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Michael writes on emerging markets, architecture and engineering. He has served as a correspondent in Tokyo, London and Johannesburg and has written for Reuters, the Financial Times, The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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Rob Murray: Racing to a new future

Published 27 March 2013 10:28, Updated 16 April 2013 13:23

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Rob Murray: Racing to a new future

One-time game developer Rob Murrays says he’d like to look at more focussed investments down the track. Photo: Josh Robenstone

Just before his 39th birthday last year, Rob Murray had a bucket-list experience. He stood on the same stage as Apple chief executive Tim Cook at the global launch of the iPhone 5, showing off Real Racing 3, the mobile game he had developed.

For the games fan who as a teenager was thrilled to read in a magazine that you could earn a living making computer games, that day in September was a never-to-be-repeated moment.

“It was a fantastic experience,” he says. “I texted my wife: ‘Al Gore was watching me. He laughed at my joke’.”

If it marked a highlight for Murray, it also marked the end of his defining career. Within three months, the man who sold his Melbourne-based games studio Firemint to Nasdaq-listed games developer Electronic Arts in 2011 – propelling him into BRW’s Young Rich list – had resigned from Electronic Arts and the business he founded.

The decision to quit was not instantaneous, but one that was spurred by the imminent birth of his first child, a daughter, in December.

“I was debating it for a while as the due date approached,” he says. “It was that that tipped the balance.”

He’s now preparing for his own rebirth. He hasn’t cut ties with the games world – he remains interested in playing a mentor role – but is looking for something new. Partly as a reaction to having spent decades creating digital products – such as mobile game Flight Control, which took people into virtual worlds – Murray, who last year last year ranked 85th on the Young Rich list with an estimated fortune of $22 million, is looking to grasp the “physical” world this time.

“I want to find a company I can get involved in that’s doing something bigger,” he says. “Some sort of consumer-facing product is where I think I can bring some value.”

He isn’t clear what that will be, but cites an interest in three-dimensional printing, robotics and artificial intelligence. These industries are still at embryonic stages and will make great strides, he thinks. “There’s a real revolution going to happen down the track,” he says.

“Games was great, but I’d love to see some huge industry in the tech space in Australia. Why can’t we have an Apple or a few more of those great companies? Something really big with an international scale that impacts on consumers’ lives.”

If Murray has a hunch, it’s worth paying attention. He’s spotted the future before. He started developing games for mobile devices long before smartphones existed.

Now he wants to become an angel investor. That is his first step. “That’s a different way to get involved in business,” he says. “If I can be involved, not in a full-time role, in a number of businesses, I think I’d enjoy that.”

Back before smartphones, console-based gaming dominated and the majority of Australian games developers were providing outsourced development services to games publishers, working on so-called catalogue fillers – smaller games which generated revenue between the larger IP brands the publishers sold.

In a sense, the decision was easy – mobile gaming was a lot cheaper to develop than console games. Console games were large, intricate games, with detailed graphics and artwork intended to keep people playing for hours, while mobile games were little more than bus-stop time fillers.

The onset of the global financial crisis, however, changed things forever for the games publishers and their industry.

“The GFC really made them stop and think about their business models,” says Antony Reed, head of the Game Developers’ Association of Australia. “It was kind of a perfect storm.”

Not only did the publishers focus on their core products and cut down on the number of games they produced – sending many developers to the wall – but they also focused on the cheaper digital distribution opportunities.

Murray, and counterparts such as Tony Lay at rival studio IronMonkey, who had in the meantime built up relationships with the large games publishers and had started to develop mobile content for them, benefited. (Electronic Arts subsequently acquired both Melbourne-based studios and Lay remains with the company as general manager of its local unit Firemonkeys.)

Real Racing, which first appeared in 2009, stood out in the crowded world of racing games. Hence its attraction for a company such as Apple.

Real Racing had a quality of product that would potentially drive people toward the device it appeared on,” Reed says. “It started to highlight what the technology was capable of. Those are big consumer pushes.”

The intervening period has seen a sea change in the games business. Global consumer spending on video games is likely to grow 40 per cent to $76.7 billion in 2016, from $54.7 billion in 2011, according to PwC, with the fast-growing mobile component likely to account for 18 per cent of that total.

But for Murray, who remains a shareholder in EA and attended the Melbourne launch of Real Racing 3 last month – as an observer, not a participant – the great excitement of that industry has passed.

“Going forwards, software is going to be hard work,” he says. “I might be investing in it, but not doing it for myself.”

This is also the time for the new father to look after himself physically.

“It’s about getting fit and healthy – I’ve let that lapse over the past 10 years,” he says.

Murray has a strategy for the way he wants to go about learning about business and filling in the gaps in knowledge (“Stock levels, quality processes – we never had to create units,” he says) that he never had to bother while developing software.

He wants to become an angel investor. That is his first step.

“That’s a different way to get involved in business,” he says. “If I can be involved, not in a full-time role, in a number of businesses, I think I’d enjoy that.”

His goal is not to make money at this stage. Rather, by making small investments – “$10,000 or so” – along with other, more experienced angel investors, he would learn about the business of investing, he says.

“As I become more experienced, I would think about more focused investments down the track,” Murray says. “I’d like to get somewhere by the end of the year. I’d have a few investments by the end of the year. I’m starting already, reaching out to a few people.”

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