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Smilegate invests $100M in That’s No Moon Entertainment with ex-Sony, Naughty Dog, and Activision devs


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That’s No Moon Entertainment is a new triple-A game development studio with veterans who have attracted more than $100 million in investment from CrossFire creator Smilegate.

The team includes star developers such as Taylor Kurosaki, former studio narrative director at Infinity World and former narrative design lead at Naughty Dog. He will serve as creative director alongside game director Jacob Minkoff, former design director of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare at Infinity Ward and lead game designer on The Last of Us at Naughty Dog.

Their aim is to deliver a best-in-class triple-A game and their roster includes seasoned game development talent with credits that include Game of the Year award-winning and top-selling titles, such as God of War, Fortnite, The Last of Us Part II, Destiny, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, and many more.

South Korea’s Smilegate has generated more than $10.5 billion in revenues from the popular first-person shooter CrossFire, but the company has ambitions to gain bigger audiences in the West, said Harold Kim, vice president of business development at Smilegate, in an interview with GamesBeat. The $100 million investment is a huge headstart for a young studio, but it is somehow apt in an environment where we’ve seen $60 billion poured into the game industry in the first six months of 2021 — in terms of acquisitions, investments, and public offerings — according to investment bank Drake Star Partners.

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Above: The founders of That’s No Moon: Taylor Kurosaki (left), Tina Kowalewski, Michael Mumbauer, and Nick Kononelos.

Image Credit: That’s No Moon

Besides Kurosaki and Minkoff, That’s No Moon is led by Michael Mumbauer (CEO, formerly head of PlayStation’s Visual Arts Group), Tina Kowalewski (chief strategy officer, executive vice president of Giant Squid, and formerly director of product development of Sony’s Santa Monica Studio), Nick Kononelos (chief operating officer, formerly senior development director at Electronic Arts, Barry Genova (chief technology officer, formerly foundation engineering lead at Bungie), and George Allison (chief financial officer, formerly head of finance for the Global Services Division at PlayStation).

Is $100 million enough?

Above: Michael Mumbauer is CEO of That’s No Moon.

Image Credit: That’s No Moon

They found office space in Playa del Rey in Los Angeles in the former House of Moves space, which had a motion-capture studio which was used to make a variety of films and shows such as The Mandalorian, The Lion King, as well as the Uncharted games. The team has about 40 people already and it is shooting to get to 100 by 2022.

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“We feel we can be quite competitive” with a 100-person studio and a $100 million budget, said Mumbauer in an interview with GamesBeat.

“We feel that we’re with our experience and the veteran talent that we have, and the $100 million budget which is actually pretty unprecedented for a new studio, we’re very confident that we’re already quite well positioned to succeed in this space and genre,” Mumbauer said.

He said the company will be responsible about how it scopes the project, though it is quite possible for triple-A games to exceed the budgets and staffing on the level that the company is targeting.

“My belief is we have been very successful in creating a very strong core,” Mumbauer said. “And our goals are very clear.”

Unforgettable

Above: Taylor Kurosaki and Jacob Minkoff worked on Call of Duty and Uncharted.

Image Credit: That’s No Moon

The aim is to create unforgettable stories and characters that will define and extend beyond the medium, said Mumbauer, in an interview with GamesBeat.

With staff based in Los Angeles and San Diego, That’s No Moon is focused at the intersection of games, film, and TV and was built upon core values of creativity, collaboration, responsible production practices, and individual empowerment. Kurosaki said the company is focused on compelling next-generation, genre-defining narratives for single-player games like those he worked on for the Call of Duty and Uncharted franchises.

The company is building a diverse team of passionate developers of a wide range of experience levels and backgrounds and poised for rapid growth. It is currently filling positions across all core disciplines and plans to reach staffing of nearly one hundred developers by 2022.

Kim said that Smilegate, which has more than 670 million registered players to date and eight million concurrent players, isn’t finished with its expansions and he said the company is looking to recruit more developers and studios in the West. The company’s latest project, Lost Ark, is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game coming to North America and Europe in 2021.

What’s in a name?

Above: Tina Kowalewski is chief strategy officer at That’s No Moon.

