Deals of the year: The Force is with Ottawa’s Gigataur

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens triggering a new wave of interest in George Lucas’s enduring sci-fi saga, a small Ottawa mobile gaming company is hoping to cash in.

“Right now is the epicentre of Star Wars,” says Gigataur CEO Andrew Fisher, whose firm developed a new Star Wars-themed game for Disney Interactive that launched earlier this year. “It’s been an interesting time.”

Since the release of Star Wars Rebels: Recon Missions in March, the game has garnered plenty of rave reviews from fans. Working with an entertainment colossus such as Disney has also helped Gigataur raise its profile significantly in the small but highly competitive mobile gaming sector.

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“We’ve produced at that level and very few people have, so it’s opened all kinds of doors for us,” Mr. Fisher says.

It was a project two years in the making, one that really started in about the most low-tech way possible in today’s world.

A self-described “old-school sales guy,” Mr. Fisher simply picked up his phone and cold-called Kevin Feige, president of Disney subsidiary Marvel Studios. 

Mr. Fisher and his colleagues at what was then known as Glitchsoft – they numbered all of about five people – were big fans of Marvel’s mobile games. Fresh off their highly praised release of He-Man: The Most Powerful Game in the Universe, the team at the local firm wanted the studio to know they had the same kind of passion for Marvel’s characters and would be more than happy to collaborate on a project.

“We pitched (Mr. Feige) with a standard pitch call – short, two sentences,” Mr. Fisher says. “And he was like, ‘OK, I’m interested.’”

Marvel’s CEO soon introduced Mr. Fisher to his vice-president of business development, planting the seeds for what would become Gigataur’s most important business partnership.

“He treated me like I was at that level,” Mr. Fisher says of Mr. Feige. 

Mr. Fisher’s relationship with another high-powered individual – Terry Matthews – through his association with Mr. Matthews’ Wesley Clover investment firm likely helped with that.

“From then on in, we would just use my Terry Matthews skill set and we negotiated ourselves into a project with Marvel, which then led us into introductions to Disney.” 

The project with Marvel, a tie-in with the studio’s 2014 film X-Men: Days of Future Past, helped cement the Ottawa company’s reputation as an industry leader. 

“It put us into a triple-A category that very few other studios worldwide could compete with at the time,” says Mr. Fisher, 47. 

“When we were negotiating for the (Star Wars) contract, they said flat out to me, the reason that we’re signing this with you is because we feel that Marvel’s already done the diligence with you. We unfairly got in through a cold call, if you want to call it. That’s old-school Sales 101. It works.”

Not that landing the deal with Disney was a piece of cake. Mr. Fisher figures he probably had at least 50 phone or face-to-face meetings with company execs, who left no stone unturned despite already being familiar with Gigataur’s work. 

In fact, his team spent eight weeks of coding time putting together a prototype, free of charge, to prove they had what it takes.

“It was, I’d say, a year of wooing back and forth, where we were sort of jawing with each other, figuring out where we would find a sweet spot,” he explains.

After finally beating out nearly a dozen competitors to get the go-ahead, Gigataur ramped up its Ottawa head count to 30 full-time employees from five. The company spent a full year developing the game with help from the technical wizards at Lucasfilm, another Disney subsidiary.

“They taught us all kinds of tricks – how to improve our visuals, how to push our graphics,” Mr. Fisher says. “It was a lot of just working back and forth. Our team responded. They rose to the challenge.”

Gigataur’s founder says his old boss at Wesley Clover taught him a company will never succeed unless it dares to venture outside its comfort zone.

“This is a Terryism: if you build to the size of the company you are, you’ll never get anywhere,” he says. “You’ve got to go out and win bigger deals, so that, one, you understand how bigger business operates and two, so that you can start to scale your company. We purposely tried to win a deal that was way above our capability, and we were able to learn from it and grow from it.”

Since the release of the Star Wars game, Gigataur has scaled back to about 15 employees. In addition to changing its name earlier this year – “It’s a much stronger, bolder name, and so I think that’s sort of more representative of our capabilities and the types of projects we’ve been working on,” Mr. Fisher explains – the firm is also tackling its biggest challenge yet: changing the mobile gaming business itself.

Currently, the industry makes most of its money through the “freemium” model, in which users can download a game for free but must pay for all the really good stuff. 

Mr. Fisher says that’s unfair.

“The best games rip people off,” he says. “They force them to pay to win. So it’s not a model that we’re really fond of.”

He says Gigataur is working on a “more advanced” revenue model that will allows sponsors to display their ads to gamers in a “non-exploitative” way. He plans to unveil the beta version with a “big partner” in April or May.

“All I can tell you is that we’ve figured out a way to not interrupt the players’ flow so they don’t get any interruptions, we don’t exploit them in any way through our game designs,” he says. “That’s our special sauce. It’s something we’ve been working a long time on.”

Most media will soon be consumed on mobile devices, Mr. Fisher says, and whoever figures out the most innovative way to generate revenue from games and apps will be in the driver’s seat.

“The next wave of reaching consumers is all through mobile touch devices,” he says. “Mobile is becoming so important for brands to engage with their customers, and their challenge is, how do they deliver value? That’s the nut we’re trying to crack.”

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