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OK Computer
Born in South Korea in November 1973, Otero was the second child of an American GI of Puerto Rican descent from Nebraska and a Korean mother who was working in a tea house at the time. His father John was serving a tour of duty there when he met Mark’s mother, Hui Cha, at a Kung Fu studio. They had four kids together, and two of them—Mark and his big brother David—had only one thing on their minds in the months leading up to Christmas, when Mark was 11.

“They wanted a Commodore 64,” says his father. “I was dead set against it.”

“We begged our parents for one,” says Mark. The Commodore 64 wasn’t the first gaming system on the market,
but unlike its predecessors’ focus on arcade-style games like Pac-Man and Asteroids, the Commodore 64 specialized in role-playing games, including one that proved irresistible to a young Mark Otero: Advanced Dungeons & Dragons: Pools of Radiance.

And as much as he loved exploring the imaginary worlds of the old-school version of Dungeons & Dragons, his own world changed on Christmas morning when his parents finally relented.

“It was the best gift ever,” says Mark.

“After we got him that computer, there was no looking back,” says his father John. “He was consumed with computers and computer games.”

A BioWare Sacramento staffer holds a Nerf gun while he works. And so it was with some serendipity that in 1986, when Mark was 12 years old, John Otero was transferred to the Sacramento Army Depot.

It was a path that would lead Mark to what was then known as West Campus Hiram Johnson High School, and it was a school that offered an ROP program, or a Regional Occupational Program, which trains high school students in practical skills that they can use in the workforce. One of the available courses: computer programming.

Unlike most kids who are content to come home after school and play games, Mark knew early on that he wanted to actually make them. And now he had his chance to dip a virtual toe in the water. So in his junior and senior years, he learned basic programming in the hopes of one day working for a video game company.

As he got older, he also steadily up-graded his game systems, progressing from the Commodore 64 to Sega and Xbox. But unlike most avid video game players, he didn’t stop playing D&D. Even as the graphics and technology for video games rapidly improved, the appeal of creating stories and relying on imagination and strategy maintained its hold on him.

And it continued well into college, first at Sacramento City College and then at Sacramento State where he chose computer science as his major. By now, however, his ambitions had expanded. He recalls a time when he was 18 or 19 and was shopping at a local mecca for comic book lovers at the time called Comic Box in South Sacramento. The owner of the store was a comic book artist named Paul Martin. One day, Martin, who would later join KlickNation as an art director after years as an artist with Marvel Comics, asked the teenage Otero what he wanted to do with his life. His answer: “By the time I’m 35, I’m going to have a video game company.”

 

From Middle-earth to
Middle Management

Before he would graduate from college, though, one more seemingly fateful event occurred—a new video game was released that was largely based on D&D rules, one that far surpassed the quality of anything Otero had seen before. The game was called Baldur’s Gate and was made by a small video game company out of Alberta, Can-ada. The company was called BioWare. 

Baldur’s Gate was the one game that was able to adapt the D&D paper and pencil and dice game into a real video game,” he explains. “As a Dungeon Master, I was an interactive storyteller, so when I played Baldur’s Gate, which is an interactive storytelling game, I knew my days as a human Dungeon Master were coming to an end. The writing was on the wall.”

But when Otero graduated in 1999, it was the Internet, not video games, that was exploding. So, like many others, he “followed the money” and began developing Web applications at two local start-ups, one in Rancho Cordova, the other in
El Dorado Hills, at a breakneck pace for several years until the bubble burst in 2001. “I had squandered a couple of years making Web applications instead of learning the art of making games,” says Otero.

Still paying off college loans, he needed a job that paid well, but also one that would give him the management and leadership training he knew he’d need for his eventual video game company. So in 2001, he joined Franklin Templeton Investments in Sacramento as an analyst and worked his way up to middle management within three years. He was making six figures by his late 20s. But he wasn’t happy and knew he needed to get back on track if he was ever going to start his video game company by 35, as he so boldly declared as a teenage boy.

So he decided to take advantage of the company’s program to help fund an MBA degree, and in 2004, while still working at Franklin full-time, he began a three-year program taking night classes at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management with an emphasis in marketing.

What he needed, he realized, was a vehicle that would give him enough of those two elements—money and time—to get him started. And in the end, he settled on the squishiest of foundations upon which to build his video game empire—yogurt.

 

“I picked a field I knew nothing about,” explains Otero. “And I ended up loving marketing because it’s about storytelling, and I realized that all of my Dungeon Master skills came into play.”

Andrew Hargadon, who teaches the school’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship course, recalls that Otero “was curious and challenging and really trying to understand the tools of the trade.” Hargadon says his class tries to get away from the notion that success comes from geniuses who have great ideas. “The real genius is actually in recognizing which pieces to pull together and having the commitment and skill to pull them together.”

At this point, Otero had the commitment, and he had steadily acquired skills in the same way that D&D characters acquire weapons and magical powers to help them survive their journey. But he was missing two key variables—money and time. And so, nearing graduation, Otero quit his job at Templeton in the fall of 2006, cashed out his 401(k) and sold all of his stocks. It was time to get serious. He had about $75,000 total, but he knew that wouldn’t get him very far in a tech start-up.

What he needed, he realized, was a vehicle that would give him enough of those two elements—money and time—to get him started. And in the end, he settled on the squishiest of foundations upon which to build his video game empire—yogurt.