There’s no shortage of things one could say about Jeff Tunnell, founder, creative director and managing partner of Spotkin, a Eugene-based startup focused on educational game development. He is a successful entrepreneur, founder of tech-based startups, electronic game pioneer and an educational game visionary whose goal now is nothing less than to “change the world.”
But perhaps few things say as much about Tunnell as this: Those who know him don’t doubt he can accomplish exactly what he says.
“I know a lot of serial entrepreneurs with high batting averages, but none like Jeff Tunnell,” says Brett Seyler, founder of Americana Game Studio, based in San Francisco. “To have achieved this in the insanely dynamic and challenging field of video games is still more astounding. In fact, I’m not aware of anyone else who’s ever done it.”
After three decades in the electronic gaming industry, Tunnell launched Spotkin in 2011. The goal, according to Tunnell, is ambitious, to say the least.
“We are four or five guys in an office who think we can change the world,” he says, “and we are absolutely going to do it.”
Old School success
Tunnell is one of the few people who can make such ambitious claims and remain credible, largely because of a proven track record of success that dates back to the groundbreaking games of the 1980s.
“There’s a book that was published a few years ago called Once You’re Lucky, Twice You’re Good by a Silicon Valley journalist covering startups,” Seyler says. “The title of this … is a kind of general sentiment I hear repeated in conversations down here. In Jeff’s case, it’s something like ‘Three Times, You’re Michael Jordan.’”
Tunnell founded and attained successful exits for Dynamix, GarageGames, and Pushbutton Labs.
“He has an incredible amount of energy, drive, and vision,” says Tunnell’s first business partner, Damon Slye, who teamed with Tunnell in Eugene in the 1980s to launch Dynamix. “In the early days we always felt we were the underdogs trying to catch up to some of the larger studios.”
It didn’t take long for the pair to learn they could not only compete but lead the way. Slye recalls a time when a Dynamix flight simulator went head-to-head with a major gaming company.
“We were concerned their product would crush ours in the market,” Slye says. “Despite the competition, Red Baron became a huge success both financially and critically. That’s when I realized we were now market leaders.”
Sierra On-Line bought out Dynamix in 1989. Tunnell stayed on for the next ten years and helped release a string of notable success like Trophy Bass and Pinball, he says.
The Incredible Machine
In 1993 Dynamix released one of the better educational games ever produced, according to various game websites and reviewers, called The Incredible Machine.
“By accident we made one of the most educational games of all time,” Tunnell says.
The game used similar visuals and audio to virtuosos of that era like Donkey Kong, but it was educationally focused. Tunnell and team based the game on simple notions of physics with logic that could be proven and replicated. Its appeal also tapped into the intrinsic interest many have in solving puzzles with logic.
The magazine Computer Gaming World called The Incredible Machine “one of the most innovative and deceptively addicting products to pass this way in quite a while … a well-oiled imagination machine with a very broad appeal.”
Its appeal stood the test of time. A recent YouTube review channel called “Lazy Game Reviews” likened The Incredible Machine to the famous game Tetris, calling it “timeless. They just got it right the first time.”
Eventually Tunnell and some engineers from Sierra broke away and founded their own company called Garage Games, which had its own unique educational component. The company built games that helped others make games.
“Our whole mission was to democratize technology,” Tunnell says. “We built up a huge community. I was trying to stand up for the Indies and telling them what I think they can do.”
Seyler, who was studying at the University of Oregon before starting to work at Garage Games, says the company’s “frugal, yet still hyper-competitive culture, combined with world-class engineering talent, gave the company ample runway to tackle very difficult problems in game development and support a community of hundreds of thousands attempting to make games in their own right.”
He credits Tunnell with creating the culture that allowed others like himself to thrive, including hiring a twenty-something intern, Seyler’s college friend Josh Williams, as the eventual CEO. Williams had already experienced entrepreneurial success, but Seyler credits Tunnell’s mentorship and faith for helping Williams thrive and, as a result, helping them all become incredibly successful.
