How to Win the Future of Social Mobile Gaming: The Z2Live Story

Take two technology areas that Seattle is best known for: mobile and gaming. Mix them together in a fast-growing market (iPhone multiplayer games), put some shrewd venture capital behind it (Madrona Venture Group), and what do you get? Answer: Z2Live.

This isn’t two guys in a garage working on their passion. This Seattle startup was very carefully built, and the story of how that happened—and why—holds lessons for anyone interested in building the most promising tech companies of the future.

Let’s flash back to November 2008. The tech community, like everyone else, was reeling, and diving into the depths of the recession. But Apple’s iPhone was already huge, game applications were taking off, and there were plenty of talented people with gaming and mobile expertise looking for work around Seattle. So Paul Goodrich and his partners at Seattle-based Madrona decided to make a big move in mobile, initially based around the iPhone.

The first step was to assemble the best possible team. Madrona hired Damon Danieli, a 14-year Microsoft veteran and senior developer who had designed some of the core features of Xbox Live, including its community and multiplayer offerings. If there’s anyone who knows the technical problems of social gaming, it’s him. Danieli got matched up with David Bluhm, who previously co-founded Medio Systems, a Seattle-based mobile search and advertising company. Bluhm has been involved with more than 20 startups—including two that went public and seven that were acquired—and also has experience at Motorola and Hewlett-Packard. (Danieli and Bluhm happen to both be University of Washington alums—Danieli in electrical engineering and computer science, Bluhm in mechanical engineering.)

Madrona invested a seed round of $1 million that fall, and followed it up with $3 million more last summer. The big idea was to develop a software platform to enable multiplayer social gaming across all mobile devices and all wireless networks—something that did not exist yet—and start with the iPhone and iPod Touch.

It sounds tricky, and it is. There are big technical challenges involved in making reliable and efficient connections between gamers across networks and devices—especially while they’re in the middle of a game. For starters, the Internet has routers that don’t accept inbound requests, and you have to set up a new server to negotiate those connections, as Bluhm explains. (It’s similar to the problem Skype has solved for Internet communications.) To do it right, you have to “serve the game” on the gaming nodes themselves. That means using the processing of the individual consoles or mobile devices to do the networking between players.

So that’s the concept behind Z2Live—“creating the multiplayer experience for the mobile device, starting with iPhone,” Bluhm says. That means enabling players to talk to other players during … Next Page »

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