In 2003, two Trinity College Dublin graduates, Dylan Collins and Sean Blanchfield, did a very unfashionable thing at the time. They started a technology company in the unforgiving post-dotcom crash environment that aimed to do something that at the time seemed nigh impossible – they wanted to give console gamers the ability to play against each other over the internet.
Not only was broadband in its infancy, but worse, they had the temerity to try and get venture capitalists to back them.
Four years later in 2007, the world’s largest video-games publisher Activision bought their company Demonware for around US$15m.
Today, their technology plays an enabling role in the multiplayer capability of video-game titles like Call of Duty, which, according to the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA) in the UK, was the biggest-selling entertainment title of 2012 in the UK with 2.7m copies sold. For most console gamers in 2013, not being able to play friends over the internet would be pointless.
Collins, who hails from a farming background in what he describes as the “hurling capital of Ireland” Mullinahone, South Tipperary, has in his own way played a guiding role in many of the technological leaps that have defined digital entertainment and consumer trends of the past decade.
These range from the evolution of multiplayer console games to the new generation of digital-to-retail merchandise brands defined by Michael Acton Smith’s Moshi Monsters.
Collins’ latest start-up is a London-based company called Box of Awesome which is a kind of 21st-century version of the lucky bag, which delivers a box of digital and physical goodies into the hands of discerning eight-to-14-year-olds every two months. The company, which launched only a month ago, has already amassed 30,000 subscribers and has delivered 3,000 boxes. A sister brand, Box of OMG, delivers a box of surprises including books, movies, music, make-up and fashion from big brands and start-ups to girls ages 8-14.
Collins’ start-up journey began in the late 1990s when as a business and politics student at Trinity College Dublin he was fretting over whether he had made the right subject choice. A friend had shown him how to do basic HTML and he realised that businesses and entire industries could be built on the internet.
He began hanging around the computer engineering department at Trinity and got to know Sean Blanchfield and Ronan Perceval. Their first start-up, Phorest, began as a text messaging company and today is still run by Perceval, having morphed into the largest appointment-booking service for the beautician business in Ireland and the UK.
After starting Phorest, Collins noticed something was beginning to happen in video games and that the multiplayer experience was about to take off. They conceived an idea to create off-the-shelf software for games publishers to bolt on the multiplayer capability to new titles and within three years their software sat on more than 30 best-selling video-games titles.
“At the time we started Demonware, Sean was doing his PhD and his area of research was distributed networks and we saw an opportunity to go after this market. When we started, multiplayer games were in their infancy but now they are the biggest part of the video-games industry. Back then our idea was completely niche and we just knew we were right about where it was going.
“We raised investment off the back of our business plan in what was then a very tough market and we got it to work. We turned up at meetings with the latest game title and just showed people our logo on the box.”
Meetings with investors soon gave way to meetings with suitors who wanted to acquire the company. “It was a total roller-coaster. The deal with Activision was done before Call of Duty became the biggest console game in history and which today generates US$1.5bn a year every year for Activision. When we started Demonware our software might have enabled 1,000 people playing video games simultaneously. You are now talking about millions of gamers online playing each other at any given second.”
Collins was just 26 when Activision bought Demonware in 2007. It was a shock to the buyers how young Collins was. “But that’s the nice thing about dealing with west-coast US companies, they really don’t care about how old you are, it’s more about what you have built and are capable of. They are a bit more meritocratic than what we are used to in Europe.”
After the Activision acquisition was completed, Collins embarked on a plan to capture the next phase of the development of the games industry, the browser-based gaming world that was beginning to be dominated by players like Zynga and titles like FarmVille.
He set up a new company, Jolt Online, and collaborated with Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire to come up with a game called Playboy Manager.
GameStop buys Jolt Online
Collins’ hunch turned out to be shrewd one and in 2009 Jolt Online was acquired by the world’s biggest games retailer GameStop, which wanted to break into this new world of free-to-play games and micropayments.
GameStop closed Jolt last year but Collins believed the company helped GameStop come up with a template for browser-based gaming experiences. Jolt has also spawned a number of spin-outs, including Dublin-based Digit Games Studios, that will launch a new online video game called Kings of the Realm in the coming months.
“Being given an opportunity by the biggest games retailer in the world to build something to work with its 500m customers was quite an experience. No one had tried to combine physical retail with social and online games so it was just a fantastic opportunity.
“All our investors had made money, which is how I measure success, and it has spawned multiple companies in Dublin, which is a win-win.”
Today, Collins sits on the boards of a number of fast-growing digital companies. He is chairman of UK online gaming brand Fight My Monster and digital marketing firm Potato, as well as Cork firm Treemetrics. He also sits on the board of Dublin-based Oscar-nominated animation company Brown Bag Films.
Collins’ latest start-up Box of Awesome is all the rage amongst 8-14-year-olds in the UK. “To me, one of the most disruptive things coming down the line is going to be this generation of kids growing up. I think they are going to be disruptive in a lot of different ways but mostly because their childhood is primarily a digital one. A large proportion of the thing that kids play with today are virtual rather than physical. They have grown up with iPads and know how to make an e-commerce transaction and they understand the value of digital goods.
“It is a complete sea change; we literally have not seen a generation like it before and I can see this generation develop brands that will dislodge a lot of the bigger companies whose existence we take for granted.
“But despite the fact that digital is becoming more prevalent, it doesn’t mean physical goods will go away or that retail will disappear, either. If you look at companies like Brown Bag, Fight My Monster, Rovio or Moshi Monsters, they are in an incredibly strategic position. They control and have access to enormous communities and have completely inverted the traditional notion of how a brand can be created.
“A decade ago, brands were created by professionals in boardrooms. Now kids’ brands are being co-created by communities of eight and nine-year-olds – it’s a bottom-up approach rather than top-down. We’ve never seen that before and that’s why Michael Acton Smith’s Moshi Monsters franchise is outselling Star Wars merchandise in the UK.”
Collins explains that Box of Awesome is an attempt to bridge the gap between the digital and physical brands.
“The big challenge for established brands and start-up brands is how do you get heard among all the noise online and at the same time physical retail space is being reduced.
“By delivering a Box of Awesome or a Box of OMG filled with toys, books, videos, music and more along with exclusive digital content every couple of months to a 10-year-old boy or girl we are bridging that divide.”
Major brands that have come on board with Collins include book publisher Simon & Schuster and Jelly Bean Factory, as well as start-ups BitSmith Games and OiDroids.
The service is a viral hit, with up to 400 kids signing up daily online. Through deals with Simon & Schuster, Collins says the aim is to enforce a book in every box policy.
“If a kid pulls a book out of every box they are likely to read it and will buy the next book in the series which is a major battle for book publishers. Plus it helps boost literacy rates,” he says.
“The biggest headache is when you have 30,000 10-year-olds demanding a box of stuff and a lot of them are able to find out your name.”
A version of this article appeared in The Sunday Times on 24 March