Tag Archive MZ

Netmarble IPO: How Greed Destroyed Its Kabam Acquisition

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

Netmarble is the ninth largest mobile app game publisher in the world and the largest in South Korea. In a month, the company is set to raise $2.3 Billion via an IPO on the KOSPI Korean stock exchange. If successful, the company will be valued at $11.7 Billion and catapult it to the level of Supercell and MZ (formerly Machine Zone) as one of the top 3 most highly valued mobile game companies in the world.

Our analysis of this IPO, indicated that expectations for revenue doubling in 2017 has been fully priced into the IPO price of 157,000 Korean Won  / share or  $138 USD / share (based on conversion of .00088 USD / Won).  We recommended staying away from the IPO, and look for an entry point 36% lower, or around $86 / share USD.  

While doing research on Netmarble, we began to see that the aggressive pricing of its IPO was not the only instance of what we considered to be a pattern of greed as defined by making choices favoring short term gain at the expense of long term gain.

For one, Netmarble had a history of overworking its Korean workers.  So much so that employees pulling “all nighters” before every game patch started calling its highrise HQ in Seoul  “the lighthouse”.   As Netmarble’s IPO date grew nearer and investor scrutiny intensified, the company changed its work hours policies, saying it would ban “all nighters” and weekend work.

The purpose of this paper is to explore in detail another instance of Netmarble greed:  how it has managed a recent $710 Million acquisition of the Vancouver studio of the fallen USA mobile game unicorn Kabam.

Netmarble has repeatedly stated that its long term growth strategy hinges on growth outside S. Korea.  This includes localizing its Korean hit game Lineage II: Revolution for the Chinese market. It also includes acquisitions of studios in the West with games generating $100+ Million in annualized revenue (ARR)  like Kabam’s Marvel: Contest of Champions (MCOC).

Our interest in Netmarble stems from a long running interest in Kabam.  We have followed the the ups and (mostly) downs of Kabam for the last three years, focusing mostly on valuations based on App Annie app store revenue rank trends. Below is a list of our articles chronicling the fall of Kabam and its causes.  They are available on our blog GloMo Investing:

On October 18, 2016, VentureBeat reported that an unidentified company had made an $800 million offer for Kabam’s Vancouver studio.  That studio had been responsible for the only game keeping Kabam alive at the time:  Marvel: Contest of Champions (MCOC).  

The Vancouver studio also was valued for the game engine behind MCOC and for the hit potential of another game in final development based on Transformer IP licensed from Hasbro. At the time, MCOC was a #9 revenue ranked game with our estimated global annualized revenue run rate (ARR) of $250 Million. We noted at the time that the bid seemed right for a studio + hit game + game engine as long as the two-year running MCOC could sustain a $250 Million ARR.

On December 19, 2016, it was announced that Netmarble was the successful bidder. The bid was later officially pegged at $710 Million based on Netmarble’s IPO filings in late March 2017.

Throughout 2016,  Netmarble talked about an IPO.  It played up its plans to use  the proceeds from the IPO  to buy USA-based companies knowing that the mobile game market in the USA was four times that of S. Korea.  It was especially important for Netmarble to demonstrate its acquisition prowess before its IPO, given that it had narrowly lost a bid for the social casino game company Playtika in June 2016.

What follows is a closer look at the way Netmarble has managed two major software releases since it closed the deal for the Vancouver studio just two months ago. It is evidence of a kind a greed that favors short term monetization over long term player engagement.

The first instance of a disastrous release — the now infamous MCOC Patch 12.0 — was released on March 1, 2017 just one week after Netmarble closed the acquisition on February 23, 2017.  The other was the design and release schedule of Transformers: Forged to Fight (Transformers).  

Even though development of both started before Netmarble took over, the final releases were made on their watch. Netmarble could have stopped these releases, mandated more player friendly designs that would sustain engagement even if that meant less revenue in the short run.  But they did not.

Using the AppAnnie iOS USA app store revenue rank trend line below, we will show the context and likely rationale for MCOC Patch 12.0.  

MCOC was first released 2 ½ years earlier in December 2014.  Five month later in May 2015 the game cracked the Top 10 revenue rank (first red line).

It remained a consistent Top 8-10 revenue rank for a solid year until July 2016 (second red line) when it started a slow fade down to a Top 10-15 for the second half of 2016.  Patch 12.0 went live on March 1st (third redline).  

Player criticism was instantaneous lead by a YouTube video entitled “Patch 12.0 is Terrible” by MCOC Youtube channel celebrity Seatin Man of Legends. It quickly spread.    On March 6th, the MCOC development team issued an official apology, said it heard the criticisms, and would issue a fix shortly. Note that on the day of the apology (fourth redline), MCOC broke below #20 first time in two years.

You might think that a slight fade from a consistent Top 8-10 revenue rank game to a Top 10-15 game is insignificant. But,  in the mobile game world, there is a strong power function relation between revenue dollars and revenue rank.  

At this high end of the mobile game power function a single digit swing in revenue rank translates into a $20 Million to $40 Million swing in ARR. Using our long-standing metric of 2.5 times ARR for valuing mobile game companies or studios + game engines, a one digit swing in rank translates into a $50 Million to $100 Million swing in valuation.

Below is our reconstruction of global annualized revenue of top ranking games currently on the iOS Apple app store charts as a function of rank. The iOS USA numbers are from Think Gaming,  which we believe are algorithmically derived and smoothed out rather than actual tallies.  Over the years, we have used this simple rule of thumb:

The global mobile game market can be divided into three equal segments: iOS USA,  Android USA,  and Rest of World.  Thus, global ARR = 3 * iOS USA.

