Using Social Design to Build Safer and Inclusive Gaming Communities With Carl Kwoh

Carl Kwoh

Carl Kwoh is the Co-founder and CEO of Jam & Tea Studios, a new multiplayer game startup focused on building player connections. He’s experienced in tabletop, web, mobile, PC, and console games. Before Jam & Tea, Carl developed the product management discipline at Phoenix Lab as the VP of Products. In 2017, he founded Ghostly Bear Games after spending six years as Riot Games’ Head of Talent Operations and Systems. Carl is deeply passionate about social design in games, fostering team dynamics, and elevating disenfranchised voices within the gaming industry.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • Carl Kwoh discusses Jam & Tea Studios
  • Carl shares his career trajectory in the gaming industry
  • The impact of video games on community building
  • Methods for getting player feedback when designing games
  • Carl explains his passion for building leaders and community within his company
  • Trends in video game marketing that support community building
  • Carl discusses Riot Games and the success it experienced

In this episode…

Social design aims to solve complex social issues, such as equity, diversity, and inclusivity. How can video game designers use this theory to impact design and build community?

As the term suggests, social design is a creative concept to foster inclusive communities. Seasoned industry leader Carl Kwoh explains that loneliness is prevalent in gaming because of the lack of social connections. When players are unaware that they are competing against an actual person, they can accidentally dehumanize the other players, which makes the gaming community unsafe. Carl compares gaming to after-school sports leagues, where teams work together to achieve a common goal. When developers design games where players work together and have ways of identifying each other, it builds a sense of trust, belonging, and community. 

Join Lizzie Mintus for an episode of the Here’s Waldo Podcast as she welcomes Carl Kwoh, Co-founder and CEO of Jam & Tea Studios, for a conversation about social design in video game development. Carl discusses his career trajectory in the gaming industry, video games' impact on community building, and his passion for building leaders and community within Jam & Tea Studios.

Resources Mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode...

This episode is brought to you by Here’s Waldo Recruiting, a boutique recruitment firm specializing in the video game industry that prioritizes quality over quantity and values transparency, communication, and diversity. We partner with companies, creatives, and programmers to understand the why behind their needs and provide a white-glove experience that ensures a win-win outcome.

The industry evolves. The market changes. But at Here’s Waldo Recruiting, our commitment to happy candidates and clients does not. 

We understand that searching for the best and brightest talent can be overwhelming, so let our customer-first staff of professionals do the leg work for you by heading over to

Episode Transcript

Welcome to the Here's Waldo podcast, where we sit down with top visionaries and creatives in the video game industry. Together, we'll unravel their journeys and learn more about the path they're forging ahead. Now, let's get started with the show.

Lizzie Mintus: Hi. I'm Lizzie Mintus, founder and CEO of Here's Waldo Recruiting, a boutique video game recruitment firm. This is the here's Waldo podcast. In every episode we dive deep into conversations with creatives, founders, and executives about what it takes to be successful. You can expect to hear valuable lessons from their journey and get a glimpse into the future of the industry.

This episode is brought to you by Here's Waldo Recruiting, a boutique recruitment firm for the video game industry. We value quality over quantity, transparency, communication, and diversity. We partner with companies, creatives, and programmers to understand the why behind their needs. We provide a white glove experience that ensures a win outcome.

Before introducing today's guest, I want to give a big thank you to Ryan Lastimosa for introducing us. Today we have Carl Kwoh with us. He is the founder of Jam & Tea Studios. He's worked on everything from tabletop, web, mobile, PC, and console games across his career, primarily in a product and game design role.

Very modest. We'll get into it more. Let's get started. Thanks so much for being on the show.

Carl Kwoh: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Lizzie Mintus: What can you share with us about Jam & Tea Studio?

Carl Kwoh: Sure. So we're a new startup. We just got started in August. And we're building games that bring players together.

Really specifically we're focused on building social connection between players in multiplayer games that are really focused on multiplayer. We're also folks who are really interested in new technology and how it can create great new experiences for players. And so a lot of what we're looking at is how we can leverage things like generative AI in ways that are great for creators, but also great for players to create new experiences.

And so we're busy prototyping away, working on an action RPG and hopefully we'll have more to share in the coming years.

Lizzie Mintus: Awesome. Thanks. I love all the new studios that are popping up right now. There's a lot going on in the industry.

Can you share some background on your journey to get into the video game industry and what led you to founding this studio?

Carl Kwoh: Oh, sure. I have a deeply unfair, as I've come to learn, a path into the industry in that somewhere in the fifth grade I decided I was going to make games and then I just hyper focused on it until I got it and never really deviated it. Never really questioned it. I think the biggest question for me was like what I would do in the game industry when I first decided to make games I was going to be a games writer. I was going to write for the video game industry and then I was going to be a designer, and then I decided I needed to learn how to be an engineer because I read an article in, gosh, it would have been like 1997, that there are no idea guys in the industry, it's only engineers and artists, and you have to be one of those two things. I knew I couldn't draw, so I was like, okay I guess I'm going to learn to be an engineer and then in college I got a computer science degree, but rapidly learned that I was not an engineer. I didn't like debugging but I was very good at, putting together presentations, doing documentation, helping the engineers stay organized and on track and build the right thing.

