Dropping out of school wasn't always the plan. In fact, I had a much more sensible path charted out as I entered my senior year of high-school. Here's how it went: Get into Harvard. Study hard for four years. Intern each summer at a prestigious banking institution. Learn the ins and outs of private equity. Apply to Goldman Sachs. Become a low-level associate. Work even harder and network with the right people. I'd play my cards right, and if all went according to plan, I might someday have the opportunity to play a small role in dismantling the entire financial ecosystem by selling third-party derivatives of a product that I don't really understand but might have at some point been a component of someone's house ... I think.
Luckily, plans change.
Instead of going to Harvard, I dropped out of Princeton. (Sorry mom.) Again, that definitely wasn't part of the plan, but I've always had the entrepreneurial bug. I began work on my first start-up at age 12. It failed gloriously. My second startup did much better. PostcardTech produced high-tech CD postcards. I rented part of a factory in Hong Kong to crank these things out. A long boat-ride later they'd arrive at my distribution center (my parent's house) in Boston and then be delivered to clients.
PostcardTech was successful, but by the time I was a freshman in the engineering school at Princeton, I realized that it was never going to be something "big." And I want to build something big.
So, I began to explore a new idea. I like to play games. And I like computers. But I also like to go outside. (At Princeton I was one of the few engineers who actually owned a pair of sunglasses.) Growing up, I'd seen the incredible power of conventional games. Friends spending hours and hours every day -- literally weeks of their lives -- playing games: World of WarCraft, Starcraft, Civilization IV, Farmville.
I wanted to take the underlying mechanics that made those games so compelling -- the raw game mechanics that motivate behavior in virtual worlds -- and construct a framework to apply them in the real world. It would be part game, part game engine. A sort of "game layer" on top the world that everyone could play, and more importantly, that everyone could build.
I approached one of my Computer Science professors, Adam Finkelstein, and asked him for help in building the first version of this idea so that I could pitch it to the Princeton Business Plan Competition. Instead of calling me crazy (something that's become a bit of a trend in recent weeks), he agreed to help. And so we pitched it to the judges -- and won.
But that wasn't when I decided to drop out and go full steam on what would eventually become SCVNGR. What really motivated me to get started immediately was a healthy dose of fear.
I realized that this game layer was rapidly approaching, regardless of whether or not I'd have a hand in building it.
Why was I so sure? I am convinced that this next decade will be the decade of games. This last decade was the decade of social, the decade in which the framework that we use to connect and communicate with our friends was designed. It's called Facebook and the OpenGraph Protocol. If you don't like it, (I personally do, but many people don't) there's not much you can do. It's built, and now we all have to live with it.
This next decade is the decade of games. And it's going to be much more powerful than its social counterpart. Because rather than trafficking in social connections, the game layer will directly influence human behavior. Just as game mechanics have subtly motivated the behavior of millions of players and influenced billions of hours of game play in virtual worlds, the game layer has the potential to have this same effect in our physical world.
In my opinion, the game layer is too important to risk leaving up to chance. It's critical that everyone plays a role in defining its implementation. Because if we don't, someone will define the game layer for us.
Will it be Zynga? Extending Farmville into our physical lives? Perhaps, but I cringe a little to think about what the extension of their game mechanics into the physical world would look like. Would success be defined by the number of $6/month cell phone subscriptions that they could accidentally sell to hapless tweens? Perhaps, but that's not the kind of game layer I'm looking forward to.
Or perhaps Microsoft will build it for us? That could be fun. We could finally experience the blue screen of death in real-life. And perhaps if we play enough we could level up to eventually face-off against the "boss", a semi-demonic Clippy with X-Ray vision. Now this one sounds like a lot of fun, but it still falls short.
And, that's when I mentally dropped out of school. The game layer is coming and, in short, I want it to not suck. If it's going to be any good, it has to be built on an open framework. Sure, it's important that we all play and have fun. But it's far more important that everyone has the opportunity to build so that the game layer remains flexible and constantly evolving to meet our collective needs.
At SCVNGR, our over-arching goal is to build this open framework, a platform with intuitive tools that enable the least technologically-savvy person to contribute as much to the game layer as the computer geniuses among us. We're attempting to build a massive game that we'll all play and build together.
By increasing awareness of the coming game layer, we can and will leverage it to achieve great things. Jane McGonical, Jesse Schell and many others are working to educate the world about the power of game mechanics. I want to provide the open tools needed to bring this theory into practice.
And then I actually dropped out of school. I've since secured funding from DreamIT Ventures, Highland Capital and Google Ventures. SCVNGR is now a dedicated team of 40 individuals that is working full tilt to educate the world about the game layer and simultaneously build an open framework to support it. (And we're having a great time doing it.)
So, why did I start SCVNGR? Partially for all of the reasons above. And partially because if I hadn't, I'd be completing a problem set for COS 487 right now, not writing an article for The Huffington Post. And, between you and me, building the game layer on top of the world just seemed easier.