Paul Bettner grew up playing video games, but didn’t realize until his late teenage years that he could turn that hobby into a career. He began working in video games at Ensemble Studios (later bought and renamed Microsoft Game Studios) where he helped create games like Halo Wars and Age of Empires. In 2008, he co-founded NewToy, a mobile gaming company, with his brother, David, after seeing the promise of smartphones.
At NewToy, Bettner co-created the mobile game “Words With Friends.” The smash hit caught the attention of Zynga, a San Francisco-based video game developer, which bought NewToy for $180 million in 2010.
Bettner is now founder and CEO of gaming company, Playful. The McKinney company created Lucky’s Tale, a game that’s bundled with every Oculus Rift, one of the best-known virtual reality headsets. Bettner spoke about how he built a viral mobile game and the promise he sees in virtual reality at Dallas Startup Week in a session moderated by Melissa Repko of The Dallas Morning News. His answers have been answered for brevity and clarity.
How did you first get into gaming and decide to pursue a career in it?
I’ve been playing games my whole life. …I never realized growing up that that [a career in gaming] was even a thing. I didn’t connect the pieces: I’m playing games. And what do I want to do for a living? Those two never connected in my brain until I was 16 or 17. I had been studying engineering and wanted to be a software engineer and all of the sudden I realized ‘Oh wait. Games require engineering. Maybe that’s the thing.’ I reached out to several companies and got my first job in Dallas.
What inspired you to go from designing games like Halo Wars to starting a company of your own with your brother?
I’ll bet like a lot of you, I was lined up for the iPhone at 3 in the morning the night before it came out. We were over at Willow Bend mall. I had seen the iPhone on stage and I had seen how incredible it looked, and I’ll just never forget the moment of holding it in my hand and feeling like it was this piece of the future that didn’t deserve to exist yet. But here it was.
My brother, who had also joined the same studio I was at — Ensemble Studios — he had been bugging me for awhile, saying ‘We should start our own company. We should start our own game company.’ That hadn’t really made sense to me. But at that moment, I thought ‘Maybe now it makes sense.’ What I saw when I held that iPhone was a game machine.
How did you get the idea for Words With Friends?
My brother wasn’t on the same team I was on [at Ensemble Studios]. …We started talking about ideas and at the time, I had this desk and it had this chess board on the corner of it. Dave, who’s my brother, and I would have this chess game going on where it would take us a month or two to play because if he happened to come by my desk at some point and saw that I had made a move than he would make a move also.
We had this thought that came into our heads: What we believe in here is this idea of social games that are played in these little, tiny, bite-size chunks.
You started NewToy in 2008 and two years later, you had the entrepreneur’s dream: A company approached you and wanted to buy you. You mentioned you had the opposite reaction a lot of people might assume you had. You thought ‘I don’t want to sell it yet.’ Why is that?
When Zynga came along four or five months before our two year anniversary, I realized at that moment that there was no dollar value I could attach to what we were doing. At that point, several things had happened. The first thing that happened is John Mayer had tweeted about the game. He had about a million and a half Twitter followers at the time. I remember coming in that morning and everything was on fire. Alarms are going off. I thought we had broken something horribly, but it was just that everything was clogged up by the amount of users trying to flow into the game.
Another thing that happened is Alec Baldwin got kicked off a plane. The news stories for some reason were ‘Alec Baldwin gets kicked off a plane for playing Words with Friends.’ They could have just said ‘for using his phone,’ but no, it was ‘for playing Words with Friends’ — which became this meme for awhile.
These things are happening and I’m just falling in love with this stuff. For the first time ever, I was able to create entertainment for not just my gamer friends, but for everyone. My mom was playing. My sister was playing. Everybody was playing this game. I was like ‘This is all I’ve ever wanted.’ I can’t actually attach a price to this. It’s not for sale. It doesn’t matter what the number is. That attitude contributed greatly to having Zynga throw the ball so far. This number was insane: $180 million for a 30-person company that was two years old.
When that [deal] came along, it was the kind of situation where my brother and I together decided, if we do this, I can go start another company and I can hopefully get back on this track. But if we don’t do this and something happens — God forbid a competitor comes out — and we didn’t take this, something could happen and we could never have that opportunity.
Why did you decide to start a gaming company focused on virtual reality?
I went out to California and saw the very first [Oculus Rift headset] that had been hand-assembled at that point. I got to put it on. It didn’t even have a strap. You had to hold it in the front. It had duct tape. It was awful, but looking into it and seeing that they had built this thing out of commodity hardware, off the shelf cell phone parts and other things, I peered in there and I saw the future again, in the same way when I held that iPhone. I saw something that was clearly and unequivocally going to be the future of many industries, but especially, certainly of interactive entertainment.