And so that turned into taking a few early contract jobs in QA, but rapidly transitioning into doing more project management, production style of work. Then it just evolved from there.

I started in tabletop at Games Workshop working on collectible card games and collectible miniature games. And then went to PopCap and that's really where PopCap was this interesting piece of the journey for me where they didn't really have anyone called game designer at the time that I was there.

Teams were three folks as a core team. And one was a producer, which I was, one was an engineer and then one was an artist and everyone was expected to do game design. And so I learned a bunch of game design and how to make games there. And then went to Riot because I got super into League of Legends and decided I wanted to work on games that were more hardcore. This online games as a service thing was blowing up and I enjoyed PC games and so we had been doing mobile games as a service at PopCap, but I wanted to do PC games as a service.

Since I was playing an absurd amount of League of Legends at the time, going to Riot made a lot of sense. And so I went there and then that was this moment in my career where I was like, I feel like I've achieved what I set out to do when I was in the fifth grade. I'm working and making a game that is exactly the kind of game I love to make. So what do I want to do next?

After some thinking about it, I decided that, I wanted to build a studio from scratch in order to. Make the kind of games that I had in my head, make games that I really loved and I had also increasingly become more about what is the culture of a studio, like how do we build teams that make games, and how do we think about that stuff.

I decided that I had some ideas that I wanted to put into action about that. And so I actually founded my first studio, Ghostly Bear Games, in 2017 and ran that for about two years before we unfortunately ran out of money. But that was a crash course and all the things to do, not to do the next time and a bunch of lessons and how to think about startup life and startup journeys and it was also ultimately a really rewarding experience.

I love the team that came together and worked with me and I decided that. I wanted to do that again. And so after spending about three years at Phoenix Labs working with some of my very good friends in the industry, I decided, you know what, it's time to start this thing over again.

I got co founders this time, which I didn't have in Ghostly Bear, which was rough. I had a couple of friends who were also looking to start something. We aligned on what it was and what we wanted to do and all the things that we wanted to build. And we came out of the gate swinging earlier this year.

That's how we got here to Jam & Tea.

Lizzie Mintus: Love it. I'm happy you're with your friends and building something awesome. That's the best. You had an experience at Phoenix Labs. How big were they when you started? Probably not that big, right? And they really scaled.

Carl Kwoh: Yeah they did really scaled.

I think I joined when we were in the a little bit north of 100 folks. And so it was right around the time that they were originally acquired by Greena. And so they had one game under their belts, Dauntless, which I had come out and we're doing well, but with Greena acquiring them they were really thinking about what is game two and Greena was like, Hey, what if you thought about more than just game two, but like maybe multiple games development.

And I really spent a bunch of time helping them figure that out and scale up. And I think when I left, they were three just north of 300.

Lizzie Mintus: Big growth and Fae Farms doing so well.

Carl Kwoh: Yes. Fae Farm has come out and is doing really well. I'm really excited to see that team get all the love that they deserve for that.

Lizzie Mintus: They're good people. So you have a background in social design. Walk me through how companies should think about bringing players together.

Carl Kwoh: Sure. So as background, I got a crash course in social design at League. I was part of the original player behavior team that came together. And started trying to tackle that on League, which is definitely an exciting environment to think about player behavior issues and social design, but it really led me down this path of doing research and understanding what we were building and how we were thinking about it.

I read a ton of articles and information about how social design works. This is an area that a ton of folks in the industry have been thinking about since the days of MUDs when it was all tech space, there are very famous articles by Richard Bartle and Raph Koster and Dan Cook. Just consuming a ton of those really help give me a foundation for how to think about how players interact and what they need.

The biggest and easiest piece for me is it's a lot of Things that apply to just bringing people together. So when you think about how you bring together a sports team or how you think together about bringing a work group or after school softball league or any of these sorts of social gatherings have. These elements that play into social design, and you just have to be really diligent about how you're building them in the digital space. Understanding how players have identity and express that identity and how folks begin to recognize that identity and what recognition means in a digital environment is a lot of the foundation for social design, right?

In many cases, I think that we underestimate, how hard it is to build identities in digital spaces. Humans are built to recognize faces really well and less built to recognize usernames and a series of numbers and whatever digital avatar you may have in the game. My favorite example of this is, I had been talking to a friend who worked on destiny two for a while.

And I was like, Oh, when you're in the tower, you should be matched with the same friends or the same people over and over again, so you have a chance to recognize them. And she was like, Oh, yeah, that was in since the beginning. When you go into tower instances, you're generally put in the same tower instances as people you've been in the same tower instances before. But because we have such a hard time recognizing usernames really distinctly, and because within Destiny, everyone doesn't look exactly the same, but there's definitely not as much distinction as human faces, for example, it's just very easy to miss that you're with that group the whole time.

