John Bergman is the co-founder of Guild Software, a Milwaukee-based startup that runs an online game where thousands of players pilot spaceships around the universe.
The company’s offices are located in the same Technology Innovation Center that houses many more traditional “meat and potatoes” software companies like Shining Brow Software and Niceware International. Guild Software, and its flagship product Vendetta Online, came about in part because of Bergman’s unique background.
A non-traditional perspective
John Bergman spent the majority of his childhood living with his parents on a sailboat on the Pacific Ocean. “Growing up on a sailboat made me an independent, self-reliant person,” Bergman said. “We docked very rarely.”
The marine-centered childhood provided Bergman with three or four memorable experiences with sharks, including one snorkeling-and-spearfishing expedition when he and his father were chased out of the water by a 10-foot bull shark. “You inevitably get some blood in the water when you spear fish,” Berman mused.
As a result of the time he spent on a sailboat, or completely submerged in the peaceful blue waters of the Caribbean, Bergman, now 28, developed a lifelong fascination with unusual environments and universes. “Creating my own universe in space is a fascinating prospect,” Bergman said.
There was a brief period when Bergman’s activities might have been considered mainstream. He attended high school in both Kentucky and Wauwatosa, but dropped out early in his senior year. Having been home-schooled on the sailboat by his father, a college professor with a Ph.D. from MIT, Bergman estimates that he had probably completed the academic portion of high school before he even entered.
After dropping out of high school, Bergman spent his days working in computer retail, and ultimately finding a job doing UNIX administration for an Internet service provider called Inc.net, which was located in the Milwaukee County Research Park. On evenings and weekends Bergman got together with a group of friends to write code, develop computer graphics, and compose music in their parents’ living rooms. Bergman didn’t mind doing the UNIX administration work, but he hoped to find some way to work on his computer graphics projects full-time.
Guild Software’s earliest days
In 1998 Bergman became serious about turning his video game project into a real business. He and his friends Ray Ratelis, Andy Sloane, and Waylon Brinck set up an office in Ray’s mother’s basement and searched for ways to scale up development.
Somewhere around the year 2000 Bergman’s employer, Inc.net, was bought out by Time Warner Telecom, and the joint entity declared its intentions to go public. The IPO presented Bergman with a tremendous opportunity. “I had some college money that had been given to me by my family,” Bergman said. As a high school dropout, Bergman did not expect to use the money for college. “I took all that money and dumped it into the IPO.”
This was a risky bet, but when all was said and done, Bergman cleared a few hundred grand. “I did well enough to be able to start Guild Software with an actual office,” he said.
With cash in hand, Bergman left his job at the Internet service provider and began work on a massively multiplayer online game called Vendetta Online.
“I had not intended to take our game all the way through launch on the few hundred grand I had gotten out of the IPO,” Bergman said. Bergman’s intention was to create a demo that he could show to publishers or investors, but no publishers were interested in distributing his game. “You can’t get retail distribution without publisher support,” Bergman said.
Between 1998 and 2004, Bergman took his game to the Electronic Entertainment Expo six times, in the vain hope that their game would be seen and acquired by an industry giant. “It was very stressful,” Bergman said of this period. A small publisher engaged the company in acquisition talks for nine months during 2003, but no deals were made. “I really tried selling the game to publishers, without success,” Bergman said. “I made lots of industry contacts, but no one was willing to take the risk.”
After securing a $40,000 investment from members of Bergman’s family, the company’s luck changed. A small publisher from Quebec expressed interest in selling Vendetta Online. “They had no cash, but they were very interested in shipping our game,” Bergman recalled.
On November 1, 2004, a boxed version of Vendetta Online was shipped to computer game retail outlets throughout North America. “At this point, we managed to gain enough paying users to sustain the company on a month-to-month basis,” Bergman said.
Today, the company’s revenue comes from subscription fees. Bergman uses the message board on his company web site to interact with users. The company attracts and retains gamers by dropping hints about new functionality and letting people participate in the telling of the Vendetta Online story.
“Our core users will fight hard to keep the game alive,” Bergman said.