In the sprawling landscape of entrepreneur stories, some stories stand out not just for their success, but for the journey they encapsulate. Mark (Myong-Sik) Otero, a visionary game designer, takes us on an expedition from his humble upbringing in South Korea to the pinnacle of the gaming industry. This is a journey of overcoming challenges, chasing dreams, and reshaping the gaming landscape.
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Childhood Chronicles and the Genesis of Imagination
Born in South Korea, Mark’s childhood was defined by an exceptional degree of modesty. Huddled in a cinder block house, barely larger than the room he sits in today, Mark’s family of four faced economic challenges, but that didn’t prevent him from befriending people from the U.S. military base near his home.
Adversity became the basis for a vivid imagination. While most Korean kids grew up watching anime, Mark spent his time with Western Literature, comics, and tabletop games like Dungeon & Dragons and BattleTech, laying the foundation for Mark’s future in the world of gaming.
Growing up in a neighborhood where basic needs like hunger and shelter were tangible concerns, Mark developed a unique perspective on survival and independence. The scarcity of resources forced him to confront the raw realities of life at an early age.
These experiences became the soil in which the seeds of entrepreneurship were planted. They fostered resilience and determination which would be valuable in his future game development journey.
Coping Mechanisms and the Linguistic Odyssey
Upon immigrating to the United States, Mark faced the challenge of learning English, a journey he undertook through the lens of Dungeons & Dragons and other immersive storytelling experiences. He was drawn into the mystical fantasy world so much so that it forced him to pick up a very advanced language and vocabulary.
Mark remembers having a dictionary beside him to help translate the words which developed not only his vocabulary but also fed his desire to fictionalize the crazy world that surrounded him as a child. His entrepreneurial journey took unexpected turns, from working at Franklin Templeton Investments to founding a frozen yogurt business.
However, the pursuit of traditional success and monetary gain did not align with his deeper sense of purpose. This realization prompted Mark to explore new goals, leading to ventures in app development and ultimately game development. The challenges faced during this period of exploration helped in shaping his future path.
Learning to Code and Understanding Player Psychology
The heart of Mark’s journey lies in his quest to create games that resonate with players on a profound level. Armed with a computer science degree from California State University, Sacramento, he delved into game development.
He couldn’t find anybody else to bring his ideas to life, so, undeterred, Mark decided to learn coding himself, a decision that would lead to the inception of his gaming studio. Next, he applied to UC Davis and acquired a degree in the Psychology of Marketing.
This learning helped him understand player psychology and how to address unmet needs and transform them into groundbreaking gameplay experiences.
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From Frozen Yogurt Shop To Building a Gaming Empire
Surprisingly, Mark was unable to get a job in the game industry, so he joined Franklin Templeton Investments. Being really good at his job, Mark was promoted several times and earned a great salary. However, he soon realized that his heart was not in it. Five years later, he quit and gave up his house to live with his mother.
Mark started his own yogurt shop in Sacramento next and, he remembers hiring a food chemist in Arizona to help craft and understand the chemistry of frozen yogurt and design his own flavor, Zhang.
On opening day, Mark had 400 customers and every major press outlet in Sacramento covered the store. While operating the yogurt shop, Mark decided to follow his dream of designing games and started researching and developing apps.
He then placed an ad on Craigslist to hire a team that had never made a game before. He used his funds from the yogurt business to hire a cake decorator, a pizza delivery driver, and even a con artist who eventually stole $10,000 from him to make his first game.
The initial applications weren’t very successful and didn’t earn adequate revenues to pay for the server costs. He went through all his funds from his yogurt business before finishing his first game.
Nothing happened at first with the launch – but it eventually took off in a big way with revenues coming in quickly from the US markets. Mark and his partners focused on aggressive advertising to promote their products.
Mark’s studio, KlickNation, garnered attention from industry giants like Electronic Arts Inc. and Kabam. The competitive acquisition process showcased the groundbreaking metrics and innovative approach behind Mark’s games.
The success of his studio not only reflected mastery in game design but also a deep understanding of the psychological nuances that resonate with players. Eventually, the company sold for $35M.
Lessons Learned and the Journey Continues With Azra Games
After reaching the peak in his knowledge base after designing his eighth RPG Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes, Mark took a hiatus. However, the allure of creativity beckoned him back through the medium of playing games. His realization that continuous learning is paramount to staying relevant in the dynamic gaming industry paved the way for his next venture — Azra Games.
