Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hypothetical SWOT Analysis For DeNA Roll-up of Glu Mobile, Hands-On & Digital Chocolate

As I've been blabbing about for months, the established publishers in the mid-tier of mobile games are languishing under the new smartphone app store paradigm, as the two biggest players (EA & Gameloft) have consolidated power, and nimble newcomers (Firemint, Lima Sky, Chillingo) have seized marketshare. The competitive advantages these guys once enjoyed (carrier sales teams, the ability to port to a thousand devices, licensing relationships), have become expensive burdens, and most lack the resources to make wholesale changes to their businesses. In light of this, I've often wondered if it would be feasible for a company, with some vision and cash, to roll-up a few of these guys in the interest of unseating the top players and creating a true smartphone games powerhouse. For fun, let's imagine a scenario wherein Japanese social mobile gaming powerhouse DeNA, with its $530mil in revenues, almost $400mil in cash & ambitions to put a stake in the ground outside Japan, considered buying Glu Mobile, Digital Chocolate and Hands-On Mobile (for like $100mil, right?). What would a SWOT analysis for this "Newco" look like?

Strengths (Internal)
  • Combined annual revenue of ~$125mil puts Newco within striking distance of Gameloft
  • 98 Paid iPhone Apps featuring quality franchise titles like Deer Hunter, Glyder, World Poker Tour, Kitten Cannon, Brick Breaker & Tower Bloxx
  • Interesting leadership potential... The icon: Trip Hawkins & the upstart: Niccolo de Masi
  • All global HQs are in Northern California
  • Studios in Finland, China & US
  • Global distribution capability
  • Healthy balance of original & licensed IP
Weaknesses (Internal)
  • Cash... DeNA would have to fix that
  • Re-branding would be required, none of these brands is perceived as a winner or has meaningful consumer cache... plus there's no combination that doesn't sound X-rated
  • With over 500 employees... there would need to be some downsizing/consolidation
  • $20+million in debt
  • Reconciling investors & boards won't be a job for the faint of heart
  • Scale sometimes leads to inertia
Opportunities (External)
  • Unify all games with OpenFeint's social gaming/app discovery platform (in which DeNA has a 20% stake)
  • Build in-app purchases into as many titles as possible to maximize longterm revenue potential
  • Historic carrier relationships might become valuable again as Verizon, AT&T, et al take a larger role in managing Android Market
  • Take all components of Newco private, clean 'em up and then spin it back out as an IPO when market conditions improve
  • Take cue from Zynga in terms of marketing on social, new & traditional media
Threats (External)
  • Platform consolidation and platform dependency (when Apple changes the rules, it hurts)
  • Continued price erosion
  • Competition with other forms of gaming & entertainment for consumer discretionary dollars
  • New, well financed, market entrants
I'm sure Newco would appreciate your unpaid consulting, in form of comments. I'll add to and adjust this over the next few days based on your input and my own random inspiration (brain farts).

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Verizon Top 10 New Titles For 2010... So far

Well it's E3 time again, and while mobile games publishers & industry pundits continue to perseverate about the iPhone, Verizon Wireless took the opportunity to remind the world that they keep on keepin' on. Apparently their deck still has over 350 games, and lest you believe it's still all about Tetris, Bejeweled & PacMan (which it kinda is) they issued a release highlighting their Top 10 NEW titles for the 1st half of 2010. Shout out to 2 of my favorite small publishers, GOSUB 60 & Sonic Boom for making the list... I hope this is translating into decent downloads/revenue. Hey, while most publishers manically pile their games on top the 10s of thousands of others in the App Store or into the difficult to monetize anarchy that's Android Market, I think it's a legit, smart and potentially lucrative counter programming strategy for some to focus on the carrier decks... where the addressable user bases are still substantial, billing mechanisms work, stores are uncluttered/edited, price points are high and recurring subscriptions endure.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Less Rush, More Rollercoaster for Digital Chocolate

Wow, what a difference a day makes...

Yesterday MobileGamesBlog reported that Trip Hawkins' mobile (and now social network) games publishing company Digital Chocolate had "secured several millions of dollars" in financing from Bridge Capital Holding and had upped their longtime studio chief Ilkka Paananen to President of the company (UPDATE: apparently Trip had announced this promotion back in February on his OMG Blog). The story indicated that this was an equity investment on top of the $43.8mil the company had received previously... which to my mind represented a meaningful market driven endorsement of the viability of the company and its prospects for growth. Big industry news for several reasons: 1) funding has hardly been flowing into the mobile games space; 2) insider buzz (driven in part by the company's recent, atypical, quietness in the press) is that Digital Chocolate has been struggling, like many of their mid-tier peers; 3) folks like and respect Paananen (founder of games studio Sumea in 1999, acquired by D'Choc in 2004) and his elevation seemed like a super-smart move to bolster management ranks and provide counter-balance to the venerable, but notoriously mavericky Hawkins as the company prepared for growth. All good stuff. After reading the story, I asked in a tweet (as I am wont to do),"at what valuation... anybody know?" and sent Paananen a congratulatory IM... to which he didn't respond.

Well the picture painted this morning in Mobile Entertainment's coverage of the story, and MobileGamesBlog's followup, may explain why I didn't hear back. Apparently the funding is actually a "multi-million dollar revolving line of credit" to be used for "general corporate purposes"... which sounds a lot more like a cash lifeline than an endorsement. To make matters worse, it now turns out that Paananen will not be taking a larger roll going forward, but instead will be leaving the company. I don't think either pieces of news, or how the messaging was managed, bodes particularly well for the company... and I suspect industry buzz may turn even more negative.

Of course this situation begs the question, what is the path forward for Digital Chocolate and the other key players in the struggling mid-tier of mobile gaming... specifically Glu Mobile, Hands-On & I-Play? I must say I'm pretty skeptical about them all piling into Facebook gaming... which is the popular strategy du jour. I have an idea that I'll share in an upcoming post.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Is Insurrection The Future of Mobile Gaming?

Mark Cuban just sent an enthusiastic tweet about Paranoid Games' location based iPhone title Insurrection, that's releasing on the App Store July 4th (check out the backstory video). I have to agree this looks pretty interesting, particularly in light of rapid smartphone consumer adoption of services like Foursquare and Gowalla... which are inherently much less fun.

However, this is hardly an original idea. 10 years ago a Swedish company called It's Alive! created and deployed a location based game called BotFighters in several European countries, that used WAP & SMS. As has been typical in this space, the It's Alive! guys were way, way ahead of their time and their company, which eventually (ironically?) merged into another called Daydream, was soon gone but not entirely forgotten.

I think Paranoid Games has the timing right, so now it comes down to execution and marketing. I wish them luck.