Raptr's Dennis "Thresh" Fong InterviewBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Jul 30, 2009
It wasn't that long ago that Dennis Fong was being referred to as the "Michael Jordan of video games." He conquered the world of competitive gaming, defending his world championship titles in both Doom and Quake in the late 1990s, and then gracefully bowed out to try his lightning fast hands at the world of business. Since then, Fong, aka "Thresh," has gone on to found several lucrative and cutting edge companies, each of which was devoted to alleviating personal frustrations relating to some aspect of the gaming world. He started with the popular websites Gamers.com and FiringSquad, then left the games media behind as he moved on to the gaming client Xfire. His latest venture, Raptr, which he launched in 2008, represents the culmination of all of Fong's years as a gamer and entrepreneur. It's ambitious, technologically impressive, and if it can tap into the fickle social networking scene, it has the potential to be a sensation.
I recently sat down with Fong at our G4 offices to talk about his new company, the state of modern video game journalism, Ferraris, Left 4 Dead, and why he never finished the single-player portion of a game that made him world famous. [The comments section below is open for your thoughts on gaming communities and social networking: how often do you use a service like this? What do you like/don't like about them?]
For those people who might not be familiar with Raptr, could you please briefly explain what the service is?
Dennis Fong: Obviously, playing games is fun. It's more fun to play with friends, but people don't play with friends that often, and the reason is because actually finding friends and knowing when their playing is actually a pretty frustrating process...So that's basically what we're trying to address, that's what we built Raptr for. We believe everyone's a gamer now, particularly with all those Facebook games and Flash games and stuff like that, and so there's a lot of crossover, a lot of people bleeding into PC, to Xbox to PS3, whatever. So we wanted to build an application that was made for everybody, not just the über-hardcore.
The reason Raptr is so powerful now is that not only do my Raptr friends know, all my AIM friends and Google friends know, and you can hook it up to Facebook and Twitter, and tell your friends there. So the idea is: gaming is social, we want to help people play together, because it's more fun when you play together, so wherever your friends are, we want to tell them when you're playing games.
Raptr provides detailed information on over 32,000 games.
How many games does Raptr currently support?
DF: We support a little over 32,000 games. We span across multiple platforms: flash games, social games on Facebook, to Mac, PC and Xbox Live. We track over 2,000 PC games. So even if it's a Steam game, or whatever, it will track it. Since our launch, we now reach over a million [users], but with the partnerships we have in place, and because Raptr comes bundled with a lot of these PC titles from those companies, we anticipate we'll reach 10 million people within the year. And the really cool statistic is that our average user actually runs it for over 80 hours a month, so it's a very sticky application.
What makes Raptr stand out from the other social utilities out there?
DF: We do a few things that are special. The first thing is, if I see a buddy playing a game, like GunBound, if I have that game as well, there'll be a one-click-join option. So I would just right-click on his name, and you would see a "Join" button, and then just click it, and Raptr will launch GunBound for me, and automatically connect me to whatever server he's playing on. So we make it super easy to connect. Gone are the days where you have to take an IP address, "Hey dude, come join this server," kind of thing.
Raptr brings together the better elements of other social networking services into one package. Was that the strategy from the beginning, or did the success of so many other social networking services (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) make that the most logical approach?
DF: When you're building something that's gaming specific, which Raptr certainly is -- for the most part -- you don't ever look to replace a Facebook or Twitter. Facebook is a sister company of ours (Ed. -- Both Facebook and Raptr received venture capital from Accel Partners), but there's no way that Raptr will ever replace Facebook. [Raptr is] a vertical; we're not broad like Facebook. So it was never our intention, and it's still not our intention, to replace those types of services.
Now, with what we launched last week, our intention is to replace a Trillian or an Adium, or one of those types of services. And if you play games, which we think the majority of people do, that actually is our end goal, to replace those. But when you think of all the other social sites, even Xbox Live, we're not trying to replace Xbox Live. I think Microsoft announced Live Anywhere or whatever it was, which is basically just what Raptr is, many years ago, and they aren't any closer now than they were back then. Every company I've started, I've started to solve a personal frustration of mine. And I honestly don't start it to say, "Oh. I'm going to make a billion dollars," or whatever it is. I'm sure all of us have these experiences where we're just sitting around chatting, having a beer and talking about, "Aw man. Someone should go do that." The only thing that makes me different is that I actually go do it.
Watch the falling tiles to see what games people just started playing.
Was Raptr more of a natural progression, or was it that you just weren't able to do everything you wanted to do at once, so you decided to focus on one particular area at a time?
DF: Raptr actually came from my experiences having created Xfire. When we started Xfire in 2003, the world was pretty much about Counter-Strike. [World of Warcraft] didn't exist yet. Facebook didn't exist. All these kind of social things didn't exist. Flash gaming was still pretty small. Xbox Live wasn't that popular at the time. So we designed [Xfire] to be this uber-hardcore application. And we built everything from scratch. So a few years in, we realized the world had changed around us, and if we wanted to build something that actually satisfied that shift, we would have to start from scratch. So instead of doing that we decided to sell it to MTV, and then I left to start Raptr, which was essentially built from scratch.
