Opinion: RocketOwl wises up to products game

Ottawa gaming firm offers coupons for its competitors

While it’s often hard to tell whether a tech company is a hardware or software business, or a services or products studio, there’s no doubt about RocketOwl.

After spending time with two of its co-founders – 22-year old president and CEO Graeme Barlow and seasoned chief operation officer Jasvinder Obhi – it’s apparent all their eggs are in the products basket.

The reason? They are Zynga-inspired. Look at just one statistic: there were 150 million people playing games on Facebook in 2010. Now there’s 360 million, and that’s the audience RocketOwl is going after.

OBJ360 (Sponsored)

All the firm’s games are on Facebook. “Hands down it’s the place to be,” says Mr. Barlow. “Facebook knows what it’s good at: building networks and frameworks, not apps or games, which leaves everything else open to firms like ours.”

The firm takes zero third-party work, meaning there’s no contract work to help pay the monthly bills. The company concentrates wholly on its own titles.

RocketOwl opened its doors in December last year and had a soft launch of its first game, GreenSpace, on Aug. 1. The official launch was Dec. 1, and a planned 24-hour gaming marathon at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum for 1,000 guests is now slated for April 2012.

GreenSpace, as its name suggests, is about an unknown filthy and toxic planet where players form social connections with their friends to help clean it up. It’s a riff on FarmVille, in the sense that players create a utopia by clearing land, finding clean energy sources, developing renewable technologies and growing organic produce.

How did they get here? For Mr. Obhi, as well as angel investor/legal counsel/patent attorney Sol Avisar and chief technology officer Hitzel Cruz, it has been a long, strange journey. Mr. Obhi left JDSU in 2004, took a year off to build his own home in Rothwell Heights, then tried his hand at consulting before starting and selling a business in 2005 in the biometrics field and then doing some work with NRCAN in the green sector. Next, he worked for Rod Bryden’s Plasco and then entered the alternative energy sector with his own solar company before meeting Mr. Barlow to develop a web portal for their solar company, which naturally led to a Facebook gaming company called RocketOwl. Right.

There are now 14 full-time people working at RocketOwl, plus five part-timers. They expect to be cash flow positive in the first quarter of 2012. The game itself is a freemium model with pinch points throughout – opportunities to make micro purchases of tools, costumes, virtual goods and additional customizations present themselves to players for 99 cents within the game.

There are no ads at present – this isn’t an advergame.

“Ads are a turnoff to our community,” Mr. Barlow says. “Even product placement isn’t acceptable. But what we can do instead is have sponsored competitions. Or say you choose to have Nike sponsor your virtual avatar, maybe you get $10 off a pair of Nike shoes in the real world.” In this way, RocketOwl can make room for a corporate presence without becoming inauthentic – a death sentence in this business.

Mr. Barlow may be a 22-year-old CEO, but he comes across as much more mature than his age would suggest.

“Silicon Valley has this culture of not just innovating, but sharing ideas, which makes the lives of (venture capitalists) much easier – they can spot winners faster. Ottawa’s culture right now is way too secretive – everyone’s always in stealth mode, which is not good with Gen-Yers. We need to open up to each other a lot more.”

Right now RocketOwl is planning a sequel to GreenSpace – which will be called BlueSpace – and the firm will be expanding its launch to include the iOS platform. The company’s marketing plan is to go with guerrilla marketing. The team will be at Game Developers Conference, F8, E3, TechCrunch Disrupt (San Francisco) and at Apple’s Developer Conference.

There’s no chance RocketOwl can match the ad budgets of the gorillas in this space – EA and Zynga. So what if you can’t beat ’em? RocketOwl is giving away Zynga gift coupons for CityVille when players meet certain goals on … GreenSpace! So people have to try GreenSpace to get freebies on a Zynga game. It’s clever ambush marketing, reaches its niche and it’s cheap. By also giving away, say, $200 worth of gift cards on WoW (World of Warcraft, a huge multiplayer Internet game), RocketOwl expects to be all over the news channels with millions of potential views.

RocketOwl has completed its first round of financing and is working on round two ($650,000). The firm plans to select four different social causes each month to support and give back three to 10 per cent of its revenues.

“Our differentiated value is, in fact, the industry we’re in. Mobile web and apps are by far the fastest-growing part of the world economy. And who knows? Our market could grow to five billion people,” Mr. Barlow adds.

His investors and employees are counting on it.

Professor Bruce M. Firestone is entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management; founder of the Ottawa Senators; executive director of Exploriem.org; and a broker at Century 21 Explorer Realty Inc.

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