Even just thinking about that foundational topic of how do you put people together so that identity is recognizable and you can get used to seeing the same people because that ends up building the foundation of how folks have trust and belonging in a community and can recognize and get a sense of, Oh, I know what I'm going to get out of this connection and have a sense of social norms about it.

The example I like to give is, I'm a big tabletop gamer and I have a friendly local game store that I go to on the regular. Every time you walk into that store, and you can apply this to gyms or cafes or wherever. You look around and you see the regulars, right? Like you see the people like you always see there and you're not necessarily friends with them. You're not inviting them over for drinks after work or anything, but you're like, Oh, I know that player, and I know that player. Oh, so and so showed up, right? And because you have that recognition, you have an expectation of, if I sit down with that player, they're going to play a blue deck in Magic, or they play Empire in X Wing, right?

 And that actually really helps form a connection of, like, how you feel connected to that community, what you feel like you're valued for in the community, because you know that, when they see you, they're like, Oh, there's Carl. He's going to bring his Ahsoka Shatterpoint army, or he's going to bring his stupid blue green deck and commander, right?

And because you know what you're valued for and because you have a sense of what you value and others in that environment, you just feel really connected to that community and you feel a sense of belonging. And that's really important for us as humans. Let alone the health of a given community. It's just super important for us as humans. And I think that having that stuff in mind is really important.

And one of the things that I think we stumble with in the game industry is we do things to try and make it safer or faster to play, more efficient, more easy for players to engage with the game itself. And in turn accidentally do things that harms that sense of identity and recognition, right? My favorite example is Marvel Snap, which is a pretty recent game. When it came out. You really didn't have any sense of who is the player you're playing against other than a username.

And in fact, they trained you to not really understand that was another player because you played against so many bots early on. And so what that means is, I love that game and I love talking to my friends about that game outside of that game, but inside the game I treated it like a single player game, right?

Like I never interacted with my opponent because I was never sure if it was a bot or not, right? I just did my thing, played my game, hit play again. And I think that so much of that community and social design, which I know that they've been adding over time, could have come in from that day one of how me of my friends talked about decks we were building and how we talked about strategies for snapping and all that kind of stuff.

There's such a missed opportunity in my mind as a social designer for that to have been part of that community building inside the game from moment one. And having worked at Riot and a bunch of these companies, like I know exactly why it happens. You want players to be able to hit the play again, and there's people who don't really want to interact because the community that League of Legends had at one point, has helped train them along with the Call of Duty and the Counter Strikes and all out there have trained them not to want to interact with the community, and I can understand how people get down that path. But I think, as someone who is studying social design and also just like the role of loneliness and social connection in us as humans, games could be so much more.

They could do so much, and I always jump on my soapbox when people talk to me about social design about Oh, you just need to start thinking about this stuff and introduce it because that level of players playing together just makes it so much more of a vibrant experience and can it can really make communities deeper. The things that many people jump to make those communities safer actually make it worse because they accidentally dehumanize all the other players and it can be hard, but i think it's super worthwhile.

Lizzie Mintus: I love that games are really just like basic human psychology because i feel like you do want to know the people at your coffee shop.

This is just human nature, right? And you do also really want to know what's going to happen next, like to some degree, if I do this thing, what's in the future. So I love that it's woven in.

If somebody is trying to build a community on a new game, like early days, you highlight some things, but what else should they really keep in mind if you're building from the start?

Carl Kwoh: Yeah, I would really encourage folks to go out and find the articles and the GDC talks. Dan Cook is pretty well known for doing a bunch of papers alongside GDC talk about this stuff. Raph Koster is really well known and increasingly those are folks that have been writing articles since I've been at PopCap, if not longer. But there's so many people who are writing and thinking about this stuff as the Fair Play Alliance. And Kimberly Vol, who's a advisor for us at Jam & Tea. These are all folks who are putting a lot of effort into making what we already know, easy to access and easy to find.

And I think there's a ton of stuff that has been developed or been thought about or been discovered that folks can use as a stepping stone to figure out what's best for their game. We're all standing on the shoulders of giants. And take advantage of it.

Lizzie Mintus: Totally. You don't need to reinvent the wheel. There's so many people who have done so many businesses and tried so many things before you. It's like the best overall advice to o.

How can people go about getting a deeper understanding of their customers and their problems? Ask them, but in what way are people most receptive to being asked? How do you get the best player feedback?

Carl Kwoh: There's a whole host of patterns that you can do. I think a lot of it is what you're specifically trying to learn. A lot of it is that I've super valued is watching how players interact with a given game or a given genre and what they say, but also what they do, right?