So how did you get from that point to where Raptr is today?
DF: So, I didn't play any console games before 2003. Then I started playing more Flash games, more casual games. I played Bejeweled. I played Peggle. I played on Facebook. I started using Twitter. And then I started playing consoles, although I'm still primarily a PC gamer. And I looked around, and was like, "Wow. OK. Our whole UI, our whole infrastructure technology, none of this will support who I am as a gamer today." So Raptr, I guess you could have seen it as an evolution of Xfire, but really it was from scratch. I'm just lucky that there happened to be millions of people who are just like me. So I build these things, and hope other people find the same value in them.
In 2000, you referred to Gamers.com as "the Yahoo of the gaming industry." How would you characterize Raptr now in 2009?
DF: We call Raptr a social utility for gaming. Some people call us a "Facebook for gamers," or "Twitter for gamers." We don't really call ourselves anything, because we do try to take the most interesting pieces of those that are relevant to gamers and build upon that. And also, the term "gamer" is, in some ways, the wrong way to describe people who play games now, because I think someone who plays Mafia Wars on Facebook, may not call themselves a gamer, but they are. Which is why we do track Mafia Wars on Facebook and others; we consider them all part of the overall picture. When we launched Raptr initially, back at the end of last year, we were more a social networking site than a multi-network IM [client]. It was actually more along the lines of a Last.fm. So we had a client that would track your gaming, and it would upload it to your profile on the website, which was a lot like Facebook, and then we built Facebook and Twitter integration. And then what we found was actually a lot of our users, me included of course, was "I see my friend playing; I want to chat with him." So we quickly built a Raptr IM for Raptr-to-Raptr users. But we knew that that was just a temporary fix.
Even at Xfire, I think now there are over 14 million registered users; a small fraction of them are actually active. The main reason is because, for something like Xfire to be useful to you, you have to have many of your friends also active on the service. Because if it's just you and another buddy, and your buddy plays from 7-9 pm on Thursdays, you're not going to run it the whole time. So you have to have many friends that are on, and if some of your friends start dropping off, then everyone starts falling off. That's why we think Raptr is a game changer, no pun intended, because you get instant utility out of it, because you bring all of your friends into it right away. And your friends can get utility out of you being on Raptr, even if they aren't even on it yet.
What are some of the features that you hope to integrate into Raptr in the future?
DF: The number one most requested feature, and the one we want to see, is PlayStation 3 support. Our users want it. We want it. We've been talking to all the right people at PlayStation. What it really comes down to is that Japan is not quite ready to open up its data yet. But there's no reason why what we do for Xbox Live, we shouldn't be doing for the PlayStation Network, PS3 trophies; it's all the same thing. The Wii is going to be much further behind, primarily because, and we've talked to all the people at Nintendo as well, they're really careful about protecting children, so I think they're much less likely to open up their data any time soon.
Raptr faces uphill battle with Sony and Nintendo over data access.
Why are Sony and Nintendo so against sharing user data?
DF: So even within the PlayStation Network, the whole system of seeing when your friends are playing is really tough. You have to jump through like 10 different hoops, literally. And when we were talking to those people at PlayStation about it, we were like, "Man, why is it so hard? Do you need help to try and make it a little easier?" They're like, "That was by design. It was not by accident that it's so hard to set it up." And I think a lot of it is that Xbox Live, which is obviously hugely popular in the U.S., has almost no traction in Japan. So where they sit, they're like, "Oh. Why do we have to worry about Xbox Live. It has no traction."
Currently on the PS3 and Wii side, Raptr only supports Guitar Hero and later this year Spore Hero for Wii. How did you settle on those titles, and how were you able to secure them without Sony's or Nintendo's support?
DF: Kai [Huang] and Charles [Huang], the founders of Guitar Hero and RedOctane are good friends of mine. So it was just like, "Hey guys, we'd love to get PlayStation or Wii support." And we knew we couldn't get it directly from Sony or Nintendo, so what we found out was we can get access to that data through the developers, because they all have that data on their side. By virtue of it, from their data, we support the Wii and PS3. And we are talking to other developers about opening that up. But it's a tough road, because they're essentially one-off integrations, whereas Xbox Live is one time. These eat up about a month, or whatever it is, to support them one by one.
Do you have a timetable for when you'd like to move Raptr out of beta?
DF: We don't. We're going to follow the Gmail model. (Laughs). It's not perfect. There's still a lot for us to improve upon and built upon. But we think that the base of what we have there is super interesting. It's shown to be sticky, and we have some great partners to help us get out there. Frankly, a lot of what we build is based on user feedback. We do actually listen to our users. The things they're complaining about, or asking about, we actually bubble up to the top of our priorities list.