Image Credit: That’s No Moon

The name itself refers to that moment of awe in the original Star Wars film when Obi Wan Kenobi realizes the small moon their spaceship is headed for is not a moon but a space station — The Death Star.

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Kurosaki said it is a reference to great moments in entertainment that have ignited the audience’s imagination and delivered something truly unexpected.

“We want people to feel like it’s something big, and something that inspires you,” he said. “The name certainly is evocative of our mission.”

Assemble

Above: That’s No Moon is a reference to the original Star Wars film.

Image Credit: That’s No Moon

The company got its start when Mumbauer and Kim met in a conference room at an office in Irvine, California. They hit it off and went out to get some Korean barbecue.

“I got a chance to know Mike and I was super impressed how he was very eager,” Kim said. “He wanted to do something very special. I bonded with Mike and really looked to his leadership skills and his potential to execute. That was exactly one year ago. And after that, we had many, many meetings. We had many, many calls, discussed a lot about what makes a good team building, what makes a good studio.”

He recruited a team of veterans.

“Tina and I had been speaking and she knew I was interested in building a new triple-A studio, and Harold was looking for teams,” Mumbauer said. “It was an opportunity to reach out of the network of people I had worked with over the last several decades on our passion genre, which is single player, narrative-driven, action-adventure. We had this opportunity to bring such exceptional talent.”

He added, “Smilegate was willing to invest in a team with such big ambitions.”

Kurosaki said he had known Mumbauer for many years with Sony’s visual arts services group in San Diego, California. He recalled touring the place with Uncharted creators Amy Hennig and Evan Wells — then all part of a team at Naughty Dog on the Uncharted games — and he said, “We saw an opportunity for our Naughty Dog games to take the next leap, really. And that was all ungated by Mike and his team in San Diego.”

They went on to work on games like Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception.

“We couldn’t have made those games without Mike and his group in in San Diego,” Kurosaki said.

With additions like Kowalewski and Kononelos, Kurosaki felt like they had a chance to assemble a dream team. And they would focus on the single-player experiences that lead to watercooler moments and memorable, relatable characters with deep storylines and “stick with you for a long time after you finish playing the game,” Kurosaki said.

Enter Smilegate

Above: Harold Kim is vice president of business development at Smilegate.

Image Credit: Smilegate

Smilegate specializes in free-to-play multiplayer games with live services. But what the company wants with its expansion into the West is to strengthen its storytelling, Kim said. This is not going to be a multiplayer game.

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“We have a shared vision, which is telling memorable stories with positive uplifting messages, but also thought provoking,” Kim said.

I asked Kim if the game would be related to the CrossFire universe. But Kim said the company isn’t talking about that yet and would reveal the story when it’s ready to announce the project.

I also asked Kurosaki why he left his previous dream jobs at Naughty Dog and Infinity Ward.

“Careers are short, relatively speaking, right?” he said. “These games now take longer and longer to make. They’re bigger investments and they take more of the few years that we all have. And so we’re always seeking new challenges, we’re always seeking new creative outlets, and this opportunity to create a brand new studio from the ground up with its own culture that can take the best of the places that I’ve been to before.”

Above: Smilegate has made more than $10.5 billion from CrossFire.

Image Credit: Smilegate

Kurosaki said he was excited to think about what they would do differently if they weren’t part of an entrenched culture, if they were starting from a blank slate, and had the chance to double down on things that were really successful.

“On a creative level, it really came down to this partnership with Smilegate, where there is this mutual trust,” Kurosaki said. “They have said,  that if they felt they had the skill set and the necessary tools to create class-leading narratives, fusing gameplay and story in such a tight way  where you can’t see where one stops and one begins, they would have done that.”

Smilegate acknowledged that was not their strength.

“It’s this prestige project,” Kurosaki said. “[They said] we want something that is singular. We want something that is deep, and that resonates, and we trust in you to get us there. So that level of trust was incredible. I thought that no matter how great some things are I have going on, I can’t pass this up.”

Even after this $100 million investment, Kim said, “We are very much open to discussing other opportunities” to invest in other game companies the West.

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