The classic truism is players can't tell you what they want. They can only show you what they want by how they act. They'll have opinions of what they want, but whether or not those opinions are correct is not always reliable. But a lot of it is, when I'm thinking about a new game, idea, or a new product that we're working on, I go to look for players that are playing games or adjacent genres that I think might have the problem I'm trying to solve. And I'll try to get to know what are they playing? Why are they playing it? What other games do they play? When do they jump around? I'll jump into the communities and see how players are talking about the games that they play, what other games come up.

I'll watch a lot of Twitch streams of folks who are dedicated to that genre often, and see if they're not a true variety streamer. You have some streamers who are dedicated to a single game, but most often I find game there are streamers that are dedicated to mostly one game, but really that genre, and they'll jump around to other games in that genre. Where they stay and where they don't stay and what catches their eye, you can learn a lot about what problems are they actually looking to solve. What's really trying to hook them there.

And so that's a lot of it. It is absolutely like asking them, but understanding that they're not going to be able to tell you exactly the answer. So asking them questions around the problem and asking them what they do and as much as you can seeing what they do right. That's really good.

The main thing that I tend to tell people is you should always go in with some hypothesis of what the answer is .Not because you necessarily just want to validate that you're right. The there's a bunch of biases that you need to be careful of, but I think there are folks who go in and Oh, we'll just ask and we'll find out what the answer is.

And it's no, the way your brain works is you already think you know what the answer is and you'll find out information that either speaks to that or speaks against it, right? And so you might as well be really explicit about that. One of the classic examples that a bunch of X writers will now laugh at is, for a long time we had people who would come in and be like, Oh, what I think League of Legends needs is a really good tutorial, right? Like your game is super hard to learn. What you really need is a tutorial. And while there's a bunch of stuff that we should have done and that game has done since I've left to make that new player experience better and smoother and easier onboarding. What it actually needed was easier ways for friends to bring you into a game and play alongside you for your first few games. Because all the players that stuck around with League for a long time generally were onboarded by friends. And had friends help them with that early learning curve. And having a difficult learning curve actually... made those social connections better and made folks really enjoy spending that time with their friends and value having it and stick with the game longer as a result of making it through. And even if you came into the game as a solo player and managed to figure it all out, you still didn't stick around as much because you wouldn't have built those social connections that helped you play the game, right? Like a team based game. You want to, you want to have your crew. You want to have folks that you know you can rely on. You want to have folks that have that higher trust. And being on boarded by friends ended up being a huge difference in whether you were a long term League of Legends player or someone who is more of a tourist. And, often this worked as a double edged sword.

Folks would come in with their friends and be really strong players and stick around for a long time. And then, life would happen. Folks would graduate college or get their jobs or, what have you. And then the friend group would stop being online all at the same time.

And then you would see a lot of players drop off at that point. Understanding the hypothesis of what you're trying to go after, right? When I came in, to be transparent, one of my interview answers that I later got yelled at about was, oh, we, I'm coming from PopCap. I know how to do tutorials. I know how to do onboarding. This is what League of Legends needed. And my hypothesis was, oh, you're losing so many players because of this. That's what they need. Like these players that are going to leave need this thing. And then when you actually sat down to look at players and talk to players who have both made it through the onboarding as those that didn't and then watch that behavior over time, what you found out was, it wasn't just like a tutorial, but they needed help with that low trust and teammate environment. They needed someone to help them feel safe in the pickup basketball game that they just accidented into, right? And it's not just about like a tutorial. It was never going to make them feel safer. It might have given us some more basics, but it's, how do we introduce you to someone that can help you feel okay. Game stores actually face this problem all the time.

Someone shows up to the game night the first time and there's all these people. I have no idea if they're sharks or if they're noobs like me, I don't know who plays what games. How do I have that first great game experience at my local game shop? There are game stores that really keep an eye out for those players so that they can have that thing of let me build that social connection with you right away.

And so I think, as you're finding out about your players and the things that they need, really keeping an eye towards what do I think that they need, and how am I hearing their problems and how does that line up or not line up to what my assumptions are?

 I call them assertions and assumptions, but it's like scientific method hypothesis. If you have a really thoughtful list of that stuff, then you can very quickly see oh, I just heard and saw this from a player and that totally lines up with these three hypotheses or these three assumptions, but this one is way off, something's going on. Let me dig in further. That just helps you learn and iterate towards what the right solutions are so much faster. Whereas if you don't have it written down, you're just shooting in the wind and you'll forget what you assumed and you'll forget what you saw so quickly. And being really thoughtful about it and being really diligent about writing stuff down, I think, is the most important part of asking those questions.

Lizzie Mintus: You're a great business leader because I feel like all this player behavior research is like employee behavior research. How do you make your team stay engaged and all of that really correlates. And I know you're passionate about building leaders and building communities within a company as well.

Can you talk to me about that correlation and how you think about building a company and supporting your team?

Carl Kwoh: Yeah, I think it is absolutely highly correlative. A company is a community, right? Bringing together a community to accomplish a set of goals and you need that community to work in as high of a trust environment as possible.

When you're thinking about social design for games are, in fact, also thinking about social design for any community you're putting together whatsoever. And one of my other founders likes to call this my theory of dog fooding social design through the company.

