Few entrepreneurs have experienced the successes of Jam City CEO Chris DeWolfe. Over the past 15 years, he started two companies that have been pivotal in redefining the technology industry in Los Angeles. Both ventures exceeded $400M in annual revenue, and each solidified the city’s reputation as a home to the media and gaming industries.
In 2003, DeWolfe co-founded MySpace, the world’s first social media and networking platform. Two years later he sold it to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp for $580M. By 2007, according to ComScore, MySpace was larger than both Google and the nascent Facebook, with more page views and more time spent on its site. At its height, MySpace had more than 130 million users worldwide. DeWolfe stepped down as CEO of the company in early 2009, sensing another opportunity on the horizon. He believed that the proliferation of smartphones would likely propel the mass adoption of mobile gaming. And he was right.
By the end of 2009, DeWolfe had reunited with ex MySpace co-founders Aber Whitcomb and Colin Digiaro as well as former Fox Executive, Josh Yguado, to launch a new gaming platform. The three had always had a passion for products and platforms that were in line with the cultural Zeitgeist of the moment. It was clear to them that the rise of mobile would fundamentally transform gaming, far more than it would any other entertainment medium.
CSQ first met up with DeWolfe in late 2016 as the newly christened Jam City was ramping up its partnerships with major studios such as Disney and Warner Bros. The company was simultaneously expanding its global presence to keep up with a rapidly growing global audience. DeWolfe says the company has focused intently on creating its own proprietary game brands, such as Panda Pop, and Cookie Jam, and turning them into global franchises. Today, Jam City also works with some of the biggest brands in the world, including Harry Potter and Disney’s Frozen. In 2018 the company launchedHarry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, which became the fastest game to hit $100M in revenue in Jam City’s history. It went on to become the number one downloaded game in nearly 40 countries.
In January 2019, Jam City raised $145M, bringing the company’s total financing to more than $300M. DeWolfe says the gaming market is consolidating and he sees Jam City as one of the major forces behind it. In 2018, for example, the company had three significant acquisitions, including Disney’s mobile game studio in Burbank. In addition to its Los Angeles headquarters, the gaming company has offices in Burbank, San Francisco, San Diego, Toronto, Buenos Aires, and Bogota.
DeWolfe embodies a unique position as a seasoned entrepreneur and CEO. He has shaped two distinct and significant social technologies—both of which have been part of the fabric of millions of people’s every day lives—and this is why CSQ named him its 2019 Visionary of the Year in Innovation & Technology.
The 53-year-old CEO’s passion for the gaming industry comes from a belief that to be successful, the user must come first. “Our philosophy has always been a player-first focus,” says DeWolfe. “If we do that right, the monetization will follow.”
DeWolfe’s laid-back demeanor seems perfectly calibrated for Southern California, and perhaps that’s why he has been instrumental in attracting a wave of tech talent to the area since the early 2000s. It’s very likely that Silicon Beach would not have existed had MySpace not been a Santa Monica startup.
DeWolfe remembers the early days of MySpace, when attracting talented engineers and data specialists to the region was an area of concern. “The big challenge was: How do we get someone to move from New York City, or the Bay Area, to LA? What kind of bonuses will we have to pay them to move here? Engineers were like rock stars.”
CSQ had an in-depth conversation with DeWolfe this spring in Jam City’s imposing 40,000-square-foot headquarters in Culver City, Calif., about the state of gaming, the LA entrepreneurial landscape, and the CEO’s vision for the future.
Crunching Numbers and Slaying Myths
Mobile gaming is expected to be a $100B industry by 2021 and has emerged as the fastest growing form of entertainment media, in terms of revenue. In addition to its entertainment value, research has shown that playing video games can reduce stress and help users recharge, especially from work-related stress. In 2018, mobile gaming made up nearly half of all worldwide gaming revenue and this year, more than 2.4 billion people will play mobile games worldwide. According to Sensor Tower, the average time spent playing Cookie Jam, a popular Jam City game, for the three years through mid-2018 was approximately 26 minutes per day, even greater than time spent daily on Candy Crush, WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Instagram.
And mobile gamers aren’t just the under 30 crowd; users in the 55+ age range occupy the largest segment of the gaming population (23%), followed closely by the 25-to-34 age group (21%). Another misconception is that gamers skew male. Nearly two thirds (65%) of females ages 10 to 65 in the U.S. play mobile games, and they play them more frequently than men.
DeWolfe acknowledges the numbers look good but he doesn’t let himself get consumed by them. “A creative business can’t be 100 percent data-driven,” he says. “There’s got to be a mix between the magic and the measured.” To that point, Jam City relies on far more than data to shape the business and its game development. DeWolfe says the company leans heavily on talented designers, artists, engineers and writers, as well as finely honed machine learning, to constantly improve the game experience for users.
We operate in a highly creative industry and are always on guard against being what’s expected and ordinary
A Melting Pot for Tech Talent and Storytelling
The magic of Jam City’s games are reflected in the storytelling, art, and design that comes together in each of its products. “There’s no other medium where you have so many disciplines working together,” DeWolfe says of gaming. Being based in LA has enabled the company to forge partnerships with academic institutions like USC, where DeWolfe is an advisor at the school’s Center for Entrepreneurial Studies. “USC is unique in that its gaming, business, and engineering schools are collaborative, and each has been recognized globally for excellence,” he says.
