Imagination, the insight of a librarian and the assistance of an entrepreneurial center helped transform gaming events held in a garage with strobe lights and fog machines into a successful online business.
T.J. Nissen, the developer of Network Nirvana, a video game development company based in Cedar Falls, Iowa, spoke on the Dakota State University campus last week as part of the university’s celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week. He was invited by Katherine Cota, director of economic development at the Paulson Cyber Incubator and Entrepreneurial Center, with whom he worked at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI).
“It’s important for students to realize that being an entrepreneur is also a viable career path,” Cota said in a press release. “Many students are engaging in entrepreneurial activities without knowing it. T.J.’s story illustrates this.”
With his presentation, “From Bedroom to Boardroom: My Journey to Create a Gaming Empire,” Nissen shared both the successes and failures he experienced on that journey.
While still in high school, Nissen developed three storylines for games and would sell tickets to gaming events in his garage where he’d serve pizza. At UNI, he was successful in starting a student organization, after gaining approval from the student senate, where he gained followers.
“All of our players through the organization kind of became beta testers,” Nissen said. While beta testing is generally considered to be the second-phase testing in software development, he said in that case it meant “break everything T.J. adores.”
With that momentum, he prepared kits to sell at a gaming convention – and didn’t sell a single kit. However, he met an entrepreneur who recommended the John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center at UNI which, like the Paulson Entrepreneurial Center, was established as a student business incubator.
In working with staff there, Nissen came to realize that selling tabletop games would be difficult, so he approached gaming from a different angle.
“What if we just focused on creating worlds for tabletop games?” he said, reporting the next stage in his journey. Again, he came up against an obstacle when the book he planned to sell at a convention wasn’t published in time.
Talking with a librarian at his German teacher’s wedding finally helped him find his market niche. When he told her about the book, she made an observation which inadvertently helped him to discover his business model.
“She said, ‘That sounds like it would make a cool video game’,” Nissen said. Using the Minecraft platform, he created a video game – and licensed it to the library.
“We took this world I created years before and we debuted at the Cedar Falls library,” he reported. “Suddenly, people were playing the game and that’s when we realized how many issues there were with it.”
Working with a team, he addressed those issues and others – such as the need for a robust endgame experience – adding additional libraries, new games and new experiences. He saw growth as a result of these efforts.
“People were following this like crazy,” he said of one of the games he developed after finding his niche.
He explained the new storylines and improvements are a result of an inner drive.
“I like to constantly keep building things,” he stated. This drive shapes the way he approaches his business, which evolves as players dictate the way the game will go.
“We are constantly trying to find ways to do things with the gaming industry that have not been done before,” Nissen said. “That requires a certain level of either insanity or creativity.”
As a result of his journey, he has gained a clear understanding of what it takes to succeed in the gaming industry, which demands his company continue tweaking even games that are working.
“You don’t want to let your vision get in the way of your players’ fun,” Nissen said. “It’s the most painful lesson in the world.”
At the end of his presentation, Nissen announced a one-week free trial for those who want to try his gaming worlds.