Dogfooding, if you're not familiar with the term, is this idea that if you want to sell a product, you need to try the product first, right? Before you sell dog food to a dog, you should eat it , eat the dog food to make sure that it's not terrible or at least won't kill you.

 And a lot of what I talk about of what I want to be able to do is build these really vibrant player communities with great social design. And in order to do that, we have to be able to do that internally. If I can't build a great community at Jam & Tea, how will Jam & Tea ever build a great community with its players?

Right now we're seven people so it's a very different implementation than when you're talking about potentially hundreds of thousands of players, but many of the baseline principles are the same. How you think about onboarding folks is the same.

These are really clear matches. What I often return to is the role that games has often played in, not to sound too grandiose, but within human society has been these moments that can help build communities. They can form community really easily because of the rules they allow for really clear social norms and meeting it and exceeding expectations and moments of exchanging of trust and they can be these formations of the center that holds these communities together, right?

Whether that game is actually a sport like football or chess and chess clubs. This has always been the role of games. Play is this safe place where you can extend vulnerability in order to build those social connections, right? And so really thinking about that, not just as we build games and the role that our games can play in society, but also thinking about it of, how do you use these tools that we using games all the time to build that social connection and build that framework and create systems within studios that build a trust, right? It's a really clear opportunity and one of the truisms that always hold to is that teams move at the speed of trust. And so the more teams trust each other, the faster they'll move, the more they'll have each other's back the harder and thornier problems they'll be able to take on and so a lot of how I build studios and studio culture is thinking about, okay, what are the systems we have in play that build trust, reward trust and make it really easy for everyone at the studio to have a clear understanding of the actions that they're doing to build trust with each other and with the community and what are the things that we have going on that might accidentally erode trust, right? Cause I don't think anyone goes into a company being like, Oh, I'm going to erode all the trust here, or build systems that are meant to do that, but okay, where are we accidentally eroding trust, whether it's, you have to form out, fill out expense reports in this specific way.

And that makes it feel like I don't trust you. And or, how do we have PTO set up in a way that, that erodes trust? Or even how do we do work assignments in a way that doesn't actively build trust? Thinking about that and applying systems design game design lens to it. To understand, hey where are we rewarding the right things and where are we rewarding the wrong things and how do we fix that?

Lizzie Mintus: You talked a bit about twitch, and I want to talk a little bit about just marketing these days, how do you market a game to your communities in a way that feels authentic, but also brings players in. Talk to me about influencer marketing and talk to me about all the things that are hot right now and how you think that builds communities and players.

Carl Kwoh: Yeah. Marketing is hard right now. Getting your game scene is really difficult when there are just so many things fighting for our attention these days. What I tend to gravitate towards myself as a player and I'm not necessarily, everybody's target player, but I think it, it does speak to some broader themes. I listen to what my friends are playing and why they're playing them, right?

Like my friends, when my friend says, oh, hey, you really need to check out the new Diablo season. I think it's going to be really cool, especially if they're like, Do you want to play together? That will grab my attention really fast. It seems true for TV, like the only TV shows I even spend the time watching anymore are ones that my friends are like, Oh no, this is worth the time.

That extends these days to not just my active local friends that I know in real life and have spent time with, but the parasocial friends I have on all the social media. I tend to trust what Dr. Lupo says because I've watched him stream for a long time and I know how my interests in games aligns with his interests in games, right?

I like what he likes about Tarkov, as an example, even though I don't actually enjoy playing that game very much. I like what he likes about Tarkov. And the same is true for, a thousand factory game streamers. I keep a close watch on Nilaos just to see whatever new factory game is coming out.

Cause that's the one that I know I'm going to enjoy playing. I think this is true for many players. They understand who amongst not just their local friends, but also their parasocial friends have tastes that line up and who do they trust and who lines up with what they enjoy.

And they play really close attention to that. The more you can find those communities of folks, like you're building a game for a community. And so finding where that community is, who are the folks who are at the forefront of that, especially on the influencer space, and I think building a relationship with those folks, early on in order to be like, Hey, I'm theoretically building a game for the community that you represent. Is this actually scratching an itch, right? Or even Hey, I think I'm building a game for you but what let me talk to you to validate that and make sure I know that.

Then as it goes, building, building that community with those folks involved will also jumpstart your ability to start to break through because the people that your target player trusts will be playing and advocating for the game because they have familiarity with it. They're potentially part of the early community like we're in pre alphas or betas. And you can start to not just be heard, but also be sure that you're delivering an experience. That is what those players are super interested in and what they want. And even, where you're trying to surprise those players in certain ways you can surprise them, right?

I think that in many ways, Baldur's Gate 3 and Tears of the Kingdom this year are two great successes that were really built on the backs of existing communities. And those studios knew those communities inside and out and knew how to both play into those expectations, but also subvert those expectations.

