CEO David Li and president Bao Lam founded this L.A.-based startup. Both are veterans from Riot Games, PUBG, and other studios.
The design team’s led is Steve “Guinsoo” Feak, whose custom Warcraft III map DotA: All Stars helped define the MOBA genre and inspired smash hits such as League of Legends and Dota 2. They’re working on a new action MOBA called Fangs, which will have strategic real-time gameplay, a diverse roster of characters, and session-based rounds set in an arena. While that sounds like a lot of MOBAs, the company aims to tackle the genre’s biggest frustrations for players.
Hidden Leaf’s studio mission is to create core hero-based player-vs.-player (PvP) games that focus on competitive mastery, core progression, and social play.
Funding the game
Lightspeed Venture Partners, a global tech venture capital firm that has backed companies including Snap, Affirm, Epic Games, and more, led the round. Investors Vermillion Ventures, Logan Margulies (early Riot Games leader), Eden Chen (CEO of Pragma) and Alex Paley (vice president of product at Scopely) joined the round.
Amy Wu, a partner at Lightspeed, said in an interview with GamesBeat that she was impressed that Lam and Li were able to hire leaders like Feak and others in a highly competitive environment for game talent. The team still has numerous open positions.
“We’ve honed in on finding special founders in every category, including gaming, and so at a high level our thesis is around founders who have great pedigrees in gaming,” Wu said. “David and Bao are part of a new generation of free-to-play game makers and they have completely bootstrapped their game. They were able to convince great people to work with them. We really love to see that hustle.”
While Lightspeed hasn’t made many game investments in its history, Wu said she and partner Jeremy Liew have been investigating opportunities in games for the last five months.
“We’ve been a lot more aggressive, and we have made four investments year-to-date,” Wu said. “Hidden Leaf Games is the first early-stage, pre-launch studio that we are announcing.”
Wu said the attraction of games is that it has become the largest entertainment category. It’s also converging with social and the free-to-play business model, resulting in an acceleration of adoption.
“In our perspective, this is just going to continue to drive forward the gaming industry,” she said. “We aren’t delusional about the risks elements. But with the right investment approach, you can mitigate those risks. Money is coming into the industry. I don’t see that changing. We’re still on the rise in gaming. Game developers are able to raise funding from a wide variety of sources.”
A competitive friendship
Li said that he and Lam have been friends for eight years and they’re always competitive, doing things like betting a dollar on who will make a better move in a game. Li bet Lam that he could make diamond rank in League of Legends and he poured hundreds of hours into that task.
Their friends have always followed the big competitive gaming trends, from MOBAs to battle royales, and that kept them connected even if they were physically far apart. Those hundreds of hours spent online competing together on voice chat defined their friendship.
Li said the team built its game on three design principles so far. It is competitive, it has a lot of progression, and it’s social.
“We’re super competitive and like games that test our skills,” Li said. “We married competitive play plus progression.”
Lam did multiple startups in addition to Riot Games. Some of them didn’t work out, but he learned from them.
“I’ve been playing competitive games since I was five,” he said. “Both of my brothers are esports players involved in the esports scene. So we have a very competitive gaming family.”
Li got his start at Riot Games and met Lam there. Li left to join Zynga and also worked on a mobile MOBA, Vainglory, at Super Evil Megacorp. He joined a startup focused on interactive storytelling games, but that company shut down after it lost its publishing partner, NBCUniversal, which dabbled in games and shut down its efforts.
“Bao and I had stayed friends this entire time. We play games every week. And I knew that I was a serial entrepreneur,” Li said.
Then they finally decided to make a game together with a focus on an accessible MOBA.
Making the game
The team is focused on making a PC game first, and then it will extend it to mobile devices as well, with the ultimate goal being a cross-platform game.
They chose 3v3 instead of 5v5 in League of Legends because it makes for a less chaotic game and it’s more accessible, with a chance for shorter game sessions, Lam said. They also wanted to have clear roles for every player as well as maps that weren’t too large, Li said.
“Three was the number that was the best fit for the map size we were going for,” Li said.
Lam and Li saw a game market rich with opportunities to brawl against anonymous opponents, but often the grind of competitive play and myopic focus on the solo competitive experience left their group divided.
With that goal in mind the founding team started building their dream game, spending nights, weekends, and their own resources to get to a playable proof of concept. And that concept and vision got the attention of one of the biggest names in game design, Feak. The founders say Feak has done a great job leading the team and mentoring them.
The team has 32 people, all working remotely across the U.S., United Kingdom, Brazil, Argentina, Slovenia, India, and Spain. Chad Wavell-Jimenez will serve as vice president of marketing and publishing.
“It’s crazy that we haven’t met 28 of our people in person yet,” Lam said.
Li said, “We look for passion, dedication, and talent, rather than industry experience. Because of the pandemic, it’s been double-edged. It was tough meeting people in person. On the other hand, the potential for talking to anyone is higher because everyone is working at home.”
The team has been working for 18 months and Lam said the team is entering its alpha testing now and he wants it to go into beta testing later this year and launch. That’s a pretty fast timetable.
“We’re executing,” Li said. “We’re growing, we’re getting faster and getting better at developing. That’s what Lightspeed liked about us. We’re very scrappy.”
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