Jawfish Games Goes For Real, Synchronous Multi-Player On iOS (Really!)

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Although playing against someone else in real-time has a kick that nothing else can quite mimic, turn-based multiplayer games have thrived on iOS and Android.

That’s partly because slower data connections prevented studios from having enough confidence that they could provide a fast, twitchy user experience. At the same time, it was questionable whether there would be enough of a critical mass of players to match them in real-time.

But one Founders Fund-backed company called Jawfish Games says it has a multiplayer platform that can pit up to 16 players against each other in a single tournament at the same time. They’ve partnered with Seattle’s Big Fish Games, a privately held casual gaming company that made more than $180 million in 2011, to distribute a game called Match-­‐Up!

The title is really a collection of several well-worn classics like a word unscrambling game, a puzzle game that has players match items of three colors in a row and Mahjong. Players advance through a bracket that matches 16 players, then eight, then four, and then — you catch the drift. In keeping with short attention spans on mobile devices, each round is 30 seconds, so a full tournament is only a few minutes long.

At first, the title will be more of a proof of concept. Then the two companies will build it out with more games going forward. Since Big Fish has a library of more than 300 mobile games, there are plenty of titles they could work into Match–Up!

Jawfish took an $885,000 seed round in January of last year and then added a $2.8 million bridge note with participation from FF Angel, that’s an early-stage fund associated with Founders Fund. (Yes, I was surprised that Founders Fund — as in Peter Thiel’s fund that wants flying cars, not tweets — backed a gaming company.)

But they did it because of Jawfish’ CEO’s track record and it comes out of a separate seed fund that the firm uses to support talented founders they really like — even if they don’t align with the broader fund’s overall track record of investing in futuristic technologies. The startup’s CEO, Phil Gordon, has a colorful history. He was the first employee at Netsys, a company that Cisco later acquired for $95 million in the first dot-com era. Then he went onto a championship professional poker career that included stints as a broadcaster on Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown and The World Series of Poker and five books on the game.

“We believe we’re the best in the world at supporting mobile gaming in real-time,” he said. He’s facing down a number of other companies eyeing this area. Zynga expanded its capacity for supporting synchronous multiplayer mode in its arcade games, while other startups like Israel’s Nextpeer partner with third-party developers to offer multiplayer support. Nextpeer often matches up players with a “replay” of their opponent’s gameplay, however.

Jawfish’s platform shows you your opponent’s screen and performance in real-time in a small “Spycam” in the corner of the game.

“It’s such an obvious idea, but it’s an extremely difficult technical challenge,” he said.

Gordon says he’s only partnering with Big Fish Games and isn’t looking to expand his platform to work with other big gaming companies.

Match Up! is naturally free-to-play. If a user wins a tournament, they’ll start accumulating virtual chips that they use later on. They’ll have special tournaments that more experience players can wager more in. “As you build up your chips, you can imagine where this is going,” he said, hinting that players might be able to top-up on extra chips through in-app purchases.