As Mark Otero delves back into the gaming realm, a familiar face emerges – Nathan Fong. A seasoned user experience master, Nathan had collaborated on eight previous games with Mark. Their shared passion for creating immersive and captivating gaming experiences led to an enduring professional partnership.
Nathan’s annual inquiries about the next game ignited the spark that would eventually fan Mark’s flame for game development. In 2021, Mark reconnected with former colleagues from EA Capital Games, laying the groundwork for a grand return.
The decision to jump back into game development wasn’t an impulsive one. It was the culmination of careful consideration and the alignment of visionary minds. In December 2021, Mark made the call – let’s make the next game. The enthusiasm was contagious, and the team swiftly rallied behind the idea.
The Challenge of the Unknown: Raising Funds and Unforeseen Ambushes
With the decision made, Mark embarked on the ambitious journey of raising funds for Azra Games. In February, the team hit the market to secure a seed round. Mark didn’t have a concrete plan for the game’s nature or the required financial backing.
However, the industry responded with overwhelming support. Four preemptive offers, totaling a staggering $15 million, flooded in during a two-week period. The seed round was a testament to the industry’s belief in Mark’s vision. Andreessen Horowitz led the charge, with Jonathan Lai and Arianna Simpson at the helm.
Co-leading were the renowned names of Gigi Levy-Weiss of NFX. An unexpected ambush during a board meeting with Andreessen Horowitz, featuring 26 participants, could have been disastrous.
However, Mark, in what he describes as “Professor Mark Mode,” turned it into a masterclass in the psychology of gaming, how to construct games, and how to think about every single game system impressing even the harshest critics.
Andreessen Horowitz doubled down on Mark. The total seed plus round ended at $25 million after the firm committed another $10 million.
Storytelling is everything which is something that Mark Otero was able to master. Being able to capture the essence of what you are doing in 15 to 20 slides is the key. For a winning deck, take a look at the pitch deck template created by Silicon Valley legend, Peter Thiel (see it here) where the most critical slides are highlighted.
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From Adversity to Empowerment: Unveiling Azra Games’ Vision
Fast forward to the present, and the veil over Azra Games’ latest creation is about to be lifted. In February, at the DICE gaming convention in Las Vegas, Mark and his team will unveil the name of their ninth collectibles and combat RPG.
But this isn’t just another game; it’s a reflection of our current troubled times. In a society feeling fractured and burdened by corruption, Azra Games seeks to empower players to fix the broken elements of our world through a dark fantasy RPG experience. Mark envisions players feeling validated, encouraged, and emboldened to lead positive changes in their lives.
Empowering Mankind: Azra Games’ Noble Cause
The mission of Azra Games extends beyond crafting entertainment. It’s a call to empower mankind, to inspire individuals to take action and believe in their ability to make a difference in their personal lives. In Mark’s words, the game serves as an “interface to the human mind,” where a player’s primal human instincts are engaged to the highest level.
Mark Otero’s journey, from a modest neighborhood in South Korea to the helm of a gaming empire, stands as a testament to the transformative power of adversity and the indomitable spirit of an entrepreneur.
His story inspires not just those in the gaming industry but anyone facing challenges on their path to success. As Mark continues to shape the gaming landscape, his odyssey remains a beacon of resilience and the relentless pursuit of passion.
Listen in to the full podcast episode to know more, including:
- The journey from a cinder block house in South Korea to selling a $35M gaming empire exemplifies the transformative power of adversity and resilience in entrepreneurship.
- A childhood shaped by economic challenges and a love for Western literature fueled an imaginative foundation, laying the groundwork for a future in the gaming industry.
- Playing Dungeons and Dragons as a child– and eventually learning English through it – led to unexpected ventures in frozen yogurt before the true calling in game development.
- The success of the gaming studio, marked by innovative approaches and a deep understanding of player psychology, culminated in a $35M sale to industry giants Electronic Arts Inc. and Kabam.
- After a hiatus, the return to game development with Azra Games reflects a commitment to continuous learning and a vision to empower players to address societal challenges through a dark fantasy RPG experience.
- Azra Games’ successful seed round, led by Andreessen Horowitz and others, underscores industry confidence in Mark’s vision and RPG game design prowess.