You should decide early on what “success” means to you and your team. Not every game has sold millions of copies or made their developers rich. But they might still say they were successful. As you would with any company, define what success means to you and break it down as much as you possibly can. Take a look at some of the games that have overwhelmingly positive receptions on platforms like Steam. There are countless games there that come from small teams, a small budget and reach a relatively small audience. They win awards. They’re successful in their own right because of how the team defined what success meant to them.
As a part of our series about what’s around the corner for the toy, game, and video game industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Gentle.
Thomas Gentle is the CEO & Co-Founder of Shotcall, the first-of-its-kind interactive gaming platform and marketplace that brings together fans and streamers from across the globe. Thomas, along with his Co-Founders, are members of the Techstars Seattle 2020 cohort.
From an early age, Thomas struggled with a stutter, so he turned to gaming as a way to connect and communicate with others. The digital realm became a safe haven where the restrictions of his speech lifted and he was able to forge his own sense of community. While attending Georgia Tech, he met Co-Founders Riley Auten and Gordon Li, who shared his passion for gaming. They recognized that technology to handle the coordination and monetization for influencers to reach their massive fan base through gaming was lacking — which is where Shotcall comes in. They set out to build a platform to improve fan and creator engagement, which has exploded into an end-to-end solution for creators and fans to connect. Prior to Shotcall, Thomas held positions as an analyst and project manager. Thomas is the recipient of Intercon’s Top 50 Tech Visionaries and graduated from Georgia Tech with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration & IT Management.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
I’ve been in games and creating online content my entire life. I grew up with a stutter and for me, games were a haven so that I could engage and interact with others. At college, I studied pre-med and biomedical engineering with every intention of going to medical school and becoming a plastic surgeon. I then decided to go into programming and finance but didn’t enjoy them either. So from those experiences, I realized that I needed to be in a position to ask my own questions and get my own answers, without relying on anyone else to give them to me. Because of that, I came to the realization that I needed to go the entrepreneurial route and run my own company.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I have countless stories where my co-founders and I would sneak into rooftop parties or large events with big name creators, sometimes getting kicked out, but always getting into some kind of late night nonsense. We have had the pleasure of meeting some really amazing people. Eventually, we got to a point where we don’t necessarily need to sneak in, but instead get an invitation now. I say this not to brag, but because of what I learned from the experience. The only reason why we have made it this far is because we weren’t trying to be something that’s not genuine. Most people can tell if you’re just trying to ride coat tails or BS them. Everyone talks about how success is built by your network, but how you get there is by being sincere. Having a genuine appreciation for what you do and serving others is how you get that network.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
It’s a long list, but one of the earliest people who helped me on my journey was Paul McCranie of Cornerstone Support. A fellow Georgia Tech graduate and a lifelong entrepreneur, he and I connected when I was searching for an early mentor while I was still going through college. He knew I wanted to start my own company and I was up front about my desire to learn. He nurtured this desire and told me something to the accord of, “If you’re going to have the audacity to lead a tech-based company, even if you don’t touch any code you should be able to speak to it.” So, true to his nature, he sent me back to Georgia Tech to complete a coding bootcamp program. Now at Shotcall, I don’t touch the code nor will I pretend to have anywhere near the capabilities of my technical team, but this mentality of leadership has stuck with me.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I don’t know if I would necessarily say I’m “successful” yet, but I will say my favorite part about what I do is how much I get to learn. The position that I’m in affords me the chance to share that information with others. Of the two, sharing what I learn is what makes me the happiest and I suppose you could argue is how I bring goodness into the world. I think there is a severe lack of understanding in young entrepreneurs on how they should get started, what investors look for, etc. I’ve overcome some of the early hurdles and now I often find myself giving advice to other founders so that they might be better equipped to pursue their passion.
Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in gaming that you are working on?
We have one major north star goal, which is to make it a global norm that fans aren’t only viewers of their favorite content creators and gaming influencers, but active participants. Whatever we can do to sweeten the deal for every side of the content creator industry to make this happen is within our view. This means a secure marketplace, data aggregation and analytics for creators, secure and seamless interactions through proprietary bots, overlays and more. Everything is building from the ground up to achieve this.
How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?
With our success, we believe the entire nature of the industry will evolve. Fans are the center of the global value chain and yet their involvement hasn’t changed much in years. They’re still being undervalued, with a desire to spend more if you’d actually give them what they want. Everyone seems to colloquially understand the importance of the creator economy and how more engagement drives an increase in worth, but what does that actually mean? We would argue that true engagement isn’t such a complicated idea — just play with the fans and monetize these interactions. In doing so, all of the auxiliary metrics that influencer marketing appreciates will increase. Brands and sponsors, even legacy ones, will have a more predictable ROI in their spend by taking the place of the fans in the paywall. You’ll see an evolution in the kind of content coming out and the creators behind the content rising to the top. It’s those with the ability to truly engage with their audience that will rise the most. All of this is in steps, however. First you need mass adoption on a platform that allows this to happen. That’s why we believe in Shotcall.
