Mobile Games

Netmarble IPO: A Pattern of Greed Will Hurt This Company’s Performance

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Netmarble is the ninth largest mobile app game publisher in the world and the largest in South Korea.

The company is seeking to sell 17 million shares on the Korean KOSPI stock exchange in early May garnering proceeds of between $1.8 Billion and $2.4 Billion USD (all USD figures converted from Korean Won at .00088 USD / Won). Roughly half will be used for new acquisitions and half will be used to retire debt.

This is a big deal IPO by both Korean and USA standards.

It represents the largest IPO in S. Korea in 7 years. It would rank as the one of the largest tech IPO globally in last 2 years.

In January 2017, Netmarble launched a mobile role-playing game called Lineage ll: Revolution based on licensed IP from NCSoft’s legendary PC game Lineage. According to app analytics company App Annie, the game immediately rose to #1 on the S. Korean revenue rank charts.

Netmarble told the Korean press that the game generated $176.6 Million in revenue in the first month. That translates into an annualized revenue run rate [ARR] of $2+ Billion.

Obviously, that run rate is not sustainable. But, even if the game managed to produce $1+ Billion in revenue during 2017, it would place Netmarble in the rarefied company of Niantic, Supercell and MZ (formerly Machine Zone) as the only companies that released a $1+ Billion Dollar game in the last 2 years.

The IPO will be watched closely by the mobile game industry given the poor post-IPO performances of King Digital Entertainment in 2014 and Zynga in 2011.

A case could be made that these IPOs were anomalies and not a fair test of how a mobile game stock is capable of performing. Both Zynga and King Digital had enough numbers in their S-1s to suggest that their best days were behind them at the time of their IPOs.

However, there is absolutely no question that Netmarble’s best days are ahead of it. There is no question that its revenues and profits will soar in 2017 if Lineage II manages to sustain an ARR greater than $1+ Billion.

Lineage II is not all that Netmarble has going for it in 2017. In February 2017, the company completed a $700+ Million acquisition of the Vancouver studio of the USA mobile game company Kabam.

If managed properly (questionable as we will argue below), Netmarble could generate a fresh $100 to $300 Million in revenue from two Kabam game. One is Marvel: Contest of Champions which has been a long running Top 15 revenue rank game in the USA. The other is the recently released game Transformers: Forged to Fight based on IP licensed from Hasbro.

No question, 2017 will be a spectacular year for Netmarble. The Korea Times has reported that analysts there expect Netmarble’s forward 2017 revenue to be around $ 2.7 Billion, a whopping 107% YoY increase. This is a far cry from Zynga’s and King’s anemic post-IPO YoY revenue growth rates of 12% and 20%, respectively.

The question is has all of this been priced into Netmarble’s IPO price and valuation?

Our analysis will show that expectations for revenue doubling in 2017 has been fully priced into the IPO. Netmarble’s IPO is priced for perfection.

Furthermore, there is a pattern of greed on the part of Netmarble’s management that has not served it well. It includes:

While Netmarble’s short term prospects are tied to the performance of Lineage II in Korea, its long term prospects are tied to success in the West.

The company has announced that it intends to localize and release the Lineage game in China but those prospects are uncertain, even with Tencent (TCEHY) as a significant minority stockholder.

The uncertainty is result of China’s recent freeze on licensing new games from Korean companies due to geopolitical tensions between the two countries.

In our opinion, Netmarble’s greedy handling of the Kabam games causes us to believe that Netmarble’s current and future acquisitions will underperform due to employee and player defections.

We start with a summary of the IPO — the expected price range, and the expected post-IPO valuation based on those prices.

The next spreadsheet is our valuation of Netmarble as a multiple of 2017 forward sales. We have been unable to find any official company forward looking revenue statement. If there is one in the Korean version of their S-1, we have found no reference to it by the Korean financial press.

Lacking official numbers, we use $2.7 Billion for Netmarble 2017 forward sales, a number reported by The Korea Times that analysts there expect.

Any lesser number would only increase our estimated price / forward sales ratio (P/S), which is already high. Any greater number would be incredulous as Newzoo has reported that TOTAL Korean game revenue (mobile + console + PC) was only $4 Billion in 2016.

Moreover, given the $4 Billion Newzoo figure, it seem incredulous that there would be enough demand in Korea to sustain any single mobile game at an $1+ Billion ARR.

The next spreadsheet is a comparison of the valuation / forward sales (P/S) ratios of Netmarble — 3.3 — with Com2uS — 2.61.