 Breath of the Wild was an incredible success and Nintendo clearly paid attention to what that community was and what they were interested in and how to surprise and delight them with the next one. Larian with Baldur's Gate 3, they developed in public virtually for three years with the early access and I think that built a lot of goodwill and a lot of interest and you could see that the influencers and streamers and community members who were incredibly vocal about it, were because they felt listened to, they felt part of the process, they felt heard, and that, in turn, created this tidal wave of good will and interest and enthusiasm when they actually launched that, helped them break through. And once you're through to a certain point, you get the zeitgeist moment, and yeah, that carries you pretty far too.

I think that's how games have to work these days, right? I don't think we can drop a, multi million dollar or tens of millions, or if not hundreds of millions, break through and hope. There have been games recently that have had that big spend and come up empty. Even if you go back a couple of years, Among Us, which was a game that had been out for two years, just climbed the ranks because people discovered it and fell in love with it and then wanted to play with their friends who they couldn't see in person, and it just spread like wildfire.

And I think that community moment is so important. But to do it, you have to be really authentic. You have to be a part of that community and that takes time to build that relationship and connection.

Lizzie Mintus: It also is scary, right? I think if you're building your game and you're only five months in and you're getting all this feedback and that's not a way in which you built a game before, can be really terrifying.

Carl Kwoh: Yeah I think it's really hard to take feedback early. None of us like to be vulnerable like it's scary to put yourself out there whether it's being on a podcast or whether it's, running one or showing the first draft of something. It's always terrifying.

And I think it's a very human nature to be like, Oh, I just need a couple more months and I'll be ready.

Lizzie Mintus: Yeah, it has to be perfect.

Carl Kwoh: Exactly. But, what also is incredibly connecting between humans is recognizing that extension of vulnerability and meeting it. And so seeing that first draft and knowing it's a first draft and someone is still being very vulnerable and sharing it, humans resonate with that in many ways, and we'll want to engage with it. I think they'll actually take my feedback because giving feedback is in turn its own extension of vulnerability. That's part of the power; the ability to have both sides extend vulnerability and then have it return safely in that exchange of an early alpha and early feedback session and early play test what have you is assuming it goes well, a way that community and that trust is built so much faster, so much earlier, right?

And why that stuff can snowball so well. But yeah, it is incredibly scary. If in done in artfully you can not have that vulnerability returned and instead have it stomped on. And so you have to be ready for it in some ways, but I do encourage folks to push themselves to be as vulnerable as they can early on, because I think that, where you can connect to the right players and the right audience and have that vulnerability return, you'll make a better game you'll have a better time doing it, and you'll build your community much earlier, much stronger.

Lizzie Mintus: Yeah, for sure. I know people are going to be really interested in just like the inner workings of Riot. Whatever you're able to share, but why do you think Riot has had the success that they've had?

What did you witness inside of Riot for so many years, founding a team that people could potentially take away and implement themselves? In their own way.

Carl Kwoh: Yeah. Of course. Riot is an interesting, outlier in many ways in the industry, but it's a really fascinating company. So I joined in 2011. I had started playing League right as it came out of beta and then joined gosh, I forget what my patch is.

So like every, after a while, everyone was known by the patch. Oh, I was patch of Lee Sin. So I, I joined the studio the day that Leeson was initially put into the game. And it was still figuring out how to support this game that had... Take in the world by storm and become so popular so quickly and was building up really fast.

I often say that I was like employee 250 something because I can never remember my exact employee number. Over the next six years while I was there, like when I left, they were 3, 500 worldwide. A crazy amount of growth. What really kept the studio focused on the player during that time was that relentless drumbeat of, it's about the player experience, it's about how do we meet players, where they are, how do we deliver something that is what they want. Always think of these things, not through business decisions, but through player experience decisions, right? And I think that is a really strong drumbeat for not just that studio, but thinking about games in general, right? Having a really clear north star, really clear driving force towards your decisions and a razor that helps you say what's in or out.

And I think that was by far the strongest drumbeat. They had additional ones around their culture and how they wanted to operate and how we wanted to treat each other and what does, being a writer mean? And I think many of the other values have changed over time, not in huge ways, but most often in ways that they express them as they like.

For a long time, one of the values was challenge convention, right? Just because it's been done this way before, we don't want to necessarily by default do that. And I think for a time that served Riot very well in figuring out how to do things differently when they had this game that was a complete outlier.

League of Legends operated at a scale that no other game had really operated at, before it took off. And so there were many places where they couldn't do what had been done before because there was no playbook. But I think over time. As with all of these things, it became a Oh we always have to do things differently.

Even if we've done it one way, we have to do it differently, not because it's the right thing to do, but because that's our value and we need to. I believe the spirit of that is still absolutely in the DNA of Riot. How they express it though, is more nuanced, more tempered by where they are at their stage.

But the player experience, I don't think has ever wavered or ever changed for them. And so I think that did very well for them and really drove not just the success of Riot internally, but also what has driven many of the folks who've come out and started studios or gone on to do other things within the industry.

