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Chapman students grow computer game into a business
By JAN NORMAN



A group of Chapman University students last year thought it would be fun to create a computer game. As digital arts and computer science majors, they figured the game would at least look good on a résumé.

Thus, Axle was born.

Axle derives its name from an animated yellow gear that evades lethal crushers while repairing machinery in virtual factories. One member of the group, digital arts major Lauren Gragg, used the game for her senior thesis. Then, Axle won top honors in the regional Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers' Intercollegiate Computer Game Showcase in April, and the team realized Axle could be more.

But an idea – even an award winner – isn't a business. And no team member was a business major. The students needed to learn how to cross that bridge, so they took Axle to Chapman's new eVillage business incubator within the Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship and Business Ethics.

Within five months, team members had created a company, Fallstreak Studio LLC, laid out a business plan and launched an online crowd-sourcing campaign to bankroll their venture.

Watch a video about the game.

They are more than two-thirds of the way through a Kickstarter funding drive to raise at least $15,000 to release Axle for Android phones, said Liz Fiacco, who designed the game. Like Gragg, Fiacco graduated this past spring with a major in digital arts from the film school and a minor in game development from the computer science school.

If they raise $22,000, team members can complete the game for iPhone and Kindle Fire. Another $8,000 will fund an editor to create more playing levels within the game.

"They came to me in April with an award-winning game, big dreams and no business experience," said Christopher Buckstein, director of eVillage. "With the resources at the incubator and a lot of hard work, Fallstreak Studio's team members have transformed themselves from enthusiastic students to passionate entrepreneurs."

Since launching in February, eVillage has worked with 60 student entrepreneurs who have created 28 companies. Richard Sudek, head of Chapman's Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship, said students come to eVillage with ideas that are in various stages of business development.

"We want the best ideas; we don't care where they come from," Sudek said. "We can get mentors for them. We can introduce them to investors."

The Axle team members estimate they spent hundreds of hours building the game prior to the IEEE competition and many more hundreds of hours starting the business. Fiacco and Gragg, both of whom used to work at game company Obsidian Entertainment, started creating the game and mentioned it to friends Jessica Kernan, a digital arts major; Bryson Thill, a computer science major who interned with NASA; and Alex Solano, also a computer science major, who has worked with information technology companies.

"We were working with some extremely smart programmers," said Gragg, who served as producer of the game's development. "It turns out that getting the gears to interlock is very difficult. For three or four weeks before the IEEE competition I was assigning tasks (to different team members) for 15 hours a week. Bryson would say, 'That will take 40 hours,' and then he'd do it anyway."

The Axle team also drew upon the sound design talents of film major Billy Peake and music-composition skills of Adam Borecki, who had a double major in music composition and guitar performance.

Fiacco and Gragg spend full time launching Fallstreak as a business, and the others continue building out the game. Fiacco also has sought business-development help from her brother, James, a computer science major at Arizona State University who has taken a number of business classes.

Fiacco, Gragg and Kernan, who are involved in creating the business, hope their effort will be an example for others as well as paychecks for themselves. Fiacco noted that many college students are struggling to find jobs after graduation in a slow economy. "A lot of people our age are going home and living with their parents," she said. "We want to show this is an avenue to look at. You can make a job for yourself!"

Axle and eVillage have propelled the team to become entrepreneurs sooner than they had planned, Gragg said. "Liz and I had always talked about starting a business, but we thought we'd work a few years first. I wish we knew more about business going in."

Fiacco added, "We knew video games but we needed to know business. They brought in people from law, accounting and other entrepreneurs with experience starting businesses. It was exciting because we didn't have exposure to the steps to starting a business or how to make it sustainable and competitive."

The co-founders plan for Fallstreak to be much bigger than Axle, said Kernan, Fallstreak's art director, who is working full time at Obsidian Entertainment while managing Axle's Kickstarter campaign at night.

The broader concept is to create a portfolio of enriching games that are so much fun to play that people won't realize they're learning.

Kernan manages Axle's Kickstarter fundraising campaign at night, and Fiacco handles it during the day.

Kickstarter is a key part of Fallstreak's marketing effort as well as its fundraising, Kernan said. Axle fans help improve the game and spread the word to other gamers. "It takes constant, full-time vigilance," she said. "You communicate and give them updates and if it gets funded, you have to make sure the money is going to the right place (to build the company), and you want to let everyone know what's happening."

The team members, while fleshing out the business, also are building more levels of play in Axle. The game has three levels and needs 21, Fiacco said.

They're also working on other games under development, some that may be released within months and others that could take years, she added.

"I suggest (potential entrepreneurs) start small, create a minimally viable product and build from there," she said.

To help fund Axle through Kickstarter, go to kck.st/UatWDn.

Contact the writer: 714-796-7927 or jnorman@ocregister.com






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