Com2uS is a Korean-based mobile game company listed on the Korean KOSPI exchange. Gamevil, a smaller publicly-held Korean game company, holds controlling interest in Com2uS.

Com2uS is much better known in the USA than Netmarble due to its global hit mobile game Summoners War. The game was released in the USA in June 2014 and has maintained a remarkably consistent Top 20 revenue rank in the USA for the last two years.

Based on this comparison, we believe that Netmarble’s IPO is overpriced by 26% at its announced price range of $106 to $138 USD or 121,000 to 157,000 Korean Won.

We believe that it would be a buy only around $84 USD or 95,250 Won.

You might argue that Netmarble’s upside potential is higher than Com2uS. That is true. But, we are not talking about financials, but stock prices whose movement is based on perceived and actualized performance that has not already been built into the current prices.

Netmarble is a buy at the announced IPO range if you believe that it will exceed an expected 107% in revenue growth this year. We think not.

Netmarble is a buy if you think it can successfully localize and release the Lineage II game in China in late 2017 or 2018. We say wait a half year before you invest to get a better feel for geopolitics between S. Korea and China.

Finally, Netmarble may be a buy if you believe that the newly released Transformer: Forged to Fight game will become a Top 8-10 hit like its cousin Marvel: Contest of Champions. We think not.

Our four years of reading App Annie charts suggests that there are no more “late bloomers” in the mobile game world. If a newly released game does not crack the top 50 in the first few days, it will never crack the Top 10.

Our reading of the App Annie chart says that the Transformers game is a bust.

(Source: App Annie)

While the Transformer game began development under Kabam, the final architecture and release schedule came under Netmarble’s watch. Both reflect a greediness that we believe has resulted in its quick bust.

The game was rushed into global release on April 5th after a relatively short two month soft-launch shakedown in Singapore and Canada.

Experienced early players of the game report that it is “too complex to play” and there is “kitchen sink” approach to development with a mashup of game genres and a mind-numbing complexity to scorekeeping and purchasing. To us, this suggests that the priorities are early monetization over long term player engagement.

In sum, Netmarble in not a buy at the announced IPO price range. Wait at least six month and evaluate its performance then.

A Unicorn Startup’s Kiss of Death: Kabam Field

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

The year 2016 will be remembered as a year when titillating stories came out about Unicorn excesses — Dropbox’s Chrome Panda sculpture, Hampton Creek’s covert buy-backs of Just Mayo inventory, and Zenefits’ sex in the stairwell.

This is a story about Kabam, another fallen Unicorn, and its excesses. More than just descriptive, we analyze its history to locate the source of its downfall in the emergence of a “talk the talk” culture championed by hired professional managers who focused Kabam on short-term revenue goals and a quick IPO.

We even pinpoint a moment in time when Kabam’s fortunes first turned for the worse — a late December 2013 acquisition of the naming rights to the University of California at Berkeley (Cal or UCB) football field for $18 Million paid over 15 years.

In a March 2014 article, we first predicted that this conceit would be viewed in hindsight as Kabam’s “kiss of death” — a sign foreshadowing bad things about to happen. Sure enough, two and a half years later, the once high flying Kabam now is in the process of being dismantled and sold off.

Kabam’s most valuable asset, its Vancouver studio, has just been sold to the Korean gaming company Netmarble for a reported $800 Million. After this deal closes in 1Q17, the company has announced that the rest of the company’s remaining studios will be offered for sale as acqui-hires. Nothing has been said about the future of Kabam’s three co-founders, but their days as Unicorn executives are over.

Also, nothing has been said yet as to the disposition of the naming rights for the football field. While the future name of Cal’s football field might have low priority for those in charge of disposing of Kabam’s assets, its has enormous social-psychological value to the tens of thousands of people who care passionately about the Cal and its football team.

Where Did Kabam Go Wrong?

Kabam was founded in 2006 by Cal alumni Kevin Chou, Michael Li, and Holly Liu. The company had early success developing mobile “freemium” games based on movie IP licensed from major studios.

But, beginning in 2013. Kabam stopped making visionary choices. In our opinion, this was due to the emergence of a the “talk the talk” culture beginning with the hiring of Steve Swasey from Netflix to be head of Corporate Communications.

In January 2016, Swasey was hired away from Kabam by Lending Club CEO Renaud Laplanche, only to leave several months later after Laplanche was forced out by Lending Club’s Board when they discovered the CEO’s involvement in loan doctoring.