One of the things that I know has helped drive that is that not just drive to think about the player experience, but how right thought about it and train people to think about it and be diligent about it that has ended up being a strength, I think, for everyone who's spun out of right, especially in the startup space.

Riot had a drive to be multiple games and has a infamously long R& D period for many of its games. Part of why you see so many people end up spinning out of Riot and go to start their own studio is, I think there's a lot of good culture of how to think about Business and games and thinking about new games .That come from that and thinking about the audience.

But there are studio that can only make so many games at a time. Especially with the length that they spend on each game. You end up with folks who are trained to be very hungry in this way and then want to go and build the thing that they're excited about. And so they end up spinning out of Riot and going to build the thing that they're excited about.

I think the company that it most reminds me of, in this particular way, is previously Zynga. Zynga is very famous for having a bunch of folks spin out of Zynga and become startups. Part of their reason is very similar in that they had a R& D process and a pitching process that was very structured, very thoughtful of, how do you make the next game at Zynga?

And obviously Zynga could only make so many games, but because that process existed, trained an army of folks of how to pitch games to VCs and how to pitch game studios. And so you saw a bunch of people spin out. And similarly with Riot, Riot has been very successful at training a bunch of leaders how to think about building player experiences and how to cut through the noise and value something and then only has so many opportunities for those folks and so you'll, I think you'll consistently see folks spin out to go and start their own thing.

Lizzie Mintus: Yeah, there were so many ex Riot studios. I feel like all the studios that were announced for a period of time were ex Riot founders who just raised whatever money. You said you learned a lot from all your time at Riot, but you learned a lot from your first startup too.

If you could go back and tell yourself some lessons or, just share your learnings? What do you start in your studio? What did you learn along the way?

Carl Kwoh: Yeah, I think starting your own studio, being a first time founder, you're always an idiot because that's inherently the things you learn about founding, doing anything for the first time.

You're always bad at the thing you do for the first time. The big things that I reflect on, I don't regret because, one, I think regret is a useless emotion and the mistakes got me here. But the things that I'm like, oh if I were to replicate it magically, here's how I would change it. I wouldn't solo found. Founding a studio and a company in general is a lot. It puts a lot on your shoulders that is not just like the anxiety of being in a job, but also this intangible anxiety of folks relying on you for their income, their mortgages and their livelihood.

It's just a lot to shoulder as a single person. And then it also makes it hard for you to ever turn off because you're always just thinking about this stuff. You can't take vacation because if you take vacation, who worries about payroll. One of the reasons why I'm not solo founding Jam & Tea is exactly that lesson.

The other lesson I took that is probably also pretty valuable for folks is when I went into it, I got advice that VC had pulled out of games. So this was early 2017. I was looking at founding the studio and some friends who had been in there and been VC backward.

There's been a bunch of problems and game closures and stuff. And VC is really pulled out. You really want to go with a publisher. And you really want to do that stuff. And so I focused on building a publisher build and really focused on that as our path. And I raised my very initial money more through friends and family and then went dark and put my head deep in development for almost a year.

By the time I came out, publishers were still an interesting path. They were still putting money into the thing. But the game I built actually wasn't really good for publishers. And in the meantime, VCs had also come out of the woodwork and been reinvested in games.

Ghostly Bear probably would have been still going if I had learned to talk to VCs earlier. But I was so optimized to talk to publishers that the few conversations I had with family funds and VCs, I totally whiffed. I told them the wrong things.

I focused on the wrong subjects. They were interested in how do I think about it from this long term business and this company and equity and what is my valuation? And I'm like, yeah, I don't know. I need this much money to build this game and ship it. And don't you want to know about the game and what this beautiful world I've created?

 No. But who's your team? What's the pedigree? All this stuff. It's funny because a couple of the folks that I talked to at that time, who were very nice, are actually invested in us this time which I'm, endlessly grateful for. But, I was definitely just totally out of my depth talking to those folks.

And so that led to a bunch of questions around pivoting and decisions that I've also learned lessons from, but the biggest one, was that when you're going to go start a studio, you have to understand you're starting this business. And there's many ways to get funding for that business.

And not all sources of funding are one for one with the business, what your business at the time will need, right? Depending on what you're building, you could be really great for publishers, you could be really great for VCs, you could be really great for angel investors or strategic investors. Understanding what each of those groups are and what they want and what the differences are and who's optimized for what, and understand that it changes on a three month basis. So like whatever you learned three months ago is wrong now, maybe.

We started 2023 with the market's incredibly hard, and you can't get anything in late stages. But seed round, you're still getting investing and we got around, thankfully, but it has been hard. But now there's signs that oh, hey, now, late stage is more of a thing and seed is maybe shrinking again. All this stuff changes so fast that it's more as you're starting out, you have to be like, here's how I talk to a publisher. Here's how I talk to a strategic. Here's how I talk to a VC. Here's how I understand my business so I can pivot explaining that business to each of these folks.

