From Super Mario’s US Launch to New Mobile, Synchronous, Multi-Player Games: How Chicago’s Gaming Veteran Tim Harris has Watched the Industry Evolve

This piece was originally posted on the Chicago Ventures website by Lindsay Knight.

Tim Harris has had a hand in Chicago’s quietly ambitious gaming scene for over two decades, though his interest was seeded much earlier. A lifelong gamer and child-of-the-80s, Tim grew up as a self-described computer geek, playing on consoles, an Apple II, and every iteration of a PC until mobile gaming (like the viral favorite Snake) became popular.

His professional career kicked off in 1996 at Leo Burnett, where he was happily selected from the PIT (the agency’s Account Management Training program) to work on the Nintendo account. Early on, Tim found himself responsible for penning a 7-page memo to the President of Nintendo of America, tasked with the delicate order of convincing him that it wouldn’t be wise for the literal translation of Pokemon (“Pocket Monsters”) to be used for its launch in the States.

Tim’s professional entrance into the gaming world aligned with the US releases of both Super Mario 64 and Pokemon, which had already grossed billions of dollars in Japan. He tapped his creative talent and empathy for gamers (after all, he was one), to create Nintendo’s first digital marketing campaign for Yoshi’s Island, just as “digital marketing” was becoming recognized as a discipline. Though the job was soon outsourced to specialized digital agencies, he was later recruited to launch Starcom IP, the media giant’s digital branch whose staff Tim built from two to 100 in a year. Armed with the power and resources of Starcom, gaming became one of the specialties his group focused on, working on accounts including Nintendo along, with $50+ million accounts like Miller Brewing and the US Army.

As digital matured, Tim was again on the cusp of a new opportunity: the in-game advertising space. He founded SMG Play within the Publicis Group, focusing on hybrid media, gaming, and adver-gaming. There, he led projects like the first-ever virtual+actual event: Pontiac’s virtual Final Four, where over 235,000 virtual Final Four games were played on PlayStation and Xbox consoles. (Incidentally, these games turned out to be 70% accurate in determining real-world outcomes).

In 2006 Tim left to start his own gaming studio, Seven Lights. He recruited many ex-Leo Burnett’ers — teammates who understood digital marketing, gaming, and design. He describes Seven Lights’ mission as “core gaming on the web,” explaining in a 2006 interview his desire “to create extremely lean development teams and launch on the web environment to give ourselves the ability to create a constant stream of new content, iterate the game experience itself and ultimately build game franchises from the ground up with the players helping guide us every step of the way.”

His team at Seven Lights unlocked a secret sauce for monetizing games successfully, but ultimately had trouble scaling a community of players. In addition to real-life experiments with shifting customer acquisition strategies, Tim says he gained a better understanding of how and when players like to buy, how they like to be treated, and the connection they feel to the games they play. Meanwhile, a core thesis of Seven Lights — with a method in place to constantly evolve and update the product in real time, rather than only shipping a final — was quickly catching on as the norm in gaming studios worldwide.

Enter: GaaS

As the gaming world moved toward this “gaming-as-a-service” era, Tim continued refining his expertise at building community. Players, he realized, wanted to be involved in game development. They could serve as the biggest fans, supporters, evangelists and critics. He could use them to crowdsource ideas for a bad guy’s weapon or a game’s soundtrack. Since he now had the ability to iterate, and it was widely accepted that updates could be pushed out via software, the community of players could see their input materialize, sometimes in near real-time.

This shift from hardware to software had kickstarted Tim’s ability to build a community of loyal, engaged, and critical fans. And this is precisely what he homed in on for the launch of his newest project — Gunslinger Studios. Gunslinger focuses on mobile, synchronous multiplayer 60-second games (their tagline is “obsession in one minute”) for a generation of gamers who have grown up with Pokemon, CCGs and MMOs. Their games “fit a schedule but scratch the itch for competing and moving forward in a game world.”

Tim and his team are focusing on community-inspired content as they launch new games. Building on experience from the past two decades, Tim’s community building is driven by these axioms:

(1) Track Down Your (Potential) Hardcore Fans:

Target fans who have interests in games similar to yours, Tim suggests. If you “mine for users” and give them a chance to have a real voice in your product, many will jump at an opportunity to be a part of your game in the early days. “These people end up being unbelievably valuable: you can give them things to do that you otherwise couldn’t” Tim says.

(2) Employ Dogmatic Transparency and Total Lack of Defensiveness:

When a community has an opportunity to give suggestions — or criticize — they will. Tim manages expectations by sifting through commentary and acknowledging input, earning goodwill by being transparent about his process. This dogmatic transparency diffuses the unrealistic ideas that have no chance of coming to fruition, he says.

(3) Moderate Your Community:

Communities can become toxic quickly, Tim notes. Even as the Founder, Tim still moderates his Gunslinger community, acting as caretaker and overseeing and interjecting while the group grows. Feeling a personal connection to moderators is a guard against toxic communication.

Keeping it Local

While Tim builds his worldwide virtual gaming community, he has hopes for Chicago’s physical one (recently covered by Chicago Inno and Built in Chicago), acknowledging that it’s ripe for the types of talent that usually default to more traditional software startups. He’s worked with engineers and artists who’ve moved over from the agency side, but is frustrated by the fact that talent doesn’t recognize gaming, especially in Chicago, as a job option. “I continue to be convinced that there is a shitload of art and engineering talent that should be in games that is not,” he says. “There needs to be an understanding that lots of different disciplines and skill sets can be applied to building great games. Plus, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t played games at some point.”

Tim’s building Gunslinger, releasing games, and creating his communities from Chicago, joining the ranks of other studios like Iron Galaxy and Phosphor Games launching innovative, viral games.

“I love Chicago as a city. I love the people and the work ethic and the creativity” Tim says. “I’ve never felt that anywhere else.”

Keep an eye on Tim, the community for their first game, Exiles of Embermark, and the latest from Gunslinger Studios.