Our interest in Kabam began in 2013 when we discovered the app store analytics company App Annie. We saw a rich set of quantifiable financial data and developed a methodology for translating app store revenue ranking data into global annualized revenue dollars.

Based on comparable valuations for publicly-held companies as a multiple of their revenue, we were able to derive solid valuations for mobile game startups like Kabam and Machine Zone (now rebranded as MZ).

We were also able to make prescient buy recommendations in 2014 for two Japanese publicly-held pure play mobile game companies KLAB and Mixi.

While our focus has been on financial analysis of mobile game companies, in 2014, we starting writing about the differences between MZ and Kabam’s approach to publicity. Not only were the differences between the two extreme, but extreme for Unicorn startups in general.

MZ rarely talks to the press. Between 2013 and today, CEO Gabe Leydon has given two interviews a year and official MZ press releases happen about twice a year. There is no MZ employee chatter to be found on the internet other than anonymous comments on Glassdoor. This is shocking for a tech Unicorn, more extreme than the secretive Palantir, whose core competency is secrecy.

Kabam is the complete opposite of MZ when it comes to publicity. Forget about the number of times the tech press has interviewed CEO Kevin Chou or COO Kent Wakeford. Forget about the progressive “moussing” of CEO Chou’s hair that we have noted in photos and videos over the past five years.

What shocked us was the discovery that Kabam had a practice of issuing press releases every January between 2012 and 2015 giving specific numbers for revenue, headcount and cash in the bank: 2012 (for 2011), 2013 (for 2012), 2014 (for 2013), 2015 (for 2014).

This has allowed us to graph the rise and fall of Kabam’s revenue and headcount — a publicly available graphic that is rare for a tech startup.

The idea for this practice can directly be traced to Kabam’s former SVP of Corporate Communication Steve Swasey. Swasey was also key in pushing the naming rights deal with Cal.

In 2013, CEO Kevin Chou began talking to the press about timetables for an IPO. In early April of 2014, he announced publicly that revenue was forecasted to grow 80% or more and be in the range of $550 — $650 Million.

This public announcement of revenue projections — exceedingly rare for a Unicorn startup — solidified our view of Kabam as an extreme example of a “talk the talk” culture among Unicorn startups.

To achieve its announced short term revenue goals, Kabam started timing new releases to coincide with the releases of mega-hit movie sequels like Fast and Furious and the Hunger Games. The games had no long-term engagement value and “freemium” revenue plummeted within a few months after release. The result was a disastrous string of five failures and one success.

What Should Become of Kabam Field?

The height of Kabam’s “talk the talk” culture occurred in December 2013 when Kabam announced that it bought the naming rights to the Cal’s football field for $18 Million paid over 15 years. One can understand the desire of Kabam’s co-founders, all three Cal grads, to give back to their alma mater.

But, tech founders should wait years after their IPO to consider funding the construction of new university buildings named after them. For example, buildings names on the the Bay Area campus of Stanford and Berkeley include no less than Gates, Allen, Moore, Varian, Hewlett, Packard, and Wozniak.

Now that Kabam is in the process of being dismantled and sold off, the question is what should become of the naming rights to the Cal’s football field?

As we said in the introduction, the name of a university football field has high social-psychological value to the tens of thousands of people who care passionately about Cal and its football team.

The need for the Cal’s administration to address the field renaming issue could not have come at a worse time as they have just fired their football coach Sonny Dykes and Bloomberg has just written an article on university athletics finances naming Cal as the most debt-ridden program in the country. This is largely due to a $400 Million seismic retrofit of the football stadium after the discovery of a fault line running through it.

To begin cleansing Cal football of its recent bout of bad karma, one solution would be for Kabam and its Cal alumni co-founders to pay off the amount due the University from proceeds of the sale of other Kabam assets. The co-founders could also stipulate that the field renaming be crowd-sourced to University alumni and students.

But, one problem with this suggestion is that there is no obvious Cal sports hero or accomplished coach to rename the field after. Marshawn Lynch Field, Pappy Waldorf Field, Joe Kapp Field. All good, but none as obvious as Bryant-Denny Stadium at the University of Alabama or Amos Alonzo Stagg Field at the University of Chicago.

The other problem is that the naming rights to a Division I football field is an appreciating asset. For example, in September, 2015 the University of Washington received a whopping $4.1 Million per year over 10 year for “Alaska Airlines Field” at Husky Stadium. This is over three times Cal’s 2013 deal of $1.2 Million per year over 15 years for “Kabam Field” at California Memorial.

