Game Over?

For a brief moment, Guitar Hero and Rock Band were just about the biggest video games ever. But now that the fad has crashed and burned, can the Cambridge company behind these hits prove it’s more than just a flash in the pan?

Photograph by Scott M. Lacey

Photograph by Scott M. Lacey

In a cubicle decorated with the kind of aphorisms usually reserved for the horoscope column (“A thrilling time is in your future”), Ralph Shao pulls out his iPhone and gives it a tap. A cartoon skyline and the words “TapCity” pop up on the skyline. He taps again and I’m looking at a map of Main Street in Kendall Square. But the buildings look weird: I see a couple of igloos, several castles, and a skyscraper. I glance out the sixth-floor window of One Cambridge Center, where Shao and I are sitting in what’s called the TechStars business incubator, but I don’t see any castles.

The cartoon buildings on the screen represent various types of “development” in what just may be the future of Boston’s video-gaming community. Shao, at 23, is chief technology officer of the Tap Lab, a Boston gaming startup he cofounded with his fellow 2009 Boston University grad Dave Bisceglia, who at 24 is the CEO. Their game, TapCity, blends Google Maps, Foursquare, and Monopoly: You check into a property, like your office, favorite coffee shop, or Fenway Park, just as you would with Foursquare. From there, you earn digital currency, which lets you “buy” properties, collect rent, and develop them, just like in Monopoly. Instead of just houses and hotels, though, you’re able to create 15 different types of buildings — including castles to defend your property from takeover attempts.

Shao taps the screen again to launch an attack on one of the castles, which happens to be the TechStars office we’re sitting in. He recruits friends to help him, but he’s not optimistic — the owner’s defenses include a blast door, a force field, a security camera, a SWAT team, and ninjas. Shao’s best weapon is a crowbar, but what he really needs is a Trojan Horse, an unruly mob, or a lawyer.

His business partner, Bisceglia, acknowledges that the game seems unorthodox, and maybe sophomoric. Unsurprisingly, it came out of a project the two started in college. “I grew up in the neighborhood playing capture the flag,” he says. “We’re looking at how we could make that gameplay work with mobile devices.”

Silly or not, TapCity has potential. Bisceglia and Shao are “at the forefront of the next stage of innovative gaming,” says Nabeel Hyatt, who in addition to being their adviser is the general manager of Zynga Boston, which in September launched the hit Facebook game Adventure World. “Location-based mobile games — a lot of people feel there are amazing amounts of opportunity there,” Hyatt says.

Though TapCity is free, the thousands of people already playing on their iPhones or iPod Touches are paying as much as $2.99 to upgrade their properties. It isn’t yet Angry Birds, which flew out of Finland in 2009 and has seen 500 million downloads, but it’s a start. Most impressive is the game’s suck-’em-in effect: People who actively play TapCity spend about 25 minutes a day with the game. Most businesses would be ecstatic to have a consumer’s attention for nearly half an hour a day.

The Tap Lab is now working on its second project — a title it says will also be based on maps. Their dream, Bisceglia says, is to “define Boston as the hub for social gaming on the East Coast.” Right now, he and Shao spend almost all their waking hours working and networking across the city. They’re hoping for the kind of viral success that led to Facebook and Zynga. But where Facebook famously left Boston to head to Silicon Valley, Bisceglia thinks he has everything he needs to build a large gaming company right here in Boston. “We’ve been down to New York and out to San Francisco, but we love [Boston],” he says. “A lot of folks are really into gaming, just because of the culture here.”

Of course, a strong video-game culture doesn’t guarantee sales. Neither, actually, does past success. Some offerings will attract millions of players and others will flame out, but even industry veterans can’t always pick the winners.

Even though Harmonix had a hit with the original Dance Central, Alex Rigopulos can’t be sure his sequel will sell. It’s possible that people who love the current version won’t want to upgrade. Or what if his customers have moved on to the next gaming fad? The industry is rife with failures and audiences that suddenly lose interest.

The hit-driven dynamic creates massive risk. A console game like Rock Band or BioShock for platforms such as Xbox, Kinect, or the PC might cost $30 million to develop, while building a big online world like those made by Turbine can run to more than $60 million. Spend that much and fail, and there might not be another game in your future. Which, by the way, is yet another reason that many developers are instead focusing on smartphone games, which cost a fraction of that to develop. When an iPhone game fails, you just launch another one. When it hits, you crank out a profitable new version. In this way, companies like the Tap Lab, not Harmonix, look to be the future of the industry.

Actually, that last bit of insight isn’t lost on Rigopulos. Just before Dance Central 2 came out, Harmonix launched its first-ever app game, VidRhythm, which costs just $1.99 to buy and lets users make their own music videos. It was developed in a few months, by a small team, working on a budget Rigopulos calls “tiny.” Harmonix is also at work on games for social media and mobile platforms, though Rigopulos won’t disclose any details. “Harmonix wants to be a leading creator of content in that domain,” he says. No kidding.

The Harmonix development studio has traditionally focused all of its resources on one big game, a dramatically different challenge than running multiple small projects, all with their own needs for creativity and marketing. Living room games like Dance Central won’t disappear anytime soon, but eventually, “physical distribution is going to wane,” Rigopulos says. That bodes well for our city, he adds, because “it eliminates one of the factors that impairs Boston as a hotbed of development.” What he means is that the distribution of big video games has long been controlled by huge publishers like Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and Activision — none of which happen to be based here. But publishers aren’t that important when it comes to getting iPhone games to market, or to distributing them on Facebook. So Boston, with its smart young people and its active game community, could be home to the next Zynga.

Maybe that will be the guys at the Tap Lab, working on their citywide version of capture the flag. Or perhaps it’s some kids in a basement in Worcester. Then again, it could even be Harmonix and Rigopulos, if they prove they can play in multiple arenas at the same time.

“Boston’s a great city — we have deep talent and resources. The game companies that are here do excellent, high-quality games,” says Craig Alexander, who heads up product development at Turbine. “We can be an interesting industry, doing cool things, and be another core strength. We’re not cannibalizing hospitals or education or enterprise software development — we’re an addition to that.”

Gamer’s Paradise: A Timeline

Thanks to top-notch game-development programs at area colleges like MIT, Boston has one of the best gaming industries in the country. Here, we look at a few highlights through the years.

  • 1961 Spacewar! is conceived by an MIT team led by Steve Russell, and becomes the first widely played computer game.
  • 1977 Zork, a text-based role-playing computer game, is developed by four MIT computer scientists.
  • 1995 Harmonix is founded in Cambridge by Alex Rigopulos and Eran Egozy to build multimedia music software.
  • 1999 Then based in Westwood, Turbine releases Asheron’s Call, one of the first massively multiplayer online (MMO) games.
  • 2005 Harmonix and ­RedOctane release Guitar Hero, creating the music-simulation game.
  • 2007 One year after being acquired by MTV, Harmonix releases Rock Band, which goes on to become a billion-dollar game.
  • 2007 Quincy-based Irrational Games releases BioShock, which has sold more than 8 million copies to date.
  • 2007 Turbine releases The Lord of the Rings Online, a highly successful Internet world based on the Tolkien franchise.
  • 2009 Dave Bisceglia and Ralph Shao graduate from BU and start the Tap Lab to develop social mobile games.
  • 2010 Harmonix releases Dance Central; Viacom sells off the company in December.
  • 2011 Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios moves to Rhode Island, lured by $75 million in loan guarantees.
  • 2011 Zynga buys Cambridge-based Conduit Labs and Waltham’s Floodgate Entertainment and merges them into Zynga Boston, which releases Adventure World in September 2011.