How I Made It: Game firm exec fuses art and technology

The gig: Mike Verdu was chief executive of TapZen, a start-up making games for smartphones and tablets, when Kabam Inc., a much larger gaming company, bought it in January. Now he’s Kabam’s chief creative officer and senior vice president for studios.

From his office near Culver City, Verdu, 50, drives ideas for games and assists with the San Francisco company’s outreach to Hollywood and game developers. As gaming has evolved from computers to consoles to the Web to mobile, Verdu has been through it all. But it wasn’t the career he’d expected.

Most people his age were taught to find a good job and stick with their employer. Verdu took a less traveled path.

Writer’s block: Verdu grew up in Washington, D.C. His father worked for a trade union helping laborers in developing nations, and his mother taught modern dance. As a child he was hooked on writing — words on a page turning into pictures in the head, “magic,” he says — until he found something more magical: computers. With cash earned from mowing lawns, he bought an early model IBM PC. Video games entranced him — “A perfect fusion of art and technology,” he said.

College dropout: While Verdu was a sophomore at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, defense contractor Advanced Technology Inc. offered him a job to fill a “crying need” for people who could code software. He accepted and told the dean he’d be back to school soon. That never happened, though he jokes that it still may.


Company founder: In 1985, at age 20, he left Advanced and founded his own defense software development firm, Paragon Systems Development Corp. Within two years, he’d sold the 25-employee company to American Systems Corp. He had enjoyed the technical challenges writing software for nuclear submarines and analyzing intelligence, but felt uncreative. “What I needed to fulfill my potential as an artist was making that emotional connection with another person,” Verdu said.

The spark: Amid a defense spending slowdown in 1990, Verdu persuaded his new owners to fund his start-up idea. He moved software engineers from defense to video games. His shop focused on building CD-ROM games based on popular science fiction, fantasy and adventure books. Profit soared until competitors swarmed. Struggling to crack into another game genre, he sold the gaming outfit in 1998 to a larger business that itself was later swallowed by gaming giant Atari, where Verdu remained through 2002.

“I learned you really can’t just be a start-up guy or a big company guy,” Verdu said. “If your goal is to make the very best products and be in a position to offer those to as big an audience as possible, you have to find the right place to reach your potential.”

California calling: Verdu welcomed a two-level demotion, from studio chief to senior producer, to work in Los Angeles for Electronic Arts. He said he had long realized that job titles usually don’t matter. Good work gets rewarded.

“The idea that a title gives you some kind of moat around yourself is a dangerous conclusion,” he said. “That made me unafraid of making lateral career moves or this weird zig-zag.”

Indeed, he quickly became a studio chief again, overseeing 300 people and versions of games such as “Command & Conquer” and “Lord of the Rings.”

Worldly thought: On business trips to Japan and South Korea, he saw a different gaming economy. Rampant piracy led to games selling for zilch upfront. Money came from ads, multimedia adaptations or optional extras inside the game. He thought that model would be perfect for a game on the surging social network Facebook, but Electronic Arts wouldn’t bite.

“Here was a tectonic shift in gaming, and the only resources they had were some college interns building a Scrabble game experiment for Facebook,” Verdu recalled.

Last zig-zag: In 2009 he jumped to Zynga, a top publisher of Facebook games at the time. But Zynga struggled as games moved to stand-alone apps. In 2012, Verdu repeated a play by getting a boss to fund a start-up.

Verdu would lead TapZen, which would rapidly build games, study performance and leverage Zynga’s distribution tools to widely distribute them. A problem emerged a year in. Zynga Chief Executive Mark Pincus stepped down and Verdu lost his ally.

TapZen still launched strategy game “This Means War,” which 2 million people have played since the summer. But Verdu reverted to his wisdom in January: Sometimes, being in a bigger company is better.

“Kabam had already done what I was starting to do — blending art and science in games, and it made more sense to be part of that family than on my own,” Verdu said.

He learned along the way that teams need time to gel, so he let them jog a hill before sprinting up a mountain.

“You can’t underestimate the value of team cohesion, muscle memory and shared experience,” he said.

Outside gaming: Verdu lives with his wife, Paula, and sails and hikes when he’s out of the office.

Twitter: @peard33