Given that the naming rights are far more valuable today than in 2013, and given the debt-ridden state of Cal’s athletic program, the University would surely prefer a solution involving a cancellation of the Kabam contract and the tendering of fresh bids from corporations.

The University can be expected to derail quietly any populist solution like a crowdsourcing of a new name. No, the University would much prefer Chase Field or PowerBar Field at $4 Million a year than any other solution.

Kabam: An $800 Million Bid That Is Both Lifeline and Death Knell

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Kabam (Private:KABAM) is a mobile game startup based in San Francisco that had early success at developing games based on movie IP licensed from major studios like Disney’s Marvel studio, Warner Bros., and Lionsgate.

Beginning in 2014, Kabam started timing new releases to coincide with the releases of mega-hit movie sequels like Fast and Furious and the Hunger Games. The games had no long-term engagement value and “freemium” revenue plummeted within a few months after release. The result was a disastrous string of five failures and one success.

The one success was Marvel: Contest of Champions, a massively multiplayer online (MMO) game developed by Kabam’s Vancouver studio. It is the only game currently producing significant revenue and has a reportedly generated revenue totaling $471 Million since its late 2014 release. In July 2016, we wrote an article for SA saying that ” Kabam would be dead today” had it not been for the Marvel game.

On October 18, 2016, Venturebeat reported that Kabam received an unsolicited offer of $800 Million for its Vancouver studio. A day later the Wall Street Journal reported that Kabam has received multiple bids between $700 Million and $800 Million from Asian and U.S. gaming and media companies.

The bids are an opportunity that Kabam’s Board of Directors cannot refuse and represents both a lifeline and death knell.

The $800 Million bid implies a special value for the Vancouver studio of 100+ developers because our estimated (see derivation below) value of the whole company is at $775 Million, which, in turn, is below the previous $1 Billion valuation attributed to it by Alibaba in August 2014 when it invested $120 Million in the company.

We would be comfortable with the argument, presented in more detail below, that this “cherry-picked” bid implies minimal value for the company’s founders and C-suite executives based in San Francisco and Beijing. We would be comfortable with the argument that the work-in-progress and underlying game platforms coming out of Kabam’s other studios in San Francisco and Beijing, but not Los Angeles, also have minimal value.

In terms of return on investment, we will argue below that the proceeds from $800 Million should be paid out to stockholders rather than reinvested in either the Beijing or San Francisco studios.

In the rest of the paper, we will provide detailed answers to the following questions:

(1) What is current valuation of Kabam as a whole?

(2) Why might it be hard for Kabam to peel off the Vancouver studio?

(3) Who the likely bidder?

(4) What is likely to happen to the rest of the company?

What Is The Current Valuation of Kabam as a Whole?

Compared to other tech companies, valuation and revenue forecasting of mobile game companies is an order of magnitude easier due to the fact that analysts have access to monthly download and revenue rank data provided by such app analytics companies as App Annie. It is equivalent to the 1970s era of pure play movie studios where analysts had access to weekend box office data published by Variety.

We have developed a methodology for valuing and revenue forecasting of pure play mobile game companies based on three pieces of data (1) IOS Apple USA app store game revenue rank published by App Annie; (2) an estimate of a power function relation between annualized global revenue run rate (NYSE:ARR) and IOS Apple USA revenue rank; and (3) “market-derived” valuations of pure play mobile game companies as a multiple their ARR.

We have used this methodology to publish a number of articles on SA:

Kabam: A Mobile Game Unicorn No More?, July 2016

Kabam’s IPO Plans are Kaput, January 2015

Machine Zone: IPO or What?, July 2014

Zynga Is A Dog Without A Top 10 Mobile Hit, June 2014

Klab: An Undervalued Japanese Mobile Gaming Stock, June 2014

Mixi: A Rare Undervalued Mobile Gaming Stock, May 2014

We start with a screenshot of the revenue rank trend for Kabam’s Marvel game since its release in late 2014.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It shows 12 month run between mid-2015 and mid-2016 as a steady #5 to #10 revenue rank game. Based on an average #8 ranking, we estimate that this translates into a $350 Million ARR.

However, the graph reveals some slippage since mid-2016, possibly because of the Pokemon phenomenon. Because of the power function relation between revenue rank and revenue, a single digit slip to an average #9 ranking translates into a $250 Million ARR, which we use for our current valuation below.