You have to be able to roll with the punches really well and a lot of the things that I look back now at, all the ways I messed up Ghostly Bear that's the one that I'm like, ah I'm going to really overlearn this lesson now as much as possible.

The other things along the way, there are lessons to learn for sure, but learning how to be able to roll with the punches and be adaptable to the funding market is super important.

Lizzie Mintus: Yeah. Where did you learn how to edge and how to think about all the different relations? Because that's I think a lot of people's problem.

Carl Kwoh: Yeah. I'm lucky in that I have a bunch of friends who have gone down the various paths, and that has definitely helped. A lot of it is, I will put on my old man yelling at Sky. Kids these days have all the information and YouTube. So many people are putting so much information out there. It's really remarkable how well prepared you can be for probably almost anything at this point. There are tons of investors and publishers who are really explicit about, Hey, here's what we think about and what we care about. Here's how we think about it. You can find lots and lots of information out there about it.

You can get a really good baseline just through some Google searches, some spending some time on tech cruncher or game developer. The other part that I always emphasize is you should always be respectful and recognize that other humans are on the end of it, and they have their own time and attention.

But most people in the game industry, especially most founders or VCs or folks who work in publishing are more than happy to talk to folks. Just as a hey, I want to learn more about this. I'm thinking about this in the far distant future. And I just want to learn more. I'd love to pick your brain.

Most people are so happy to talk about their specific backgrounds, how they think about these problems that you can learn so much. Again, it's vulnerability, right? Like it's hard to put yourself out there. It's. It's scary. And people ask for stuff all the time.

And, you'll be surprised at how often people will be willing to share their time and lesson and attentions. I've gotten a ton of that, partially after I already went through the crucible, right? And I made a bench network connections to that. I learned what VCs wanted because the VC across the table was being like, you're an idiot kid who has told me absolutely nothing.

Here's what I wanted to hear. And I'm like, Oh, okay. Next time. It's absolutely helpful, you don't have to necessarily completely fail at it. I could have asked them, ahead of time and find found out. Asking to build upon the knowledge that you build from a baseline of reading all the information that's out there I think is the best ways.

It's what you have to build because it changes so fast anyway. There's no one way to learn because you have to be able to, what's the latest, what's the latest ones. And if you have those network connections and build up those relationships by asking folks lessons and to teach you and to talk about this stuff.

You'll also more often than not build relationships where they'll be like, Oh, hey, that thing that I told you six months ago. Yeah, it's totally wrong now. It's this thing now instead, right? Yeah, that can be incredibly valuable.

Lizzie Mintus: But you have to ask. I think that's always like everything I hear my podcast, reach out to someone, be authentic, be vulnerable, ask for help, they'll help you, just have to ask.

I have one last question. Before I ask it, I want to point people to your website, jamandtea. studio.

Let's pretend we're at an awards banquet and you're winning a lifetime achievement award. Maybe it's a game award, like game of the year, something really big.

Who would you think professionally, who has made the biggest impact on your personal career?

Carl Kwoh: Oh, geez. There are so many people. There are so many people. I think so much of who I am as a leader is thanks to folks like Jesse Houston, Jay Moldenhauer, Salazar.

Travis George, Mark Merrill, Steve Snow, these folks who really helped shape me on that side. On the game design side, it's, goes all the way back to Jason Kopalka at PopCap and Dan Cook and Raph Koster and all the other social design giants whom I am lucky enough to have been able to read their research to, to learn what I know.

From a leader from a just building a company and empathetic leadership standpoint, Samantha Bong, who's the CEO at Jam & Tea has been a lifelong friend and taught me a ton. Hans Reif and Rath these folks who have been close to me and watched me grow up in so many ways and help keep me in line.

Yeah, and certainly if we're closing our eyes and imagining the beautiful future. Award ceremony, then, I'd definitely be remiss to not thank Aaron and Yichao, my co founders, who I'm currently already relying on, and I can only imagine in the future I will be desperately reliant on to continue to exist.

There's always a huge community behind any individual who wins an award, right? And I'm always deeply grateful for the community of folks who have always invested in me and kept me going and taught me what I know. And I would be nowhere without that amazing community of game developers and friends and folks who have touched my lives in a million ways.

Lizzie Mintus: There you go. Community is everything. We've been talking to Carl, co founder of Jam & Tea Studio, Carl, where can people go to reach out to you personally or follow along with Jam & Tea Studio?

Carl Kwoh: Yeah, Jam & Tea Studio is our website that you mentioned before, you can find me on LinkedIn, feel free to connect.

Twitter or X, I guess they're calling it. I'm pretty much status quo on everything. And then if you want to, if you want to reach out for mentorship or just asking questions about the game industry, cquo at Jam & Tea Studio, happy to field whatever emails I can through that.

Lizzie Mintus: Thanks so much.

Thanks so much for listening to the show this week. To catch all the latest from His Waldo, you can follow us on LinkedIn. Be sure to click subscribe to get future episodes. We'll see you next time.

Share this story