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Game maker puts Hollywood pro’s 3-D skills to work

LiquidBits’ Toppal Act 1: Hungry Bird is based on Jenga, a popular block-stacking game.

Liquidbits

LiquidBits’ Toppal Act 1: Hungry Bird is based on Jenga, a popular block-stacking game.

Seven years after leaving Hollywood and a decorated film career for life as a boot-strapping Cambridge tech entrepreneur, Haggai Goldfarb is on the verge of releasing his first product.

Not surprisingly, it’s an app-based mobile game. What sets this app apart from others in the crowded market of mobile software is Goldfarb’s imprint: 3-D animation honed from years of creating major works for the big screen, including the Academy Award-winning “Kung-Fu Panda.”

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The inaugural outing from Goldfarb’s start-up, LiquidBits Inc., is a puzzle game called Toppal Act 1: Hungry Bird; it is based on Jenga, the popular block-stacking game. It involves moving rectangular blocks to feed animated worms to a hungry bird and help the bird reach its nest before time runs out.

In working on the smaller screen, Goldfarb designed the game environments and characters to make them appear multidimensional without viewers having to don those dorky special glasses required in movie theaters.

This style of animation is more common on games played on video consoles but is starting to appear on smartphones and tablets as the graphics processing power in those devices improves.

Unlike in many two-dimensional games, the characters in Toppal have a multitude of expressions and movements similar to those in the films he helped create at Disney and DreamWorks. The idea is to add some movie magic to smartphone games.

“If we could bring that to the small screen, we’d have something good,” said Goldfarb, who is working from an office in the Cambridge Innovation Center, a shared work space for tech start-ups in Kendall Square.

The first game has been submitted to the Apple iTunes Store for approval and should be available for free on the iPhone­ and iPad in the coming days. Availability on other mobile devices, such as Android phones, should follow soon ­after.

Goldfarb started out with the idea of making a digital version of Jenga. He even presented the idea to the creator of the game, Leslie Scott.

Eventually, however, another video game company won the rights to the Jenga name. So he took the Jenga idea and built an new game using it as a foundation.

“You cannot take a real-life building block game and Xerox it for the digital world,” he said. “You have to take it to the next level.”

While Toppal is free, users will be able to buy extra features within the game to enhance the level of play, as is common in other mobile games.

The company could also generate revenue by selling advertising.

Goldfarb didn’t leave Hollywood intending to make games in Cambridge. He came in 2005 as part of the mid-career fellows program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management.

“I always wanted to start a business, but didn’t know how,” he said.

After the program, he raised about $1 million and used much of his savings to start ­LiquidBits, which initially focused on creating a new interface for users to interact with computers through movement. When that proved too costly, he moved to video games, bringing a filmmaker’s approach to a medium that runs on Internet time. He spent more than three years working with a team of designers and artists, including his wife, Aki, who worked as an art director and designer in Hollywood, to construct an elaborate animated world for Toppal Act 1 and several other upcoming games.

But the video game industry is risky, with even well-financed companies struggling in recent months. Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios in Providence collapsed earlier this year, and more recently the online game maker Zynga Inc. shuttered its Cambridge office.

One of the big challenges confronting LiquidBits is whether the high-quality graphics alone will be enough to distinguish its games from the hundreds of thousands of offerings available in Apple’s app marketplace.

The game did well when an early prototype was released on the App Store last year, briefly earning a number one ranking in some categories. But with the fast-growing mobile game market approaching $10 billion, scores of other companies are racing to develop apps they hope will capture viewers’ imaginations.

“The question is whether people will react better to better graphics,” said Ofer Gneezy, who is on the board of LiquidBits.

Gneezy speaks from experience. After selling a telecommunications company, Gneezy tried his hand at the video game business, only to see his first game fizzle when it failed to gain enough players fast enough.

To make it in mobile games, he said, “you need to have a bestseller.”

Michael B. Farrell
can be reached at
michael.farrell@globe.com
.
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