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Virl Hill

Why would you want to just play a video game, when you could be the mastermind who actually helped design it? That’s the idea behind Jumala, a new online community where game players can morph into game designers as they progress through the action. The Bellevue startup is launching a limited beta today, and from what we’ve seen it is pretty cool.

“We hope to democratize gaming,” explains CEO Virl Hill, “Which in English really means open up game creation and game modification to anybody who can use a mouse.”

Jumala just isn’t for geeky programmers, though Hill thinks many of them will join the community too. It is really built for a wide variety of folks, those interested in both creating and playing games. In that regard, the former RealNetworks and Disney veteran sees a parallel in YouTube — since most users of the site simply enjoy the videos rather than actively participate in the creation of them.

Will anyone really take the time to create their own games or modify the games of others?

Hill thinks they will. “We believe there are a whole bunch of people who will enjoy the fact that they can create something from scratch or work with a friend to build or improve games that someone else has started,” Hill said. “What’s interesting is we kind of make a game out of creating games.”

Frank Savage

Over time, Hill sees a vibrant marketplace where game designers will be rewarded for what they create on Jumala.

The technology behind the company — developed by former Microsoft and FASA Interactive software developer Frank Savage — is pretty impressive. During a demo of the service, Savage showed how amateur game designers could move rocks or build bridges or plant trees in order to alter the game experience.

That adds a whole new dimension to game play, especially as it relates to players looking to achieve high scores and the developers who want to challenge them.

“You could create a whole new part of your world that you just can’t get to unless you build a bridge or unless you put a moving platform in or do something in order to change the game,” says Savage. “It is really that combination where the game’s designer and the game’s player interact and play with each other for the first time.”

About 400 different pieces of content are available for amateur game designers to work with during the limited beta release.

Hill said that it can take just a few minutes to customize games created by others, while the company also offers templates by which designers can start a game from scratch in 10 minutes or less. “It can happen almost instantaneously,” said Hill, adding that some developers could spend five weeks or more hacking together a new game.

“We see creation as something that is defined in the eyes of the beholder,” Hill added.

At this point, the 15-person company is just starting with a desktop application for PC-based games. But, over time, it plans to expand to other platforms such as the Web and mobile. (Hill calls the application a very “light download.”)

Game development has become much easier in recent years, in part due to the tools that developers (and in this case non-developers) have at their fingertips. Interestingly, the launch of Jumala comes just a day after PopCap Games — one of Seattle’s best known game companies — introduced a new studio called 4th & Battery to encourage its own employees to develop games on a much faster timeframe. It also comes on the heels of the introduction of Zipline, a Seattle startup which is trying to make mobile game design much easier.

Founded a few years ago under the name of Digini, the company initially started as a 3-D game development engine. It later merged with Chinese game company Vyk, and last year switched gears to become more of a consumer-based service. Vyk then divested its stake in the company, though China Seed Ventures remains an investor. California Technology Ventures also is an investor, with total capital raised now standing at about $6 million.

Jumala plans to make money through the sale of virtual goods and by creating a marketplace where game developers can sell their creations.

It is also exploring interesting forms of advertising, essentially allowing consumer brands to build their own games with the technology. For example, Hill used the hypothetical example of Vail Ski Resort. The company could take a snapshot of the mountain from Google Earth, and then have that dropped into the Jumala game development engine.

“Now, Vail can build a game using their actual mountain,” said Hill, adding that people could rearrange the slalom course or the snowboard hill. “What a fantastic way for them to theoretically reconnect with their customer, which isn’t just screaming advertising in their face.”

Of course, there’s no shortage of competition, especially with the rise of companies such as Zynga. Also operating in the space are firms such as Atmosphir and Lego Universe. But Hill thinks they can offer a different experience by having game players also become game creators, targeting a much wider demographic than some of the rivals which focus more on kids.

“We think we have a very strong social element to what we do, albeit in a different way because instead of just clicking the stuff — you the consumer — are actually creating,” he says.

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