"Developing games in Israel is difficult. The distance from where things are happening, from the creative content centers, is no small obstacle." This isn't the first time I've heard this claim, but this time it's coming from Yaron Leifenberg, CEO of Israel's Funtactix. Leifenberg is someone who seems, after years of hard work, to have overcome the distance and make his studio an attractive development partner for Hollywood brands like "Mission Impossible" and "The Hunger Games," for which he developed Facebook games.
In 2002, Leifenberg and his then-girlfriend began dabbling in game development and wanted to establish a complete platform for social gaming. Only a Flash-based game or two remain from this vision. But as they say: "Every journey begins with the first step."
Leifenberg (center), with Glassenberg (left) and Margalit of JVP (Photo: games.co.il)
Leifenberg founded Funtactix in 2006, and today the company has a staff of 20 employees. The original plan was to create three-dimensional multi-player games for a new audience – less hardcore than the consumers of most multi-player games at the time.
The branded new world of multi-player games was dubbed Mondo – and to judge by events in the gaming world in recent years, Mondo was the right direction to take. What he didn't have were marketing and distribution channels that would bring him to the attention of the non-gaming audience he was aiming at. Mondo couldn't get off the ground before hard economic times hit the company, and the world.
- Overnight success for Israel's 'Hunger Games' app
Things are completely different for Funtactix' new game, "The Hunger Games Adventures." The beta version of the Facebook game – which has players survive harsh times in District 12 with help from the heroine, Katniss – drew a million active users in a month, 150,000 of whom are active daily.
The brand and the social media platform make all the difference – along with, probably, the studio's increasing professionalism.
Other than the story by Suzanne Collins, "The Hunger Games Adventures" is a typical Facebook game – based on simple, repeated actions designed to tempt the player to spend a little money to save waiting or effort. People who don't care for this kind of game won't change their mind, but even they will discern that the game is polished and for a Facebook game has excellent presentation.
When the financial crisis hit, Funtactix hit re-start. Seeking a new direction, the firm contacted agents in Los Angeles and sent a representative to New York. The company was looking to cooperate with familiar entertainment brands. Step by step, the studio gained both contacts and reputation. Funtactix headed the creation of a game site for the animated film "Rango," then a social game for "Mission Impossible," as well as the current interactive version of the pessimistic but popular future in Panem. This cooperation lets Funtactix focus on development, resting secure that the brand and the marketing folks will take care of the other, no less critical, part.
What does the future hold for the company? First of all, there are ambitious plans for "The Hunger Games." The game is undergoing expansion, with new stages, objects, and areas being added constantly. With Collins' help, the game will add many other aspects of the world she created in her popular series.
Aside from the current project and future collaborations, Leifenberg has not given up on his goal of creating games based on an original IP that will let players put their creative muscles into high gear. First – gain some experience and a solid financial footing. Then, who knows?
Funtactix and companies like it are still part of the pioneers of the Israeli gaming industry, who have been draining swamps for 20 years and have yet to make a significant breakthrough in the international gaming industry, which is worth about $100 billion a year.
Thanks to Funtactix' groundbreaking activity, one can only hope that the local gaming sector will flourish, something we have spent a decade wishing for, and now looks feasible.
Following the successful beta launch of "The Hunger Games," we received the following message from Gadi Tirosh, a partner in the JVP venture capital firm and a member of the Funtactix board of directors: "We are proud that a company from JVP's media sector has once again been chosen for important work with a Hollywood giant. This past year, we have entered into a number of agreements with leading partners such as Paramount, Universal, and Warner Brothers, which is an acknowledgement of Israel's creative and technological capability."