Jason Citron was one of the iPhone's first big name developers. He and partner Danielle Cassley created a game called Aurora Feint way back in the early days of the App Store, and while that game didn't do as well as hoped, the duo and their backers eventually catapulted that title into its own social gaming platform called OpenFeint. That platform was later acquired by Japanese social network GREE, and Citron left the company that he originally founded last September.
Now, Citron's back with a new venture, called Phoenix Guild. He's working on assembling a team that will, as he says, build "core games for gamers on post-PC devices." Citron's always been a fan of traditional gaming and "really rich, engaging games," and his new company, which was just funded to the tune of $1.1 million by venture capitalists (including his former OpenFeint supporters at YouWeb), is aiming to build those types of core, traditionally console style games for modern mobile devices like Apple's iOS devices and even Microsoft's upcoming Surface console. "It seems obvious to me," Citron says during a chat this week with TUAW, "that core gamers are moving from PCs to other devices and tablets," and Phoenix Guild's goal is to provide great core games on those new platforms.
What exactly does Citron mean when he says "core games"? "Mass Effect, Call of Duty, and even Bastion," he says, rattling off a few popular and well-received console titles from the past few years. Citron agrees that you can't just "take what works on an Xbox and put it on an iPad," but he says there's a deeper experience that consoles currently provide that's not yet reflected on a lot of mobile games.
Citron's also convinced that free-to-play is the way to go, but he's cautious of doing the model wrong. "You need to do free-to-play in a way that respects players," he says. "Not in a way that makes players feel nickle-and-dimed to death." Citron says on the traditional PC, games like League of Legends and Team Fortress 2 are examples of how to do microtransaction based games correctly, and he wants to bring that generous polish over to tablet-based games as well.
Citron can't say anything about what Phoenix Guild's first game is like yet, but he says he's hiring AAA talent (including an artist from id games), and wants to put a solid, very social, very polished free-to-play game together (he even mentions the recent popular Magic: The Gathering iPad app as an example of the kind of game he wants to build, though he says that's not exactly what he's aiming for). So we'll have to wait to see exactly what Citron is building.
But he does say that while OpenFeint was a nice success, what he really wants to do is "build a large successful gaming company," not another social gaming platform. OpenFeint came out of the ashes of Aurora Feint, which Citron admits didn't do as well as hoped "because it wasn't free, and because there was no free-to-play at the time." But this time around, while Citron is returning to the original game design ideas he started with, the goal is to aim for what Citron says Blizzard and Valve have built, big game companies founded on quality, classic releases. "I want to have a company like that," he says.
It'll be a lot of work for sure, and as much as Citron is convinced there's a large hardcore audience ready to play games like that on mobile devices, he also agrees that it's so far "definitely unproven." And it's possible, he says, that he's wrong, and he's not able to make a company like this. Maybe he'll have to go the way of Aurora Feint, and turn the company he's growing into something else, a separate platform or some other important technology. But he hopes that doesn't happen. "If the universe will permit this sort of game company," Citron says with conviction, "I will build it."