This recent slippage is the kind of insight available to financial analysts of the mobile game industry that is unmatched elsewhere in the tech business world. Can you imagine having access to similar trend lines for Uber, Airbnb, Palantir, or Pinterest?

In terms of what multiple of ARR to use for valuing Kabam, we offer the latest “market driven” multiple for a pure play mobile game company. This is the June 2016 Tencent acquisition of Softbank’s 84.3% ownership of Supercell for $8.6 Billion. This put the full 100% valuation of Supercell at $10.2 Billion.

Even though Supercell is a private company based in Finland, it is required by law to report annual revenue to the government. In 2015, Supercell reported revenue of $2.326 Billion based largely on its hit games of Clash of Clans, Hay Day and Boom Beach. Now with the addition of #6 Clash Royale, we estimate that Supercell’s current ARR at $2.9 Billion, implying a valuation of 3.3 times ARR.

However, Supercell is a very profitable company with multiple hit games and an employee headcount reportedly less than 200. Kabam is currently a one hit game company with a current total ARR of around $310 Million and current employee headcount of around 689. Supercell’s ARR/employee is $14.5 Million, which is 32 times that of Kabam’s $.45 Million ARR/employee.

Since the mid-2016 slippage in the Marvel game ARR, we believe that Kabam is no longer profitable on a EBITDA basis and now is very likely running cash flow negative. With the IPO window closed, and tellingly, no new VC investments in two years, a $800 Million bid for the Vancouver studio is a lifeline that its Board cannot refuse.

There is no way you can value Kabam at Supercell’s 3.3 times ARR. We believe our often used 2.5 times ARR is appropriate here. We estimate Kabam’s current valuation at $775 Million, just below the reported top bid of $800 Million for the Vancouver studio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why might it be hard for Kabam to peel off the Vancouver studio?

The Vancouver studio started out as Exploding Barrel Games, which Kabam acquired in early 2013. The terms were not disclosed. The studio had 35 developers at the time and it was this core group that developed the gameplay engine for the Marvel game.

The CTO of Exploding Barrel Games was Jeff Howell. He is still with Kabam and has gone on to become Kabam’s first CTO. According to aKabam press release of his appointment in Nov 2, 2015, ” he also will continue to lead the development and implementation of Kabam’s proprietary technology engine “Fuse & Sparx.” (cute…Fuse & Sparx…then Kabam!!) Kabam also has announced that the Vancouver game engine would be deployed company-wide as the platform of all future MMO game development.

The bid obviously has to include CTO Jeff Howell and the game engine. Kabam has announced a planned 1Q17 release of a MMO game based on Transformer IP licensed from Hasbro. This game is currently in development at its Vancouver studio. The question is who gets the Transformer game? If Kabam retains the rights, how can it continue development at one of its other studios without the help of CTO Howell, the Vancouver team, and a copy of the game engine? These decisions will occupy Kabam’s Board as much as the actual bid amount.

Who the likely bidder?

The Wall Street Journal article mentioned that Kabam has multiple bids from Asian and U.S. gaming and media companies. The obvious guesses are the USA console gaming companies Electronic Arts or Activision Blizzard looking for a $1 Billion MMO mobile game to rival those of Supercell and Machine Zone (Private:MZ). Softbank is an unlikely bidder as it has been raising cash by shedding mobile game assets to make up for the losses of its Sprint acquisition. China’s Tencent would be another guess, although we think that Alibaba would be uncomfortable selling to its arch rival.

We would like to offer another likely bidder that has “one degree of separation” from the Vancouver studio and could seamlessly step in and run the studio. That company is the Tokyo-based gaming company Nexon (OTC:NEXOF) listed on the Tokyo stock exchange (T:3659). Nexon, founded in Korea in 1994, moved to Japan 12 years ago, went public 5 years ago, and is growing 20-25% a year. It currently has 4 of the Top 10 mobile games on the South Korean app store charts.

Nexon’s CEO is Owen Mahoney who has been VP of Corporate Development at Electronic Arts from 2000-2009. Nexon’s estimated 2016 revenue is around $1.7 Billion USD. Mahoney has said that Nexon is focused on expanding its mobile presence in the West. While the $800 Million price tag for the Vancouver studio would be a stretch for Nexon, the acquisition would be good fit.

