes itself as a studio, and the money will go initially to picking up more talent to fill that out, complementing initial hires that include CTO Landon McDowell (Microsoft, Riot Games, Linden Lab), CCO Jeremy Vanhoozer (Bungie, Electronic Arts), COO Tim Hsu (Twitter, Riot Games), CMO Shankar Gupta-Harrison (Riot Games, Dentsu X), Director of Operations Grace Park (League of Legends: Wild Rift), and VP of Design Jeff Jew (League of Legends, Legends of Runeterra).
The focus at first will be to work on original IP and stories “where player choices matter,” the company said.
But alongside that, there will be both a technology play, as well as a pursuit of the piece that seems to be part and parcel these days of any budding media empire: a larger entertainment focus.
“We will definitely build new technologies, but judiciously: only in the highly differentiated cases where no technology exists to support the dreams of our players, and the needs of Believers to achieve those dreams,” said Chow. Yet tech, at least in some regards, not the pure focus at all there. When I asked about what platforms currently interest Believer most right now — given the boom in casual games for mobile, multiplayer brands on PCs and connected TVs, and the budding world of VR, the answer could be just about anything, really — I got a very non-specific response.
“The most compelling platform is all platforms,” Snow told me. “It really does feel like we are in one of the most exciting times where the desire for platform parity is also meeting the ability to deliver compelling gameplay models across said platforms. Therefore, we want to build game experiences that are shared broadly among groups of friends, and the way to truly deliver that is by having as few barriers to entry, like platform exclusivity, as possible.”
Chow, meanwhile, likens the choices that Believer will make to those that Pixar has had in the world of animation: it didn’t invent technology but “had to create completely new ways of making movies to work with it.”
The Pixar parallel is intentional. “Games companies are increasingly moving to the heart of the entertainment ecosystem,” Chow added. “In the past, we’ve seen media companies acquire games companies to extend the reach of their IPs into interactive media. Now, we increasingly see that dynamic reverse, where great IPs are born in video games, and are then surrounded by TV, film, music, and sport. We love this model, we lived and breathed it at Riot, and at Believer we strive to do even better.”
For investors like Eisner, the former head of Disney, this is key. “Truly great content franchises are not built with a single media type—they need to resonate with their audience across games, film, television, collectibles, and real-world interactive experiences,” said Eisner in a statement. “The Believer Company gets that, and we at Tornante are excited to advise them as they bring their vision to life across every platform.”
With little to go on in the way of what the company has built so far, or is planning to build — and before it’s been shown whether any of that can get traction with players, ultimately the biggest test of all — what’s perhaps interesting right now is to hear from the co-founders about what they will not be doing.
You can forget about NFTs, for one.
“We say no fucking thanks to NFTs,” said Snow. “These technologies are struggling in games because players aren’t asking for them, and no one as of yet has shown how they can make a game more fun. I believe games are supposed to be fun. We’re not here to meme on tech, that won’t enrich the industry for anyone, let alone players.”
That’s not to say that metaverse and Web3 — whatever you might think that means — are being written off completely.
“I think someone will come up with solutions using these concepts eventually but it’s not a goal we have right now. For us it’s how do these make the gameplay better, and right now we don’t see these technologies enriching that conversation specifically,” Snow said. “More R&D needs to happen here before the fun they offer players is clear and straightforward, and based on what we’ve seen to date, they may not get there.”
On the other hand, the company is hoping to do more with generative AI.
“We want to be leaders not just in building and making use of this tech, but also in the ethics of how it’s applied,” said Snow. He went to to emphasize that this would not be at the expense of a focus on human creators, which they view as “essential” to gaming. It’s more about new kinds of functionality that AI can enable, “the highest-powered tools that will unlock high-quality fun. AI and ML undoubtedly have a say here, especially as time moves on, but it’s up to us to be responsible with how it’s leveraged.”
Given how hard it is for any startup to raise money, let alone one with a totally unproven product aimed at the very fickle market of consumer gaming, it’s very notable that Believer has picked up such a huge sum. Snow knows that the round is big, but it was raised partly because they could do it, and because they don’t know what is around the corner.
“Normally a raise of this size isn’t warranted, but we also aren’t sure what fundraising looks like later this year or next,” he said. “Michael and I were willing to let go more of our own ownership to ensure we can remain player and product focused for the next three years or more. This was the best way to get the right support in place to solidify our future.”
Chow added that the “wide spectrum of backgrounds” of investors allowed for “rich diversity of thought, knowledge, and perspectives.”
“Once we found the right team of investors, beginning with Lightspeed and a16z, it became quite straightforward to find more partners with the right mindset for the current moment,” Chow added. “We believe we have the best investors and advisors a games company has ever had. There’s something about this climate that has people thinking big and long-term – a desire to take advantage of the present moment, with all its uncertainty and possibility, and swing big for disruptive impacts.”
Snow said that three to five years for its first product is a “reasonable” timeline, so hopefully those supportive investors are also… patient.
“We will do this in stages and ask players to engage with us earlier than later,” Snow added. “We have internal roadmaps, of course, because they’re critical to accountability, but a date is a promise to players, and we’re just not ready to make one yet.”
For now, the early signals of making key hires is somethng that the investors like so far.
“The team already assembled at Believer stands ready to change the industry through an unyielding devotion to players,” said Moritz Baier-Lentz, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, who is joining Believer’s Board of Directors. “Forget preconceived notions about building, selling, and marketing franchises atop $70 entry fees and strictly authored, immovable stories. As a life-long player and ‘believer’ myself who’s followed and admired the studio’s founders’ work for years, I know Michael, Snow, and their incredible team will make the next big thing by doing the right thing, at every turn. I’m inspired by their vision and honored to help make it possible.”
“When Michael, Snow, and their fellow founders at Believer speak about what’s next for video games, the industry stops and listens,” added Andrew Chen, general partner at a16z, in a statement. “Time and time again, through both innovative use of new technology and subversive design principles, they’ve defied convention and realized ambitions other developers hadn’t dreamed yet. We’re proud to join them at this moment in history and empower them to find the creativity in nascent technology.”