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Mind Candy: Michael Smith

08 January 2007

Mind Candy: Michael Smith

Michael Smith flew in from San Francisco last night fresh from mixing with Google chiefs Eric Schmidt and Marissa Meyer at the Web 2.0 summit, attending a chief executive officer conference organised by Accel, one of the venture capitalists (VCs) that’s just pumped $7m more into his new venture Mind Candy, and talks over a number of high-profile deals, including, he lets slip, one with MySpace.  But far from being jet-lagged, he’s positively energised.

“I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time to be an entrepreneur,” he enthuses. “Technology is turning traditional media on its head and nimble startups are running rings around giant corporations.
“You can create something and literally overnight cause a huge sensation – that’s never been possible before.”
Michael Smith is only 32, but he’s a dot com veteran who, with gadget site Firebox, saw the investor frenzy we’re starting to witness again, the first time around.  Rather than being sceptical, he’s back for more.  And he’s back with a business that encapsulates what Web 2.0 is all about.

Tellingly, that’s actually quite difficult to pigeonhole.  Mind Candy is a creator of what are being termed ARGs – alternative reality games.  However, its first and presently only game, Perplex City, straddles numerous media, taking it beyond the realms of ARGs such as Second Life, which have been hitting the headlines.  After several attempts, Smith describes Mind Candy is an interactive entertainment company.

Perplex City is a global treasure hunt – an idea Smith had toyed with for most of his adult, and certainly entrepreneurial, life. “As a kid I’d read a book, Masquerade by Kit Williamson, who buried treasure in the British countryside then wrote clues as to its whereabouts. It had a massive impact on me,” he says. “I wanted to do the same, sending the clues through every conceivable media, from podcasts, websites, mobile phones, actors, skywriting, anything you can name.”

The uptake of virtual gaming, together with the critical mass of broadband and mobile usage, convinced Smith that he could finally build a business around the idea.  “I didn’t want this to be a flash in the pan, I wanted to create something that would last for years,” he says.
The solution has been the creation of a virtual world and a complex story, fleshed out by detailed characters, dozens of websites, blogs and even tourist guides. The narrative is that someone has stolen a valuable treasure from Perplex City, taken it to Earth and buried it somewhere. Through a range of clues and puzzles, the users will unravel where it is buried, with one sleuth landing the £100,000 prize. Smith says the first hunt or ‘season’ is close to conclusion, but that the game will run episodically with a whole host of series’ in 2007.

From a business standpoint, it’s the concept not the game that matters. Smith believes Mind Candy is creating a new art form, combining traditional notions of fiction and drama with emerging technologies and unprecedented interaction. “We’re at a unique point in history where technology is allowing us new ways of telling stories and playing games,” he says.
Mind Candy has held a number of live events for Perplex City gamers, including a hunt in London which ended with a mole among the group jumping on a helicopter and flying off into the sunset, seconds after dispensing a new set of clues. “Those that were there said it was like starring in their own movie,” says Smith. “This is the next generation of Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings,and what we’ll be able to do will blow people’s minds.”

Smith’s wary of stargazing and, as a dot com entrepreneur who adhered to a traditional business model, he’s clear about revenue streams.  From a standing start a little over a year ago and without any marketing spend, Perplex City has brought in retail revenue of approximately $7m from the sale of 400,000 puzzle cards priced at £2.50, starter packs at £20, and a recently-launched board game.  Smith believes it’s just the start.

GB Magazine on Jan 2007 by Matt Thomas