Here is where the “one degree of separation” comes in. Two co-founders of Exploding Barrel Games — its President Scott Blackwood and General Manager Heather Price — plus the Kabam VP that led the Exploding Barrel Games acquisition — Chris Ko –left Kabam in 2015 to start an independent mobile game studio called The Game Studio. The studio is based where? Vancouver. Their mission is what? AAA mobile game developer. And who has recently signed on to become its global publishing partner? Nexon.

It would make perfect sense, and be almost a fairy-tale ending, if Nexon purchased Kabam’s Vancouver studio and re-united it with its original leadership led by creative director Scott Blackwood.

What is likely to happen to the rest of the company?

Kabam’s website lists eight on its Board of Directors with the majority of five being VC partners of investing firms. The VCs are in control here so founder and C-Suite job security would not be the dominant factor in this decision. Given the dearth of tech IPOs generally in the past two years, there is pressure on the Kabam’s Board to accept a bid, regardless of the difficulties it might present for the future success of the remaining company.

As we said earlier, the bid price is the least of Kabam’s Board worries. We discussed earlier the thorny issue of how to peel off the Vancouver studio and its game engine without crippling development in the rest of the company going forward.

A more thorny issue is what to do with the $800 Million cash, assuming it is cash and not stock. The basic decision comes down to return on investment with the choices being stock repurchase versus reinvestment in the remaining three studios.

Crunchbase has reported that Kabam has received a total of $244.5 Million from investors — $120M from Alibaba, and the remaining $144.5 Million from venture capitalists. Given the hunger for realized returns by VCs these day, we believe Kabam’s Board has to return a minimum of 2X to investors or $489 Million sooner than later.

In our opinion, we don’t see much remaining at Kabam that merits an investment, (details below) assuming the Vancouver game engine and the rights to the Transformer game goes with the winning bid. A minimum 2X payout still leaves $311 Million, which is way too much to reinvest in the company. We could see the company keeping only $150 Million, and paying out another $150 Million.

The company has announced only one other game in development — a MMO game based on Avatar IP licensed from James Cameron, the film maker who gave us Avatar, Titanic, Alien, and Terminator. The game is being developed by Kabam’s LA studio. It is scheduled to be release in conjunction with the release of Avatar 2 movie. It is not clear what game engine is behind this development.

On the one hand, investing in any creative project based on James Cameron IP seems like a winner. But, Cameron is known for being very fickle. The release date for Avatar 2 has been in a constant state of flux and has been pushed back another year to December 2017.

Also, it is hard for us to conceive Avatar as a MMO battle game like the hit games from Supercell or MZ. Avatar seem better suited as MMO role playing game, which does well in Asia, but not so well in the West.

Also, who’s to say that Cameron might change his mind and want a VR game instead of a MMO mobile game? Still, saving the LA studio of 80+ developers and reserving plenty of cash for the Avatar game seems like a good investment.

We have no clue what Kabam’s Beijing studio of 200+ is doing these days. The spectacular failure to localize the Marvel game for the Chinese market puts it at the top of our list for closure. This includes exits for two of Kabam’s co-founders — long time studio head Michael Li andHolly Liu who moved to Beijing in 2015 to help manage the studio.

The Chinese Marvel game did hit #1 on the Apple iOS China download charts — for one day. And Kabam cajoled Dean Takahashi of Venturebeat into writing an article with this headline: “How Kabam Self-Published Its Marvel Mobile Game in China — and Hit #1”

But, the game never caught on and has been on a steady downtrend with a current revenue rank around #250 on Apple’s iOS China app store.(see chart below).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The failure of Kabam to localize the Marvel game has reduced the likelihood that its leading investor Alibaba, or any other potential Chinese investor, to pour more money into the company.

Finally, what should Kabam’s Board do with its San Francisco HQ run by CEO and co-founder Kevin Chou and its studio numbering 279+ developers and support personnel?

The studio itself is responsible for three of the recent failed releases. Plus, we have argued that the cause of Kabam’s failure to release games with long-term engagement value has been a short-sighted, “talk the talk” culture coming out of its San Francisco HQ.

CEO Chou has admitted as much now saying that the company is focused on “bigger, bolder, fewer” game releases. But, in our opinion, he still doesn’t understand what it takes to create long-term player engagement. He thinks it is through mobile games with AAA console graphics including 3D. In our opinion, it is through “metagame” starting with a real-time, crowd-sourced chat translator similar to what MZ (formerly Machine Zone) developed three years ago.

