Waterloo friends quit PhDs at MIT to make online strategy game

Will Ma and Elyot Grant quit their PhDs at MIT in order to build Prismata, an online strategy game.
Will Ma dropped out of his PhD at MIT to work on an online strategy game called Prismata. (Andrea Bellemare/CBC)

On mobile? Click here to view the Prismata trailer. 

Will Ma knows a lot about probability. He's a high-level poker player who has won over $685,000 in live poker tournaments and taught a poker studies math class at MIT.

Now, he's betting there's an audience for an online strategy game - and he's so confident that he and co-founder Elyot Grant both dropped out of their PhD programs at MIT in 2013 to develop the game full-time, joining third co-founder Alex Wice in making Lunarch Studios. The company is based in Waterloo, Ont. and  is entirely devoted to one online game called Prismata. 

Prismata is an online turn-based strategy game that's like a combination of chess and card games like Magic: The Gathering. Two players compete against each other, and the winner is the player who destroys all of the other's players units. 

"Our philosophy wasn’t really to make ten games and hope one of them will make us money. It’s more, we really like this specific idea for this specific game," said Ma, who was working on operations research at MIT, an applied math degree that involves analyzing and optimizing business systems like inventory management. 

Currently Prismata is in beta testing mode, but Ma, Grant and Wice have launched a Kickstarter campaign to help them further develop the game.

They have raised over $120,000 so far, with the goal of hitting $140,000 by Saturday evening. The money will go towards improving the game's user interface graphics and character art, improving game sounds and music, programming, server costs and a marketing intern. 

Players don't have to pay to win

Ma says that Prismata is different from most other online video and strategy games because players don't have the option to buy their way to a win. 

"A lot of games call themselves free to play, but they basically try to psychologically trick you into buying a lot of stuff because they designed their games in such a way that basically you get frustrated from a loss and so you pay money to make it so that type of loss doesn’t happen again," said Ma. "They basically monetize your frustration."

Instead, Ma wants to monetize the game by encouraging players to purchase add-ons like skins that change the appearance of the game, or 'emotes' that are similar to emoticons or stickers, though those add-ons don't help the player win. 

"Since our game is a very competitive game, it has this chess-like aspect, we don’t want to compromise the integrity of the competition by having any sort of paying-to-win mechanics. So our monetization is entirely based on cosmetics," said Ma. "You start on the same ground, you have the same chances of winning as the other guy, regardless of how much you pay."

Ma says that once they've finished the Kickstarter, they hope to have Prismata fully available by the end of 2015. 

“Obviously the dream is eventually to, if our first game really takes off, to make other games,” said Ma.

If the attention Prismata got from Reddit users is any indication, the game is headed for success. 

Earlier this fall, Grant accidentally lost a list of email addresses gathered from a fan convention in Toronto and lamented the time and money that were wasted as a result.

He posted his story to the "Today, I F*****D Up' subreddit, and Reddit users responded by signing up for the Prismata email list, so many that they more than made up for the emails lost. Grant also wrote that Google had contacted him to help retrieve the data he had lost through Google Docs.