That brings DeWolfe back to the importance of narrative storytelling in the evolution of gaming. “If you don’t have great stories, it’s just not going to work,” he says. “Our products require a combination of storytelling and technology. There is no better place to put those together than Los Angeles, the media capital of the world.”
A number of successful tech startups have also made their home in LA. DeWolfe points to a few that he admires for their ability to disrupt their respective industries in innovative ways, including Tinder (the No. 1 dating site in the world), Clutter (a storage service that raised $200M in Series D funding in February 2019), Bird (a dockless scooter-share service, named one of Time Magazine’s50 Genius Companies of 2018), and Treehouse, which is addressing the inner-city housing problem in a progressive way and opens its first location in Hollywood in this summer.
He also notes Jeffrey Katzenberg’s new company, Quibi, which will produce short-form premium content customized for mobile consumption, as a company to watch. Katzenberg raised $1B in seed funding and, in 2018, brought on board former Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman to helm his new venture.
Personalized Touch on a Global Scale
Many acknowledge MySpace was largely responsible for LA’s emergence as a legitimate tech hub. Now, with Jam City, DeWolfe is part of the next evolution of tech and Hollywood through mobile entertainment. With the advancement of monetization and communication technologies, DeWolfe sees Jam City positioned to tap into the global gaming market.
“Data was very difficult to manage 10 years ago,” says DeWolfe. Today, that’s not an issue. In fact, access to data that uses machine learning helps Jam City to make critical business decisions in minutes. Without that kind of information, decisions would take days or weeks. “We are able to sift through massive amounts of data to give us an accurate snapshot of how our games are being used globally and the metrics associated with them,” says DeWolfe.
Jam City creates a distinct and personalized gaming experience for each of its users. When the company released its Harry Potter game in spring 2018, for example, users could choose from a wide array of ethnically specific avatars. “The game is all about allowing users to express themselves authentically,” says DeWolfe, “and be whomever they want to be while they journey through Hogwarts.”
One area where Jam City has been able to succeed where MySpace didn’t is in its expansion to international markets, as well as acculturating its games to specific geographic regions. The company has made a focused effort to understand local cultures and adapt games so they fit in seamlessly. This was a far bigger challenge for DeWolfe in the days of MySpace, where expansion happened fast. In contrast to that, Jam City games go through a rigorous testing regimen in each region where they are vetted first by its localization teams and then through a real sample group of users. Currently, over half of Jam City’s users play outside of the United States.
Globally, there are several areas of emerging potential, says DeWolfe, including India and Brazil. The challenge in these and similar markets will be how to make the games work seamlessly with lower-end Android devices and developing strategies to engage users so that when they transition to higher-end devices and have greater disposable income, Jam City will be positioned as a go-to gaming destination.
The Main Ingredients
DeWolfe has enjoyed much success, yet he remains humble, welcoming advice and guidance from many different quarters. “Over the years I have found I am the most successful when I can empower the talented people around me,” he says. The corporate culture at Jam City puts the focus on encouraging curiosity and taking bold chances. “We operate in a highly creative industry and are always on guard against being what’s expected and ordinary,” says DeWolfe. “We know we need to be innovative and exceptional in all we do.”
These days DeWolfe is more than just a CEO, he’s a dad of two young daughters. He learns a lot from the honesty of his kids. His 12-year-old daughter can be brutal in her critiques of his game launches. “That is a completely different experience for me. It’s an entirely fresh take on the games we create and it gives me insight and perspective into a part of the audience I didn’t know as well,” he says.
He is also a passionate philanthropist; mentoring young entrepreneurs; supporting A Purposeful Rescue, an LA-based dog shelter; Habitat for Humanity; and Mondays at the Mission, a homeless youth program based out of Union Rescue Mission downtown.
The Next Big Jam
The future for Jam City is all about reaching new users through partnerships with global brands—like Disney—with which it launches the game Frozen later this year, and the chance to hit big in countries like Japan, where Disney-branded products are hugely popular.“We are excited about the slate of games, which includes a great mix of Jam City–created brands and third-party brands around which we’re creating new mobile games,” says DeWolfe.
And because DeWolfe has been immersed in mobile gaming for nearly a decade now, he understands and can respond to its evolution. In just the last few years, he says, the demographics of gaming have expanded to include the 7-year old to the 70-year old. “There are puzzle games, narrative games, strategy games—something for every age, skill level, and interest,” he says. Add a layer of social that lets players enjoy the experience communally, and you’ve taken mobile entertainment to a new place.
Last but not least, of course, DeWolfe is, well, happy. When he thinks about his 10-year plan, DeWolfe acknowledges that it looks much different than it did when he left MySpace. “Back then, my plan would have been to start a new company every four or five years,” he says. “But I realize now how lucky I am to be at Jam City. I get to work every day with a brilliant team, in a hyper-creative industry that’s always changing and continually challenging me to do better.”