Almost Famous: Keith Lee of Booyah Games

A feature wherein All Things Digital looks at up-and-coming and innovative start-ups you should know about.

This week: We walked down University Avenue to the Silicon Valley headquarters of Booyah Games to talk with co-founder and CEO Keith Lee. Booyah is the maker of MyTown, an Apple (AAPL) iPhone app that combines Foursquare and Monopoly into a novel kind of augmented-reality game. The start-up has added about 100,000 news users a week over the last two months.

Who: Keith Lee

What: CEO and co-founder

Why: Keith was a lead producer on Diablo III at Activision Blizzard (ATVI), but left with some colleagues to start Booyah and dip his feet into the social-gaming space. He wanted to explore ways to connect the real world to the game world. After some trial and error, he decided to build an experience around the iPhone GPS platform.

Where: Booyah.com (Web site); Search “MyTown” (iTunes); Palo Alto, Calif. (analog place)

Who else: Booyah’s MyTown competes directly with Foursquare and Gowalla as a location-based game for the iPhone.


Five Stats You Won’t Find in His Facebook Profile

Game of the Moment: I’ve just started playing Demon Soul, and it’s probably the hardest game I’ve played in the last five years. It’s very stats-based, so stuff like the weight of your sword or knowing how a halberd (a type of battle ax) works matters. It’s full of some real innovations for player interactions as well.

Has a Geek Crush On: Rob Pardo. He’s the creator of Starcraft, Warcraft and World of Warcraft. His philosophies have really influenced how I build games.

Gadget of the Moment: I was really disappointed in the Kindle. I got one for Christmas. I had to subscribe and pay to read TechCrunch or Kotaku. It didn’t make sense.

Best Gamer High: It is about doing the hardest thing in the game, reaching the extra goals and doing it faster than everyone. So, when people are talking about that goal or feature I can be like, “Yeah, I already got that.” I played Mass Effect twice, just to get the highest score in our group. It’s all about the bragging rights.

Fails At: I’m a total fail at a lot of things–basically everything that involves real life. I have, like, zero common sense. A perfect example is this one time I was supposed to take care of my girlfriend’s little dog. Without thinking, I set the dog down on the top of this high speaker, and I went off to do something else. Well, the dog decided to jump down and she broke her leg. When I called my girlfriend, she knew what I’d done. She just picked up the phone and said, “What did you do to the dog?” It’s all the normal-living stuff I can’t do.


Bio in 140 Characters

Globetrotted growing up. Educated at Exeter and Stanford. He went into finance at parent’s request, but his internal gamer won out.


The Five Questions

You seem like a pretty hardcore gamer. Where does that come from?

We moved around a lot when I was growing up. I was born in Hong Kong, then we moved to the Netherlands, lots of other places. My parents were very strict. I was forced to play piano and violin two hours a day. We never had any videogames; I could only play them over at friend’s houses. I wasn’t allowed to read sci-fi or fantasy books either. I was only allowed to read biographies and classics….I think because I was never allowed to read that stuff, that’s all I ended up reading when I went to Exeter and college, and why I needed to be a part of making games.

So, what makes MyTown worth playing?

From the very beginning, we wanted to get into this to forge a new category of social games. We don’t really see ourselves as being in competition with Farmville or any of the others because the games are so different, but maybe just in terms of mindshare. We want to be the leader in location-based gaming, or real-world gaming. With MyTown, we’ve created a way, by partnering with Citysearch, to let people have virtual ownership of real places. Our strategy moving forward is about widening the gap between us and our competitors in certain metrics and trying to be very agile. It’s sort of like in World of Warcraft. You can work methodically on something until someone comes and scouts you and sees what you are doing. Then, you have to build like mad so you can rush them.

What are you making that hasn’t been scouted yet?

As for future stuff, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be doing something music-related. We have a few products that are already in the works for Facebook that are a totally new type of social game. They have real-world tie-ins like MyTown. We could leverage GPS from a smartphone, but also focus on tie-ins with music, celebrities and businesses.

We’re actually 70 percent done with that, and we are pretty close to announcing. Probably early Q2. I really feel like [in this arena] there are a lot of Atari-style games, in that everyone is just cloning each other. I think we have the opportunity to be a Nintendo and bring that killer Super Mario Brothers game that changes everything.

How heavily are the personalities of the developers here affecting the products?

Yeah, I mentioned the music thing before. I don’t know it you saw when you came in, but that was my DJ equipment in the corner. I’m really into the house and electronic music scene–I fly down to Los Angeles to DJ pretty frequently. That’s a pretty direct link.

There are a lot of interesting people here. We have a developer who used to be a Buddhist monk and then became a sort of Indiana Jones figure. He has this amazing skill to think not just deeply but laterally and connect things in games that wouldn’t normally be thought of as associated with each other. That alternative way of thinking lends itself to our strength.

What was your “Living in the Future” moment in gaming, when you knew the arena had come of age?

Its hard to say. I think it was probably the first time I played an MMO [massive multiplayer online] game. It wasn’t anything like crazy “Minority Report” technology stuff. It was when I played Dark Age of Camelot and everything afterward. I actually felt like I was completely in the a community environment, like a virtual world. Before, when I went in and came back out of the game, it went with me. But now, even if I’m not there, it keeps moving. Like it was something that would evolve without me. I felt like I had to get back in there, because I wouldn’t even know what it would be like 20 days later.


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