Mention the name Shawn Fanning, and most people still picture a kid in his dorm room at Northeastern University in Boston, cooking up Napster, a file-sharing website that let users trade songs for free and triggered a financial tsunami in the music industry.
Fanning, now 28 and living in San Francisco, is not only long out of college, but he’s also moved on to his third company, Rupture. (His second one, music licensing company Snocap, was sold in April 2008 to Imeem Inc., a social networking site.)
This third venture is related to one of Fanning’s personal passions: games.
Pick any year between 2009 and 1989, when he played his first game, the Legend of Zelda on the Nintendo Entertainment System console, and Fanning will tick off a list of hot titles for that year. Most people mark their lives by major events; Fanning marks his by the releases of new games.
He started Rupture in 2006 to help gamers find out what their friends are playing and connect. He sold Rupture in June to video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc. for $30 million. But Fanning remained at the San Francisco start-up to see his newest brainchild through to launch, which is expected this summer.
Fanning this week gave The Times a sneak peek into the service, as well as shared his thoughts on games and, of course, music.
Here’s an edited version of the conversation:
What is Rupture?
It’s Twitter for gamers. Our focus is to build a platform to automatically track your game accomplishments on all the different platforms, including consoles and PCs. But being able to track what your friends are playing is the beginning. It’s also the social interactions between gamers. We’re trying to create a framework around these interactions, like a metagame.
Sounds like what several sites are attempting to do, including GGL.com in Culver City. How is Rupture going to be different?
It’s definitely a space that’s heating up. We feel we have a unique and compelling approach. The key challenge is creating engagement. News feeds of what your friends are doing are interesting. But most of the time, it’s just overwhelming. We need to make sure that the service we’re building is focused on maximizing engagement. Just aggregating game data is not enough to create an engaging social experience.
What about pulling in user-generated content like Machinima, where players stitch together an original movie using game-play footage?
Machinima focuses on entertainment. It’s remarkable how much time and energy people put into making those. But there’s tons of other content out there too. Game guides that have tips and tricks on playing a game can provide value. There are YouTube videos that help players go through levels in games. And getting credit for producing the stuff is very interesting.
Do you use Facebook?
We’re on just about all the big social networks.
How many Facebook “friends” do you have?
Let me check. I have 1,603 friends. That’s the problem with Facebook. The nature of a friend on Facebook is dubious at best.
Do you approve every single friend request?
Yeah. My Facebook usage has deteriorated to just accepting friend requests. It’s just not that significant anymore. For me, it underscored why niche networks are interesting. In some cases, like with your girlfriend, you’re interested in everything that person does. In a lot of cases, you’re only interested in a person in one or two areas. It would be great to define that connection and control what information surfaces to me. Services should do a better job of understanding the nature of relationships. Take gaming. It’s about the people, but only in the context of games. That creates a level of focus, which makes the interactions more relevant and valuable. You can challenge your friends or collaborate with them to create content.
I hear you like to play World of Warcraft. What do you like about that game?
When I first started playing, I wasn’t taken in until I got into the player-versus-player aspect [where players do combat with each other]. It was the strategy and teamwork involved. Network gaming creates these bonds that keep you playing. Despite the fact that I’ve never met these people I play with, I think of them as good friends because we’ve been through so much together in the game.
Since Napster came out in 1999, the music industry has undergone a seismic shift. How do you think that industry is doing now?
I definitely think it’s in rough shape. The margins for digital music are awful for everyone other than the record companies. You can’t do anything innovative because of all the [licensing] permissions involved. Ultimately, the industry doesn’t look at technology as an opportunity. One of my biggest personal disappointments is that the ability for people to discover interesting and obscure music has faded. That was one of the reasons I made Napster.
Do you think the same thing will happen to the game industry?
No. Where the music business saw technology as a threat, the gaming industry embraces it. Games are built on new technology. I think games are moving toward a subscription model or a service-based model where it’s less about the upfront purchase than about the monthly fees or the micro-transactions people make to buy virtual goods. The gaming industry has handled the transition to online a lot more gracefully than the music industry.