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How a cloned iOS game helped spur a $50M investment in rising indie stars

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"I met the creator of Tetris once," Asher Vollmer tells me as we sit in reclined leather lounges in the back corner of the third floor of a Las Vegas convention center. "He told me he really liked Cat Threes."

He pauses, as if to land the comedic timing.

"I told him I didn't make Cat Threes."

Vollmer seems as much empowered by his success in making a hard-to-put-down puzzle game as he is by accidentally launching fodder for a steady stream of knock-offs and copycats of his mobile masterpiece: Threes!

cat

He seems at ease now, or at least resigned to the flood of gamealikes that rode the success of his game's singularly addictive mechanic. And maybe the fact that Threes! became a sort of Tetris of its own, a game idea so easy to replicate that everyone did it, is why Vollmer set his eyes on making something bigger, more grand a concept; something, essentially, harder to steal.

That new idea didn't just mean a new game; it also lead to a new studio and propitiously inspired the launch of a $50 million indie fund.

Guildlings

Guildlings is Asher Vollmer's new game, the first for Sirvo Studios. And there isn't much more we know about it.

"It's basically a mobile adventure game," he said. "It has this sense of adventure and road trips and is conveyed in a mobile format.

"You'll be exploring the world and meeting the characters and falling in love with them."

To quote the game's website:

We know a place where mages run raves, harpies haunt the suburbs, and a road trip can save the world. Follow us.

The site describes Guildilngs as a fantasy adventure in a world of wizards and Wifi and says it is due out in 2017.

guildings

"The market for simple, one-mechanic puzzle games is saturated and that doesn't excite me anymore," Vollmer said. "In order to make a dent in the mobile space now, you have to go beyond the touch-mechanic game."

He is keeping what you do in this new game, how it plays, a secret.

"Basically, we're not talking a lot about the gameplay structure," he said. "I think it's cool and creative and I want to keep it quiet because of my past experiences."

And by past experiences he means Threes!

The simple and addictive game was released on iOS in February 2014. The game has players following basic rules to slide matching numbered tiles together to combine and increase the total. The game ends when the moves run out.

Vollmer prototyped the idea in a single night and released it to great acclaim. It was later named the best iPhone game of 2014 by Apple.

threes

Despite the positive reception, a flood of knock-offs seemed to negate some of the game's success. 2048, in particular, managed to garner some of the attention seemingly meant for Threes!

Vollmer told me he used to spend sleepless nights working his way through the knock-offs, trying to get them removed from online stores, but recently he's become resigned to the notion that Threes! will be perpetually copied.

Instead, he's now focusing his energies on making sure that won't happen to his next game.

"Threes was such a straightforward game: there was no content, it was a mechanic and some art," he said. "The art was amazing for the character and tone we were going for, but the mechanic turned out to be strong enough to draw people on its own.

"Now we're creating a game full of content that will be harder to clone and I'm going to hold on to the mechanic as long as possible."

Sirvo and FunPlus

Idea in hand, Vollmer went to video game agent Blake Rochkind at United Talent Agency to see if his new studio could find funding.

"The reason I started pursuing funding was because I made this prototype and I can't make the game alone," Vollmer said. "I needed someone for art, story and the mechanic."

So he formed Sirvo with Ryan Sullivan and Jamie Antonisse and went hunting for money.

fieden
FunPlus' Fiden

After talking to a few potential backers, Vollmer settled on FunPlus, perhaps best known for mobile game Family Farm, which has more than 4 million players.

"At FunPlus we've made investments in companies previously," said Dan Fiden, chief strategy officer at the company. "But we've always kept a low profile before."

This time, though, they decided not to, announcing not just funding for Guildlings, but the establishment of a $50 million investment fund to "grow and promote exceptional independent developers and artists in the gaming industry."

"We love games and believe in games as a business and feel like we've been lucky enough to be in a position where we can do a fund like this," Fiden said. "We feel like managing a fund like this is the right business decision. It can help people like [Vollmer] move the industry in the direction we think it should go."

As with Sirvo, the fund will focus on early stage investment, often with it being the first investor in the company. It will work a lot like a venture investment, delivering cash in exchange for a minority stage in the company, equity or a convertible note.

"The way we'll select investments is relatively straightforward," Fiden said. "It will be teams and individuals that we admire, both because of their past work and what they are working on now."

"It's my passion."

Fiden says he's been a fan of Vollmer's work for awhile.

"Threes is a game everyone knows and loves," he said. "For a game maker who is so young, he's made some really varied games.

"Being able to watch, as a fan of games, someone like him work across all of those genres makes me feel like, 'Gosh, what is he going to do in the next five years.' And if we can be some small part of that, that's great."

Platform passion

After getting burned with Threes! on mobile marketplaces, you'd think that maybe Vollmer would consider shifting his attention to a different platform. But he says that won't happen.

"It's basically that I've come to this realization: I love mobile games and mobile platforms," he said. "It's my passion.

"What I want to focus on is the device most people have, which is the phone. I want to provide entertainment in that tiny window."

Correction: This story originally misspelled the name of Vollmer's game. It is Guildlings.