For these reason, we could see the $800 Million bid as the death knell of Kabam’s San Francisco operations with a massive layoff numbering 250+ coupled with golden-parachute exits by CEO Kevin Chou and COO Kent Wakeford. Kabam could then downsize its HQ and relocate it in LA with the company headed by President of Studios and Chief Creative officer Mike Verdu.

Kabam: What Causes A Unicorn To Stop Skating To Where The Puck Is Going

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

The growth in the numbers of technology startups valued over $1 Billion, so-called unicorns, has abruptly stopped and even reversed.

In the last several months, a number of unicorns have seen their valuations marked down by mutual funds. This has been accompanied by a number of titillating articles about frivolous spending — Dropbox’s Chrome Panda sculpture — and debauchery — Zenefits’ sex in the stairwells — claimed to be endemic to high flying unicorns.

Unlike stories of fallen unicorns, this article is about a company that “officially” is still on all unicorn lists. It is about the mobile game company Kabam, elevated to unicorn status by its last funding round in August 2014 of $120 Million by the Chinese platform company Alibaba.

Kabam had early success at developing games based on movie IP licensed from major studios like Disney’s Marvel studio, Warner Bros., and Lionsgate.

Beginning in 2014, Kabam started timing new releases to coincide with the releases of mega-hit movie sequels like Fast and Furious and the Hunger Games. The results have been a disastrous string of five failures and one success.

Kabam Timeline of Hits and Misses

Kabam Timeline of Hits and Misses

What caused this unicorn to stumble?

There is an inspiring YouTube video of a Keynote address given by Kabam co-founder Holly Liu at a Women 2.0 Conference in 2014.

She talks about key moments in the early history of Kabam when the founders decided to “Go Big” in her words. By this, she meant building products based on a vision of where a market was going rather where the market was at. Today, we use a hockey metaphor of “skating to where the puck is going” not “skating to where it is”

Kabam’s Downfall: “Skating to Where the Puck Is” after 2013

Specifically, for the Kabam founders it was deciding in 2007 to port their games to Facebook via its newly created API in a year when the dominant access to games was through the PC browser.

Then again, at the height of game company success on Facebook in 2010, Kabam founders were anticipating Facebook’s closure of its game API and made the visionary decision to develop only for the mobile phone.

Silicon Valley VCs have a bias toward supporting founders opinions over professional managers when startups periodically face existential choices.

This is because founders have vision (“skate to where the puck is going”) and want to build long-lasting companies. They have a Facebook “move fast and break things” mindset that is risky, but can result in outsized payouts in the end.

Whereas professional managers prefer risk-averse choices (“skate to where the puck is” ) that look to be the fastest path to cashing out via a buyout or an IPO.

Kabam stopped making visionary choices in 2013. What had happened was the emergence of a “talk the talk” culture championed by hired professional managers that favored strategies geared toward short-term revenue goals followed by an IPO.

In 2013, Kabam’s revenue grew 100% that year, fueled in part by the explosion of mobile phone purchases. Kabam had 3 hit games with greater than $100 Million in annualized revenue.

CEO Kevin Chou talked to the press about timetables for an IPO. He even announced publicly early April of 2014 that revenue was forecasted to grow 80+% or more and be in the range of $550 — $650 Million.

The safe bet to achieving these short term goals was to release as many games with $100 M in annualized revenue as possible. And that is what Kabam did, with disastrous results.

Visionary game founders in 2013 would have seen that only a company with multiple chart-topping $1 Billion games could ever have a chance at an IPO.

They would have known that another mobile game company Machine Zone (now MZ) was doing the visionary thing by building a ultra-low latency many-to-many game platform based on Erlang and investing in dedicated servers with field programmable gate arrays.

Visionary founders at Kabam would have stopped doing more of the same, and would have started building a new platform. They would have shut off all talk of IPO, stopped giving the press explicit financial numbers and revenue forecasts, and told investors that revenue would plummet in 2014.

In our opinion, the source of Kabam short-sighted culture was non-engineering managers brought in run Kabam’s operations. COO Kent Wakeford, a lawyer and former AOL executive, has been the face of Kabam to the press in matters of deals. To his credit, he consistently deflected any questions dealing with IPO specifics.

The real source of Kabam’s culture of “talk the talk” was former SVP of Corporate Communications Steve Swasey. The idea for making annual explicit financial disclosures can directly be traced Swasey.

The height of Kabam’s arrogance occurred in December 2013 when Kabam announced that it bought the naming rights for the Cal-Berkeley’s football field for $18 Million paid over 15 years. This idea had to be initiated by Steve Swasey. But, to be fair, this symbol of arriveste had to be approved by Kabam’s Board of Directors and founders.

