Jam City announced that cofounders Chris DeWolfe and Aber Whitcomb have left for a new mobile game startup and Josh Yguado will step up to be CEO.
Yguado, also a cofounder, was previously chief operating officer and president. SeungWon Lee, chairman of Jam City, will also be elevated to executive chairman of Jam City. Lee is also president of Netmarble, the majority owner of Los Angeles-based Jam City.
“I’ve been a core part of running the company for a long time. So it’s a little anticlimactic in that way, but I’m happy to take on the CEO role and I’m excited for this next chapter of Jam City,” said Yguado in an interview with GamesBeat. “I cofounded the company 12 years ago and I’ve been core to running it since the beginning and am deeply involved in every part of the business. So now I’m stepping in to run the business. To a certain extent, it’s going to be business as usual, which for us means continuing to grow our successful portfolio games.”
Yguado said he was honored to take the new role and he said the change is appropriate given the company’s evolving strategy around blockchain games and mobile free-to-play titles. DeWolfe, former CEO, and Whitcomb (formerly CTO) will move on to start social platform Plai Labs, which will take Jam City’s first blockchain game Champions Ascension, which launched in the middle of last year.
DeWolfe, Yguado and Whitcomb started Jam City in 2010 and turned it into one of the largest and most successful mobile game companies with nearly half a billion dollars in annual company-wide revenue. The company is profitable growth at scale, and it has seven top-grossing global game franchises.
Aggregate lifetime bookings are at $4 billion, and the games have generated billions of installs. The company has raised more than $650 million to date and it employs over 900 people across 10 studios in five countries.
Yguado has been integral to the company’s growth, overseeing a number of its core operating functions, including studio management, marketing, product management, corporate development, M&A efforts and IP title negotiations.
His experience and involvement across all aspects of the business naturally positions him to lead the
company into the future as CEO, where he will focus on creating long-term growth opportunities for Jam City’s current best-in-class, free-to-play mobile games, and launching a slate of blockbuster titles in 2023 and 2024.
Yguado said in a statement, “I have so much belief in Jam City and am honored to be asked to step into the CEO role. It has been such a pleasure building this company over the past 10 years with Chris and Aber into one of the world’s leading mobile game publishers. Their vision and expertise has enabled us to create a family of games that are enjoyed by players around the world, like Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery, Disney Emoji Blitz, Jurassic World Alive, and Cookie Jam.”
He added, “And the future is bright, with a strong slate of new games planned for 2023 and 2024, including DC Heroes & Villains and a mobile game based on one of the biggest entertainment brands of all time. With Plai Labs, Chris and Aber are beginning a new chapter, and once again pursuing a new
opportunity at the forefront of the next major iteration of web experiences, and I’m excited to see what they accomplish.”
Jam City’s pivot away from blockchain
In late 2021, Jam City announced the addition of a new blockchain division anchored by its first project, Champions Ascension. DeWolfe and Whitcomb are taking this division and the Champions Ascension world, and launching Plai Labs, focused on creating dynamic, unique and engaging social experiences leveraging Web3 and AI technologies.
Plai Labs will capitalize on its visionary leadership in pioneering social platforms and deep expertise in digital identity, community engagement, and game mechanics to advance its development of next-generation social experiences.
Yguado noted that the splitting of the founders was a big change, and he noted that DeWolfe was more passionate about the shift to blockchain. Yguado said that in the next year, Jam City will not likely invest heavily in blockchain games, and so it made sense to spin out the Champions Ascension team, which has 50 people.
“We’ve been pretty methodically planning it for the last six months. And this is really a combination of of that work and that planning,” said Yguado.
But he said he was not ready to definitively say that Jam City will stay out of blockchain games. But he sees more near-term opportunity in being laser-focused on free-to-play mobile games.
“I think this is an opportunity to take a step back and see how blockchain games evolve over the next 12, maybe 24 months. And I think we’re happy to jump back in if we see the right opportunity. But but for now, there’s so much great opportunity in mobile free to play. And we really want to get that right,” Yguado said.
Prior to founding Jam City, DeWolfe co-founded and served as CEO of MySpace, the first major social media network, which spurred social media as we know it today. Whitcomb served as the company’s co-founder and CTO. A pioneer of Web 2.0, MySpace was the largest social network and most viewed website in the world at its height. Plai Labs will be the visionary founder’s fourth start-up.
DeWolfe said in a statement, “Jam City is a remarkable company with an incredibly talented team, and I couldn’t be prouder of what Josh, Aber and I have built together. Having led the company since inception, I know that there is no one better or more committed to lead it into the future than Josh.”
