Gaming today is at a crossroads: A decades-old company that has built remarkable staying power around classic concepts is now engaged in a battle royal with innovations in areas such as mixed reality, AI, blockchain and networking, as it strives to connect facing an increasingly fragmented consumer base.
Today, a startup is announcing $55 million in funding from some major lenders to mark its own approach to the field. Founded by ex-Riot execs Michael Chow and Steven Snow, Believer is still in stealth and probably won’t launch for the next 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, especially in big multi-player “open world” games.
“We believe the open-world genre has been capped by a single-player, boxed-product focus,” Snow, Believer’s Chief Product Officer, said as part of an email interview with the two co-founders. “We love these games; going on an adventure in ancient egypt or a dystopia in the near future is awesome! But it’s time we started having these adventures with our friends.”
It will do so with impressive support. Lightspeed Venture Partners is leading the Series A, with Andreessen Horowitz (a16z) also participating; in addition, 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 starting round. It is not disclosing a valuation at this time, the two co-founders told me.
Believer essentially describes itself as a studio, and the money will initially go toward picking up more talent to fill that, in addition to initial hires, including 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 will initially be on working on original IP and stories “where player choices matter,” the company said.
But beyond that, there will be both a technology game and a quest for the piece that seems to be an essential part of any budding media empire these days: a greater focus on entertainment.
“We will certainly build new technologies, but judiciously: only in the highly differentiated cases where no technology exists to support our players’ dreams, and believers’ needs to achieve those dreams,” Chow said. Yet technology, at least in some ways, is not the pure focus there at all. When I asked which platforms are of the greatest interest to Believer right now – given the proliferation of mobile casual games, multiplayer brands on PCs and connected TVs, and the burgeoning world of VR, the answer could be just about anything, really – I got a very non-specific response.
“The most attractive platform is all platforms,” Snow told me. “It really feels like we are in one of the most exciting times where the desire for platform parity also goes hand in hand with the ability to deliver compelling gameplay models on said platforms. That’s why we want to build gaming experiences that are widely shared by groups of friends, and the way to really make that happen is to have as few barriers to entry as possible, such as platform exclusivity.
Chow, meanwhile, likens the choices Believer will make to Pixar’s in the animation world: It didn’t invent the technology, but “had to come up with completely new ways of making movies to work with it.”
The Pixar parallel is intentional. “Game companies are increasingly moving into the heart of the entertainment ecosystem,” added Chow. “In the past, we’ve seen media companies take over games companies to extend the reach of their IPs into interactive media. Now we’re increasingly seeing that dynamic reverse, where great IPs are born in video games and then surrounded by TV, film, music and sports. 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 aren’t built with a single media type — they need to resonate with their audiences across games, film, television, collectibles and real-world interactive experiences,” Eisner said in a statement. “The Believer Company understands that, and we at Tornante are excited to advise them as they bring their vision to life on every platform.”
With little to do in the way of what the company has built or plans to build so far – and before it’s shown if any of that can gain traction with players, ultimately the biggest test of all – what might be of interest right now is to hear from the co-founders what they want not are doing.
For example, you can forget about NFTs.
“We say no thanks NFTs,” Snow said. “These technologies are struggling in games because players aren’t asking for them, and no one has yet shown how they can make a game more fun. I think games should be fun. We’re not here to meme about technology, that’s not going to enrich the industry for anyone, let alone players.
That’s not to say that metaverse and Web3 – whatever you think that means – are completely written off.
“I think eventually someone will come up with solutions using these concepts, but it’s not a goal we have right now. For us, it’s how these make gameplay better, and right now, we don’t see these technologies specifically enriching that conversation,” Snow said. “More R&D needs to happen here before the fun they provide players is clear and obvious, and based on what we’ve seen so far, they may not get there.”
On the other hand, the company hopes to do more with generative AI.
“We want to lead not only in building and using this technology, but also in the ethics of how it is applied,” Snow said. He stressed that this would not come at the expense of a focus on human creators, whom they consider “essential” to gaming. It’s more about new kinds of functionality that AI can enable, “the most powerful tools that will unlock high-quality fun. No doubt AI and ML have something to say here, especially as time goes on, but it’s up to us to be responsible for how it’s used.”
Considering how difficult it is for a startup to raise money, let alone one with a totally unproven product aimed at the highly volatile consumer gaming market, it is very remarkable that Believer has pulled in such a huge amount of money. Snow knows the round is big, but it’s raised in part because they could, and because they don’t know what’s around the corner.
“Normally, an increase of this magnitude is not warranted, but we are also not sure what fundraising will look like later this year or next year,” he said. “Michael and I were willing to let go of more of our own ownership to ensure we can stay focused on the player and product for the next three years or more. This was the best way to get the right support to strengthen our future.”
Chow added that investors’ “broad spectrum of backgrounds” allowed for a “rich diversity of thoughts, knowledge and perspectives.”
“Once we found the right team of investors, starting with Lightspeed and a16z, it became quite easy to find more partners with the right mindset for the current moment,” added Chow. “We believe we have the best investors and advisors a game company has ever had. There is something about this climate that makes people think big and long-term – a desire to capitalize on the present moment, with all its uncertainty and possibilities, and go big on disruptive effects.”
Snow said three to five years for his first product is a “reasonable” timeline, so hopefully those supportive investors are also… patient.
“We will do this in stages and ask players to get in touch with us sooner rather 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 signs of making major hires are something the investors have been enjoying so far.
“The team already assembled at Believer is poised to change the industry through an unyielding commitment to players,” said Moritz Baier-Lentz, partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, who will join Believer’s board of directors. “Forget preconceptions about building, selling and marketing franchises on top of $70 entry fees and strictly written, real estate stories. As a lifelong player and a “believer” myself who has followed and admired the work of the studio’s founders for years, I know that Michael, Snow and their incredible team will make the next big thing by doing the right thing, at every turn . I am inspired by their vision and honored to make this happen.”
“When Michael, Snow and their Believer co-founders speak about what’s next for video games, the industry stops and listens,” Andrew Chen, general partner at a16z, added in a statement. “Time and time again, through both innovative use of new technology and subversive design principles, they have defied convention and achieved ambitions other developers never dreamed of. We are proud to join them at this moment in history and empower them to find the creativity in burgeoning technology.”