One can understand the desire of Kabam’s co-founders — all three UC-Berkeley grads — to give back to their alma mater. But, founders should wait years after their IPO to give cash for University buildings. For example, buildings on the the Bay Area campus of Stanford and Berkeley include no less than Gates, Allen, Moore, Varian, Hewlett, Packard, and Wozniak.

In our opinion, we do not think Kabam can recover. It is running out of cash. The IPO window is permanently closed to mobile game companies after the Zynga and King Digital IPO debacles. Kabam’s only hope for more funds is Alibaba, its prime investor to date.

The naming of the football field at UC-Berkeley in December 2013 looks to be Kabam’s symbolic “Kiss of Death.”

Former SVP of Corporate Communications Steve Swasey at Cal Football Field Naming

It’s In the Metagame: A Monetization Opportunity for Twitter

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

broadcasts during a quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Basketball Tournament between the Colorado Buffaloes and the Oregon Ducks at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on March 12, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Color Commentator Bill Walton (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

“A Twitter feed of a college basketball game is like being in a room with 20 stoned Bill Waltons”

“A Twitter feed of an NFL game has become shoutcasting without the noise.”

In July 2016, Twitter announced a pair of deals with the National Football League and the National Hockey League to live stream a select number of games side-by-side with the Twitter feed of the game.  

In term of business model, Bloomberg said that “the company will share revenue on ads that are sold alongside the content.”

However, Patently Apple was less enthusiastic, saying that  ”Twitter recently beat out Facebook for live NFL streaming by conceding most of the TV ad revenue to the NFL in contrast to Facebook demanding total control over advertising.”

These deals are moves in the right direction for Twitter.  Twitter at its best is a platform for real-time shared commentary of live TV events, especially sporting events, games if you will.

Real-time game commentary on Twitter is outside the game itself.  The general term for this is “metagame” (after the Greek prefix meta- for  “after” or “beyond.”

A college basketball game can be boring. But, it is never boring if Bill Walton is the color commentator.  Bill Walton is metagame.

Insightful analysts of the now mature mobile game industry see the metagame as more engaging, and monetizing, than the games themselves.

For example, it is chat room strategizing among alliances ahead of battles (called “progressions” ) that is more engaging for players than the battles themselves.  

It is watching and listening to esport live-streams of games on Twitch, with commentary by “shoutcasters”,  that is far more interesting than playing the games themselves.   

Jon Jordan, co-founder of pocketgamer.biz has written the most insightful stuff on the rising importance of metagame in the monetary success of mobile games.

Gabe Leydon, co-founder of MZ, credits the success of its top ranking games to metagame, especially an internal real-time, crowd-sourced chat translator build using the messaging language Erlang.

Here is a quote from a re/code video interview (5:14 – 5:48) with Gabe Leydon,

…”We really care about player-to-player interactions. From a content perspective, I don’t believe that I’m creative enough to come up with something that everyone will love.  So, I create scenarios that people will play with each other.  So, whatever they do with each other is far more interesting than what I could come up with.

“ We we have is a highly structured chat room.”

So Twitter gets that metagame has become as exciting and engaging as the games themselves.  And that Twitter is in a better position than its arch rival Facebook to provide a REAL-TIME metagame platform.

But, in our opinion, what’s missing is the business model. It’s recent deals with the NFL and NHL suggest that it will get a very minor share of the native ads.

We have another idea: position itself to offer real-time, peer-to-peer sports betting — like overseas companies Betfair and BET365’s “Live Play.”

These are known as peer-to-peer betting exchanges with a real-time many-to-many messaging system as the platform. The business model is strictly fee-for-service.  Both buy bets (bet to win) and lay bets (bet to lose) are allowed.

Betting exchanges are different from Las Vegas style bookmaking operations based on a traditional many-to-one client server platform.  The business model is profit and you can only bet to win.

Interesting enough, the real-time messaging platform underlying MZ’s mobile games and chat translator is similar to the real-time, peer-to-peer betting exchange platform of Bet365, as both are based on  Erlang,  the programming language optimized for many-to-many “high fan-out” messaging.

Also, Twitter has a history with problems in scaling over the years with platforms based first on Ruby on Rails then moving to Scala.  Maybe now is the time to look at what MZ and Bet365 has.

Twitter gets the metagame trend.  Monetizing a metagame platform by linking it with peer-to-peer gambling would be amazing.