He added, “We’re starting Plai Labs because we’re on the precipice of the next major evolution of the social web, and we have a clear vision around how to leverage new technologies like AI and Blockchain to
play a leading role in shaping this exciting space. While it’s bittersweet to leave Jam City, we’re confident in launching this venture because of the company’s strong market position and growth prospects.”
As for parting ways with DeWolfe and Whitcomb, Yguado said, “It’s bittersweet. Aber and Chris have been amazing partners. And they’re also dear friends. And it’s been such an amazing ride over the last 12 years, building up this incredible company that’s Jam City, and I’ll miss working with them day to day. But on the other hand, you know, Chris and Aber are such amazing entrepreneurs, and it makes logical sense for them to move on to their next opportunity, whereas I’m really excited to take Jam City to new heights.”
Lee said in a statement, “Josh has helmed several of Jam City’s most critical business and creative functions for many years, and as CEO is well positioned to take the company to new heights. Chris will always be part of the Jam City family, and it’s been incredible to work with him over the years as the company has scaled and achieved many important milestones. His founding vision formed the strong foundation from which this company was built, and together he, Josh and Aber have created a successful and unique business.”
In 2021, Jam City tried to go public in a special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC. But the market conditions didn’t work out and Jam City raised money instead and acquired the Montreal-based leading mobile game studio Ludia, adding to its current studios and talent located in Los Angeles (HQ), Burbank, Cedar Falls, Las Vegas, San Diego, San Francisco, and, internationally in Berlin, Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, and Toronto.
Jam City laid off a couple of hundred people in August 2022, and now Jam City has about 900 people.
Rather than organize teams around locations where people live, Yguado said the company took into account the changes from remote work during the pandemic. And so now it has organized game teams around genre instead of the location. If you’re an RPG expert who lives in Seattle, you should be part of the RPG team, rather than the Seattle team.
“In a post-COVID world where so many of us are working remotely, it felt like having genre excellence was more important than where you happen to live,” said Yguado.
DC Heroes and Villains
Yguado is particularly optimistic about the upcoming DC Heroes and Villains game, which is expected to launch this year. That game is in soft launch.
“DC is an IP that hasn’t gotten as much exposure as Marvel over the last five years in the mobile app stores,” he said. “I love the IP. It is so deep, so rich.”
The post-IDFA world
Yguado also said the company invested a lot in user acquisition and performance marketing. When Apple focused on user privacy over targeted ads (changing the Identifier for Advertisers, or IDFA), that hurt a lot of mobile game companies like Jam City. But now the company has rebuilt its marketing and marketing results are returning to the pre-IDFA levels, he said.
“That’s something I really pushed for over the last 12 months. And so I think between the studio reorganization in the real focus on UA performance, I think the company’s in in a better position than we’ve ever been in. So the future is bright for Jam City,” he said.
Yguado said Lee from Netmarble will hopefully play a bigger role in helping Jam City as it expands its globla footprint. Yguado said he sees a lot of opportunities to work more closely with Netmarble and Lee.
As for the economic doldrums, Yguado said the company has been performing well despite a challenging year, with people coming out of COVID lockdown and being less engaged with games. The IDFA changes didn’t help, but Yguado sees those trends abating.
“We’re seeing engagement start to improve again. And so we’ve seen modest, but positive key growth metrics over the past three or four months, including bookings and EBITDA,” he said. “And I think our runway for continued growth is really compelling. So we’re not completely out of the woods yet, there’s still a lot of work to do. And we’re not back up to prior highs yet. But I do feel like we’re at the start of coming back up the other side of that trough. And we I really believe in our incredibly talented teams and our tech platform and our games pipeline. And I think we’re really well positioned to be successful going into 2023.”
New year, new technologies
As for new technologies, Yguado said the generative AI tools being created now around art and text are “incredible.” He said it feels like the early days of the internet, and there will be a lot of innovation built on these technologies, though he doesn’t yet know how game development will be impacted.
He also noted that Jam City, through its Ludia acquisition, has a lot of presence in augmented reality games with Jurassic World Alive.
“The combination of AR plus AI in the future, I just think could be amazing and really interesting.,” he said.
Yguado also said that he believes video games will be a bigger part of mainstream entertainment culture, as evidenced by shows like Netflix’s Arcane (based on Riot’s League of Legends) and HBO’s The Last of Us, based on Sony’s hit game.