Profile: 2 Videogame Startups Turn Old Friends Into New Companies

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DURHAM -- In the basement of the American Tobacco campus, you'll find Joystick Labs, a videogame-startup accelerator. There is a big difference between what Joystick does, and what other similar organizations do, John Austin, the outfit's managing director explains.

"The difference between an accelerator like Joystick Labs and accelerators like YCombinator and TechStars is that those places are trying to get things started. Because we're funding mostly mobile games for iOS that only take months to develop, we can actually help people get things finished."

Austin is like the greatest Little League coach you ever had -- and he does, in fact, coach baseball in his spare time. He worked in games for decades before deciding to head up the accelerator.

StartupNationbug.pngWe met two of his teams in the offices at American Tobacco. The first team, Lab Rats Studio, was composed of local guys working on a 3rd-person shooter. The levels we saw played smoothly and featured graphics that looked to be on-par with early PS2 games. They'd done an excellent job and hoped that the release of their game in the next few months would allow them to make game development their full time jobs.

But I have to confess that we really fell for the second team. wefiends was founded by Nick and Kevin Barrios, along with their friend, Samantha Fung, who creates original music. The team, shy and self-effacing, recently moved from Los Angeles to Durham because of Joystick Lab's support. Their game looked wonderful. It was a time-management game in the style of the Sims or Diner Dash that puts you in control of "making a movie." The graphics are slick and the demo of the gameplay had that out-of-control feedback loop quality that seems to make those kinds of games impossibly addictive. We particularly liked Fung's music, which will play after you complete a movie in the game, and changes based on the kind of movie you were nominally making. In the embedded video, we hear the epic and western tracks.

Wefiends proves a greater point for Joystick, too. If you build a program that supports startups, they will come. Even from Los Angeles. Wefiends: wefiends.jpg

Lab Rats: dudes.jpg

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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