Vela Games raises $3.1 million for player-first co-op games

Vela Games, a new game studio in Ireland founded by former Riot Games and Electronic Arts veterans, has raised $3.1 million to make player-first multiplayer co-op games.

London Venture Partners (LVP) led the round for the Dublin-based studio, with additional funding from existing investor IIU.

This round allows the Dublin based studio to deliver their vision of redefining multiplayer gaming through co-operative play. LVP partner Are Mack Growen will join the board of directors as part of the investment. The team isn’t talking about what is working on exactly yet.

Founded in 2018 by Travis George, Brian Kaiser, and Lisa Newon George, Vela Games previously raised $3.7 million to establish a team of 16 developers from triple-A game studios, and prove out their design. This current round will accelerate delivery of the studio’s first title, a unique new genre of gameplay Vela is calling Multiplayer Online Co-Operative, or MOCO for short.

Each one of the founders took very different paths to the startup.

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Above: Vela Games is in Dublin, Ireland.

Image Credit: Vela

In an interview with GamesBeat, George said he has been in games for 20 years, most recently at Riot Games. He joined the company in 2008, when there were only about 15 people at the company. He was a designer and gameplay producer at first. After the launch of League of Legends and it turned out to be a smash hit, he led several teams and became the product lead for the team. He did that from 2012 to 2015, and he was in charge of a development team that grew to more than 450 people.

In his last stint, he took a job heading a new Riot Games office in Dublin, Ireland, and spun up that team.

“Ultimately, after nine years at the company, I just decided that I wanted to get back to making games and go back to building something from the ground up with a big, ambitious vision,” George said.

So he decided to form a new company with Kaiser and Newon George. Kaiser has also worked in games for 20 years. He knew George early on Activision, but his formative years in games were at Electronic Arts in Redwood City, California.

“That was where I discovered my real passion for creative design, and specifically in developing new intellectual property,” Kaider said. “World building, character design, storytelling, and figuring out how they all integrate seamlessly in the player experience became an obsession for me and the focus of my career.”

He spent 11 years at EA, but when he spoke with George and Newon George about their ideas, he decided to pack up the family and move to Ireland.

As for the company name, Kaiser said, “Vela is a constellation in the Southern Hemisphere that forms the sails of Argo Navis, the legendary ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts on their journey to retrieve the Golden Fleece. For us, it represents the astronomical journey we are on, but more importantly, it reminds us how we can build extraordinary things and forge legends by coming together. Whether it’s stars in the night sky, a team working to create something new, or players overcoming epic challenges, together we can shine brighter.”

And Newon George said in an interview that she had a background in social sciences as an anthropologist. She spent years studying digital communities at the University of California at Los Angeles, particularly how we form social networks and relationships through digital media. A lot of that changed when she spent a summer working at Riot Games in 2009. She continued to work on her doctorate, and she wrote a dissertation on language and interaction in League of Legends and other game communities.

She joined the “insights team” at Riot Games and moved to Dublin. She worked across the whole organization to help the groups within Riot to make better decisions for players. When she left in 2018, she was the lead for the insights team for Europe.

Above: Vela Games has 16 people.

Image Credit: Vela Games

“I knew I wanted to do something else, and when I started talking with Travis and Brian about Vela, I knew we had this shared vision for creating a really innovative experience for players,” Newon George said.

At Vela, her role is to be the voice of players.

“Asking questions and understanding motivations is really at the core of what we do,” George said. “This is embedded in the company’s DNA. To understand players is really the focus, and not just toward the end of the development process.”

Being player-focused is something that Riot became obsessed with. But it also led it to be slow about developing new games. It took a decade before Riot Games followed up on League of Legends with a bunch of new games. Vela, as a startup, won’t have as much time to experiment.

“More tangibly, we are really focused on understanding who our audience is. What their favorite games are. What, what they hope to get from a gaming experience and really sort of figuring out what our direction is even before we go to live testing,” Newon George said. “So what that might look like is some survey work and some other player-focused research. Before we launch into actual designs or get to two really sort of set in one path. It’s all about just really understanding how to quickly pivot to get to something really amazing. By checking in with players all throughout the design process.”

But doing this at the start and throughout the process of making a game is a must, the team believes.

“We are answering some fundamental questions that I think sometimes developers don’t really ponder enough, which is why do players love the games that they play so much. I think sometimes it’s easy to get trapped in demographics and all these other things which are important. And we’ve just consistently found that there are three really important motivations that players tap into when they play multiplayer games.”

That is, players want to play with their friends, which adds a social element, George said. Secondly, players really aspire to master or improve their skills and abilities. So they want these deep, meaningful mastery curves that they can sink hours into and continually get better and feel like they’re getting better. And then finally, he said, the third core motivation is to feel good to achieve things that are meaningful.

I mentioned how it’s a difficult path to listen to players and respond to them, as the Naughty Dog studio did when it was working on The Last of Us Part II. According to a Kotaku story, the feedback on some characters from players wasn’t good, and that led to changes. And that led to teams falling off schedule and more crunch time, or required overtime. Vela believes having the right talent on board matters, as does being part of a small, tight-knit team.

“At the end of the day, we come back to those motivations and those core reasons. So I think it can be this, this trap of like trying to ask players to design your game or to ask about individual features in comparison without the whole context,” George said. “What we believe is that players care about an experience. First and foremost, you have to make an experience that players really enjoy and love. But also like, let’s try to understand why they enjoy and love things more so than here’s a particular feature or a particular kind of monetization option.”

The company’s goal with the co-op game is to change the multiplayer gaming market. That’s a pretty big goal, and it is why it helped draw its investors.

LVP’s Are Mack Growen said in a statement, “Vela has built a world-class team of very experienced developers, with several studio leaders coming from key positions on League of Legends, the world’s largest game. Their first game is also really starting to take shape, in an area in the games market that we are passionate and optimistic about. So we are very excited about teaming up with Vela, and hope to support them with our network and portfolio of games entrepreneurs as they continue scaling their business.”

LVP’s investments have generated $18 billion in value through exits including Supercell, Unity, Playfish, and NaturalMotion. Its other investments in games include Singularity 6, AppOnboard, Bunch, Bossa Studios, and Betadwarf. Newon George said the team may grow to about 20 or so people as it works on getting a playable game.

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