You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?
I covered this a bit earlier. Our purpose is to make it a global norm that fans aren’t just viewers but are constantly in the game and content alongside the host. The ramifications of achieving this will radically disrupt the entirety of the industry.
I’m very interested in the interface between games and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) can leverage toys or gamification to enhance education?
Teachers love talking about how every student learns differently. Some are visual learners, are auditory learners and others are somewhere in between. Gaming is simply a medium with which multiple people may engage and interact. The possibilities are endless as the boundaries for accessibility come crashing down. Take VR for example. It’s one thing for a history teacher to assign their students a reading task and hope that they fully grasp the information. It’s another to send their students back in time via a virtual experience. I don’t know about you, but I was a big fan of the Magic School Bus when I was younger. I want to see that become a reality.
How would you define a “successful” game or toy? Can you share an example of a game or toy that you hold up as an aspiration?
That’s an awesome question. I believe what makes a toy or a game successful is the kind of impact it had on its players. Your game doesn’t have to be played by every single person in the world. It doesn’t have to be flawless. It doesn’t need a massive budget or the most realistic graphics. It can reach a small group of people and still be successful if it had a substantial impact on that small group. For me, one of those games is Elder Scrolls IV, Oblivion. Sure, it came from a large studio and a lot of people played it, but even as I write this, there are people who still make memes and reference the game. It was riddled with bugs and immersion breaking oddities. But it’s thanks to its unique character and charm that left such a massive impact on its players well over a decade later.
What are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create a Successful Game” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
While I personally haven’t built any games, I think I’ve played enough games over the years to notice a pattern of what is successful so I’ll do my best here.
- Frame a narrative in a way that is cohesive to the overall project. If you are building a game that is rich in story, themes and atmosphere, then it behooves you to consider what is the best way for that particular narrative to be absorbed by the player. Two great examples of this that come to mind are Bioshock and Dark Souls. One could argue that Bioshock popularized a common means of conveying a story by placing recordings of the story and the characters within the game all throughout the environment. People don’t like to read pages of text usually, so in a game that is built around a grizzly atmosphere of its characters and their history, it makes sense for the player to pick up these audio recordings in chronological order to get a sense of what the world is like while they run and gun. On the flip side, Dark Souls has almost nothing in the way of narrative or story building outside of its environment. There are brief moments of dialogue but the developers have left this immense environment and its story to the players to put together.
- Accessible mechanics. Doesn’t have to be easy. There are countless games that people claim are difficult, yet are beloved. There are games that are “easy” that people hate. The reasoning for this is whether or not the mechanics make sense and are accessible. Dark Souls is another great example here of when you get it right.
- Is your game fair? This one is tricky. Are the rules and laws established within the game consistent or universal? This doesn’t mean there can’t be bugs necessarily, it just means the constraints that bind the player to the game need to be well established and maintained. A great example of this is Hades. You will die in this game. A lot. But at no point in the game should you think “This game is busted. I shouldn’t have died there.” You know your game is successful when the player dies and they think “Yeah, that was on me”. 3 for 3, Dark Souls is again a great example (I’m a Dark Souls fan if you can’t tell yet).
- Know your audience. This one is probably obvious to most, but if you are planning to put your game in front of gamers primarily in the age range of 13–19 but you are releasing a game built with the intention of teaching the player how to manage a stock portfolio then obviously you shouldn’t expect a high amount of users.
- You should decide early on what “success” means to you and your team. Not every game has sold millions of copies or made their developers rich. But they might still say they were successful. As you would with any company, define what success means to you and break it down as much as you possibly can. Take a look at some of the games that have overwhelmingly positive receptions on platforms like Steam. There are countless games there that come from small teams, a small budget and reach a relatively small audience. They win awards. They’re successful in their own right because of how the team defined what success meant to them.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
People need to relearn how to communicate with the purpose of understanding. We live in an age of information and yet we are experiencing a time of unprecedented disconnect and misinformation. I believe this is because we have lost the art of healthy communication through empathy and have replaced it with the glamorization of being “right” or even morally superior to one another. Ironically, this has left us void of both. Everyone has more in common than they might think. Instead of going into a conversation with the intention of one upping someone else, why not go into it with the desire to learn and be comfortable with being wrong? Ironically, if you think you’re always on the right side, odds are you’ll become complacent out of ego and end up on the wrong side.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient”
I could have stuck with biomedical engineering, finished pre med, gone to med school and done that whole thing. Not exactly convenient, but certainly more practical than what I’m doing now.But I was unhappy with that path. Everyone has a particular calling in life. Just be honest with yourself, and what you actually want to do with your life, and pursue it without shame. Obviously, take into consideration what that actually requires, but just because you’re doing what others tell you is best for you doesn’t mean it actually is.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.