'Battle Bears' creator finds inspiration in family journey

Ben Vu worked as an animator on Hollywood films before starting SkyVu in his family's basement in suburban Nebraska.

Story highlights

  • "Battle Bears" creator says family's journey from Vietnam was his inspiration
  • Ben Vu created the quirky mobile game that has been downloaded 24 million times
  • He hopes to expand franchise with soundtracks, animated series
Ben Vu's parents and older brother fled South Vietnam by boat in 1975 -- in the chaotic and violent final days before Saigon fell to communist forces from the north.
The family emigrated to a small town in Nebraska, where Ben was born, but the story of how the family escaped 38 years ago this month became part of the family lore -- real-life bedtime stories of daring and danger young Ben never tired of hearing.
Three decades later, Ben started his own company, SkyVu (pronounced sky-voo) Entertainment, and used these stories as his inspiration for a mobile game called "Battle Bears."
"The Battle Bears is a sci-fi journey from one end of futuristic America to the other end," Vu said. "It kind of parallels the story my family tells of moving from Vietnam to America, that treacherous journey. They've always told me that story throughout childhood. It stuck with me."
Since it launched in 2009, mobile gamers have downloaded "Battle Bears" more than 24 million times. SkyVu has grown from three employees to 35 and counting. Two "Battle Bears" game soundtrack albums sell on iTunes, and the Omaha company is now working on a Web series with Google.
Vu's goal is to create an entertainment empire, starting with the Battle Bears -- cartoon characters compared in the gaming press both to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Angry Birds.
At 37, Vu is an unlikely tech entrepreneur. He grew up in Norfolk, Nebraska, far from the tech and entertainment hubs of Silicon Valley and Hollywood.
Since launching for mobile in 2009, "Battle Bears" has been downloaded more than 24 million times.
His parents, who left a successful coffee-and-tea business behind in Vietnam, worked as janitors, initially. The family lived in a house not far from Johnny Carson's boyhood home.
"Whenever they did 'Johnny Carson comes home,' I remember that TV crew coming to town. It was the biggest thing ever to happen to Norfolk, I think. That was my first encounter with entertainment," Vu said.
One of the benefits of his father's job was paper. His father would come home with reams of paper from the hospital where he worked.
"That was some of my fondest memories because we would set the reams of paper on the table at the beginning of the evening, we would roll it out and my brother and I would draw out war scenes and weapons and vehicles until our hands couldn't draw anymore," Vu said.
Ben's mother eventually became a seamstress and his father earned a college degree in computer science. His older brother, Hoa, joined the Army, rising to the rank of captain before co-founding SkyVu with Ben in 2008.
Ben recalls being a lackluster student, but says he could always draw and tell stories. He received a master's degree in animation at CalArts and worked on the Oscar-nominated animated film "Coraline" before starting SkyVu in the basement of a rented home in suburban Omaha.
"I decided I could spend all my time toiling away in the film industry trying to make my characters realized, or I could start something on my own and aim for a smaller screen," Vu says.
He funded SkyVu out of pocket, with help from friends and family, before pitching his idea to Nebraska Angels, a group of local venture capitalists. He received his first outside investment of just under $500,000 -- a sum that's not huge by dotcom startup standards but one that made a huge difference for SkyVu.
"I get my hard work ethic from my dad and from mom and from my older brother, but I also have a bit of creativity and rebelliousness that helps fuel the company," said Vu.
Ben is SkyVu's CEO. His brother remains on the board of directors, but is not involved in day-to-day activities.
In "Battle Bears," the bears roam the galaxy trying to keep it safe from threats in a manner that's both cute and quirky.
Chief among their foes are Huggables, pink bears that hug the battle bears to death unless the characters shoot their heads off first -- prompting rainbows to spew from their bodies.
"We have very cute bears and they are in very fantastic, wild situations. So they have to 'MacGuyver' their way out with very unique weapons," Vu said. "And that's part of the beauty of the brands. It's the wackiness, combined with just a little bit of violence for dramatic effect."
Walking among the game developers, the space festooned with posters, drawings and 3-D renderings, Vu becomes animated talking about new characters, new weapons and new games in the works.
"This is very much show business, and we have to continue to grow if we're going to become a strong media company," Vu says.