What are some of the major differences between the gaming media today compared to when you were on the media side with Gamers.com 10 years ago?
DF: Citizen journalism seems a lot more credible now. I remember when we were doing Gamers.com, we had user reviews and, we didn't call them blogs back then, but people could write columns. I remember there was tons of traffic. There were thousands and thousands of reviews, but I'm not sure anyone really read them. Whereas today, I mean, from TechCrunch to Kotaku to what have you; some might say they actually have more power now than some of the older sites. 1UP is an example. Things like Kotaku and Joystiq are very, very relevant. You now, almost anyone can be a journalist in some ways, and that's not saying anything about journalism or the people that are in that field. It's just, people have become reporters themselves. If you look at things like Digg and stuff like that as well -- I think the whole world is much more conscious about what's going on.
Are there any things that you were able to do during your Gamers.com days that you don't get to do now that you're involved with Raptr? Anything you don't miss?
DF: You know, I don't miss the editorial side. At the time, we had a staff of over 50 people, just on editorial alone, so I definitely don't miss that. Xfire, when we were acquired, we were only 17 people, and a lot of people thought we were much, much bigger. Now Raptr, because we track a lot more platforms, and we integrate a lot more services, by the nature of it, we just needed to be bigger, so we're about 30 people. But you can build a lot of really cool technologies with a very small team. Gamers.com, at our peak, we were like 100-some odd people.
The world of competitive gaming has obviously come quite a long way since your dominating days. Do you still interact with that culture or any of its big name competitors like Fatal1ty, Tsquared, etc.?
DF: Fatal1ty is someone I've known since even when I use to play. He tried out for our Quake team back in the day when he was still pretty new. He didn't make the cut...
It only made him stronger, it seems.
DF: (Laughs) Exactly. But I still keep in touch with a lot of the players, at least on the PC side. I don't really follow the console side that much, because I'm not a competitive console player. I just can't get used to not having a mouse and keyboard. So I'm mostly a FPS player, but even some of the old RTS guys, StarCraft pro players in Korea, I still keep in touch with a lot of them.
Professional gamer Fatal1ty shows off where “not making the cut” gets you.
So these days, you're more of a casual player?
DF: I'm über-über competitive. If I get into something, it's the end of me. Even at the offices at Raptr, we have a ping-pong table, Joust, Robotron, and I have to be number one in all of them. And I won't stop. It takes a bit for me to really commit to something. But if someone starts talking smack -- So we were playing Robotron, and I was just fooling around, and there were some guys there who are really into classic arcade games, and they were racking up the score, and they were talking smack, and then next thing I know I end up spending a few hours playing that game, I have the high-score, took a speed shot on my phone, and emailed it around. So people have learned, if you want to be number one at something at Raptr, don't talk smack about it in front of me.
When you play against friends, do you have to pull back so they don't feel utterly demoralized by the end of it? Or have they all pretty much come to grips with your awesomeness, so now you can all just play for fun?
DF: I have actually toned down my competitiveness over the years. My friends used to get pissed at me when we played basketball or football, because they're like "Why are you trying so hard?" and I'm like, "It's not fun to lose. I want to win. No one likes to lose." So I've actually toned it down from that perspective...But I do handicap myself sometimes once I've gotten to that point. But for a lot of things, ultimately, you're competing against yourself. That's how I see it. Back in the Quake days, the reason I was able to be undefeated in every tournament I played in, was because I was competing against myself. And if I played you last time, and beat you 10-0, I expect to beat you by either 10 to -1, or 11-0 next time. That's just how I challenge myself. That part is just built into my brain. It's really hard for me to turn it off.
Are there games that you've never beaten?
DF: I actually never played Quake [single-player] all the way through, even being the world champion of that game for many years (Laughs). Because that's not what interested me. What interested me was playing against real people. Most games I actually don't beat from a single-player perspective. Although, lately I've played more single-player than multiplayer. That's actually how my tastes have changed.
The beginning to Quake. Dennis never saw the ending.
Do you still have Doom creator John Carmack's Ferrari?
DF: I kept it for like 10 years. I actually sold it around the 10-year anniversary; so back in 2007. I
actually very rarely drove it. I don't know if you remember, but it was red, and it was modified so it was super loud. So it was way flashy. Actually, in the 10 years I had it, I probably drove it less than 30 times. That's why at Gamers.com I had it installed in the lobby. It was just too much for me.
What games are you currently playing?
DF: Today I played [Sid Meier's] Pirates on my Blackberry. I'm playing Left 4 Dead, which is a kick ass game...Left 4 Dead is actually the first game in God knows how long that, the first time I played it, people were like "Get off you f****** noob!" And I was like, "Holy S***!" The first two times it was pretty rough. Finally found some server, and I was obviously a noob, and two of the guys on the team were like "Noob. Noob. Let's get rid of him," and then there was one guy who was like, "You have to start at some point. Let's just let him do his thing." But that was the first game in a long time where I was just a total noob.