“I don’t know very many people Jeff’s age who would have handed over the reins of his company to a kid in his mid-20s who just happened to be incredibly hard working and brilliant,” Seyler says.
Making the greatest hit greater
After the successful sale, Tunnell launched Push Button Labs, which became another successful startup, eventually being bought out by Disney.
Next came Spotkin with its ambitious goals and its focus where Tunnell began: educational games like The Incredible Machine.
“It was the game I worked on that I liked the most,” Tunnell says.
Contraption Maker, the first product on the technology platform that Spotkin has built over the past three years, is also the “spiritual successor” to The Incredible Machine, according to Tunnell.
Spotkin’s games, Tunnell says, are first and foremost good games. They aren’t built by researchers and educators but by people who know how to make entertaining games. He admits he can’t yet pinpoint exactly why a game can make such an impact on child. He just knows it does, just as it did with The Incredible Machine.
“What if we build a thousand games likes that? I honestly think what we are working on…” he pauses to collect his thought, “it’s basically… it’s huge.”
An open playbook
Despite the lofty ambition Tunnell is forever pragmatic, having seen every twist in this rapidly evolving market. Indie programmers, like indie movie makers and singers and other artists of various ilk are in fashion these days. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier. In fact, it’s harder because the competition is far broader.
“So many people want to be involved in this,” Tunnell says, “But this is a really, really hard business.”
Seemingly always combining education with business, Tunnell blogs about his successes and failures with equal openness. He has posted several changes they’ve made at Spotkin as well as missteps so that others can learn from his mistakes. One example is Spotkin’s shift from making mobile apps to software development for the personal computer.
“There are a million and a half games in the app stores,” he says. “It’s just too hard to get noticed. So we decided to come back to PC and prove our product works.”
He blogged about these changes, carefully chronically his struggles, including a detailed description of his failed plan to take a game called QuickShooter and dominate the app store market. His blunt assessment of their struggles make for compelling business reading.
In large part because of the influence of Tunnell and Slye and others who worked with them over the years, Eugene has emerged as a pocket of excellence for game makers, a virtual remote location of the Silicon Valley if you will.
Tunnell, Slye, Seyler, Garage Games’ CEO Williams and others connected to the businesses were Oregon residents. When they became successful many simply didn’t want to leave. Soon they were attracting hundreds of others with similar interests to the city.
“There are 200 to 300 professional game developers in Eugene now,” Slye says. “It’s the largest game development community between Seattle and San Francisco. Eugene is more affordable than the Silicon Valley, and is a better place to raise a family. People who are here are here to stay.”
One downside is the lack of funding in Oregon compared to the wealth in the Silicon Valley, which leaves many of the startups looking out of state for capital, Slye, who is president of another startup MadOtter Games, says.
“I’d like to see this change,” he says, adding that there are numerous opportunities with great products and potential for investors. “We’re looking for some now.”
Educational games can thrive
Tunnell says two factors ensure Spotkin will succeed. First, educational games have incredible power when done properly. Second, because they aren’t often done properly, the opportunity to succeed in this billion-dollar industry remains untapped. Monetizing the investment remains a crucial part of Tunnell’s plan at Spotkin.
A bigger problem is the educational system in general, Tunnell says.
“We spend trillions a year in education, and name someone who thinks it is working?”
Spotkin has developed a technology platform that makes what Tunnell calls “smart games for kids.” The opportunity is “huge,” Tunnell says more than once. Rapid advances in technology like new software, apps and mobile devices all open possibility for new educational games. All of which circles back to Tunnell’s simple, yet lofty plan to forever shape the educational gaming market and how we approach education in this country.
“We don’t need to make billions of dollars, we don’t need to be the types of guys who I think are strangling education these days. We don’t have to be greedy. We can change things and still make a good living. A small number of people can change the world and change the way things are happening. We can do it.”