In 2011, Charles Forman looked like he was living his childhood dream. Instead of going to college, he had built a growing videogame company–called OMGPOP–that had raised over $15 million in venture capital. But the years of hard work hadn’t yielded a blockbuster hit, and Forman had become more detached from the actual game-making he enjoyed.
“I remember at that time I was like soliciting opinions on how to–how to be happier in life,” Forman recalls. He was short on sleep, high on stress and had acquired a constant ringing in his ears. “I was just burned out,” he says.
Forman left the company and by the next spring says he had just $1,700 in his bank account. That’s when Forman says he got a call from OMGPOP’s then CEO, Dan Porter. “Dan calls me up and he’s like: ‘Charles, you’re gonna be so rich that you could f**ing wallpaper your new three-bedroom apartment with iPads. iPad 3s!'”
Porter, now the head of digital at William Morris Endeavor, doesn’t dispute this characterization. “It is possible that I was trying to get him excited,” he says. “He didn’t know all of this kind of craziness that was going on behind the scenes.”
The source of the craziness was a new OMGPOP game called Draw Something–a kind of smartphone Pictionary. It had topped the iTunes charts for six weeks straight and made OMGPOP a target for acquisition. Even though Forman no longer worked there, as a founder, he still had a significant ownership stake, and stood to turn a significant profit from any such sale.
San Francisco-based Zynga ultimately bought the company for $180 million, a sum that surprised those in the business press that didn’t cover the mobile gaming space.
“180 million for OMGPOP!?” Jim Cramer asked on his CNBC show. “Make some sense of that for me!”
Overnight, Forman became a multimillionaire. In his telling, he was himself caught by surprise. “It sounds so stupid, but at the time I’m like: ‘Do I have to buy a car now?'” Forman laughs. “Like, seriously, ‘Do I have to fly business class? Is that a thing people do?'”
But Forman didn’t buy a Rolls Royce–he doesn’t drive–or even move out of his apartment, a fifth floor walk-up in downtown Manhattan. As of summer, 2014, his home feels like a tech start-up version of a college dorm room: the walls are bare, and on the floor there’s a broken TV and stacks of plastic boxes with DIY electronics inside.
An atypical pad for a millionaire, perhaps, but not atypical for Forman.
“He’s like crazy artist programmer guy,” says Dan Albritton, the other founder of the company that became OMGPOP, and before that Forman’s Internet friend and roommate.
Albritton says Forman has two qualities that good product designers have. “They have a really good sense of what other people like,” says Albritton, “And then they also have a complete disregard for what other people like and what they think is awesome.” Albritton says that tension helps makes interesting products, but also that Forman’s millions could change the equation. “If you remove the need to earn a paycheck, then you remove a little bit of ‘what do other people like’ requirement, and the ‘what do I think is awesome’ part can take over.”
These days, what Forman thinks is awesome is making a movie. He wrote a screenplay, which from his description sounds like equal parts coming-of-age adventure and dystopian science fiction. “What is the origin story of like the Steve Jobs of robotics look like,” says Forman. “That’s kind of the theme.”
But instead of simply trying to sell the screenplay, he spent day and night programming software to turn it into a storyboard.
He demonstrates the working version using a tablet computer, sketching a face and shading it in and linking the image to a text script. His pitch is that by making it easier to create sharable, cartoon versions of screenplays, the screenwriting process could be made more collaborative and iterative—more like making a videogame. This, he believes, will yield better movies.
“I’d imagine anyone from the outside looking would be like: ‘That’s cute. But you don’t know how this really works,'” he admits.
“That’s probably right,” he says, laughing. “That’s probably right.”
For Forman, this is what millions of dollars buy: Not fancy cars or world travel or retirement, but a few years of making software for an industry he’s just starting to understand.
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