 

Notice that the average ARR of Top 8-10 game is $242 Million whereas the average ARR of a Top 10-15 game is $156 Million, about $100 Million less in revenue and $250 Million less in value based on our 2.5 valuation multiple.

Obviously Kabam was acutely aware of MCOC’s fade and its implications for the value of the Vancouver studio. Also, Netmarble must of been aware when it turned its eye to Kabam after its June 2016 failed bid for Playtika.

Given the extent of the changes involved in Patch 12.0, the development team must have began work about two months after the start of the fade, say around August 2016. As Kabam and Netmarble were closing in on a deal, Kabam must have discussed Patch 12.0 with Netmarble including design choices based a trade-off between increases in average revenue per paying user (ARPPU) and the likelihood of player defection.

 Kabam may even have been savvy enough to prepare several versions of Patch 12.0 with different expected ARPPU  knowing that it would be Netmarble who would make the final decision once the deal closed. Normally, before a major update to a long running game, it is customary for a development team to do two things:

  1. invite key players to test the beta version and solicit feedback;
  2. present a detailed rationale for each change on official forums on the day of the release.

Netmarble did neither.  On March 1st, the final version of Patch 12.0 was released.

There was an immediate shock and outrage by hard core players as evidenced by their vents on YouTube, Facebook, Reddit, various game blogs, and official Kabam hosted forums. Among long running hard core games, the level and breadth of MCOC player outrage was unpresented.

 When we googled “player revolt” plus game name, we could find evidence only of one revolt by players of  MZ’s Game of War: Fire Age.   There have been no noticeable online revolts by players of Supercell’s hit games — Clash of Clans or Clash Royale — nor of players of MZ’s other hit game Mobile Strike.

Based on our reading of these criticisms, we believe that final version of Patch 12.0 was focused to the extreme on increasing ARPPU without giving much weight to player outrage and defection.

First, beyond the questions of objective, there was a major screw-up of core gameplay mechanics that made block and parry unplayable.  

Then, there was what we call widespread “devaluations” of player assets  designed to increase ARPPU.

 It included diminishing the fighting power (“nerfing”) of the most popular characters, or Champions, and providing incentives to buy unpopular Champions by increasing their power (“buffing”).  

Another devaluation occurred by making battle losses more costly in terms of power loss, thereby increasing regeneration costs. Finally, there was fundamental change in the scoring system with no rationale given.  But it appeared to the most experienced players that this change was designed to increase ARPPU.  

Player outrage and talk of organized revolt ended abruptly on March 6th when the company officially apologized and promised rollbacks which did occur with Patch 12.0.1 on March 10th.

In the end, Patch 12.0 and subsequent roll-back likely did nothing to reverse the fade of MCOC.  But it caused irreversible loss in trust by long term players.  Players can never again be sure that accumulated investments made in MCOC won’t be subject to another Patch 12.0 type devaluation. MCOC will never again be a consistent Top 8-10 game.  

Netmarble will likely hold off from making ANY major changes in the next six months to MCOC, leading to player ennui and defection to more engaging games.

Now on the the other instance where Netmarble’s greed led to decisions which caused a new game release by the Vancouver studio to be a bust. Kabam’s Vancouver studio was especially valuable to any acquirer because it had a proprietary  “game engine” called “Fuse & Sparx” thought to be capable of churning out a series of re-skinned MCOC hits.

First up was a game with MCOC-like game mechanics based on Transformers IP licensed from Hasbro called Transformers: Forged to Fight. (Transformers) Below is the countdown to the global launch of the game:

Notice that there was only a two month soft-launch before global release.  Based on App Annie charts, the game struggled in soft-launch and never cracked the Top #100 with any consistency.  

Normally,  a company would add a couple more months of tweaking before making a decision to launch officially or can the game.   Given Netmarble’s May 2017 IPO date, we think that they rushed released a deeply flawed Transformer game causing it irreparable damage as the early word was that it was buggy, slow to load, and freezes.

Even if the game’s bugs could be cleaned up, early players of the game reported 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 were early monetization over long term player engagement. Below is the revenue rank trend of the game:

 

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. The Transformer game is a major bust for Netmarble.

But worse, it raises doubts about the hit making ability of  Vancouver’s game engine “Fuse and Sparx.”  Could the success of MCOC be due more to the original team that developed it, long since gone,  and not its game engine nor the current team?

The bust of the Transformer game and the fiasco of MCOC Patch 12.0 raises serious doubts about Netmarble’s ability to manage future acquisitions in the West.  

Will Netmarble’s greed once again force newly acquired companies in the USA to release their own Patch 12.0?   

Will Netmarble’s greed force acquired companies in the USA to junk up games similar to what happened with Transformers: Forged to Fight?

Netmarble’s IPO will give the company  $2.4 Billion to make acquisitions of USA-based companies with current Top 20 hits.  This would include the privately-held companies Pocket Gems, Product Madness, and Jam City, a company already with a $100 Million Netmarble investment.

It would also include the publicly-held company Glu Mobile and the Com2uS, a company listed on the Korean exchange, but with most of its revenue coming from its global hit Summoners War.  

Unless Netmarble can change its focus to long term player engagement over short term monetization boosts, we think that they will destroy future acquisitions just like they destroyed Kabam’s Vancouver studio in two short months.

Netmarble IPO: A Pattern of Greed Hurts 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.

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.

 

Machine Zone (MZ): A $10 Billion Dollar Unicorn in the Making

Lawrence Abrams No Comments

congestion

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Our suggested “moonshot” for MZ: ending urban traffic congestion via a real-time pricing platform + “connected car”)

(Our suggested new tagline for MZ: “put a price on it.”  Shoutout to Portlandia for its “put a bird on it” tagline for a hand-crafted gift store capturing its big picture strategy)

In a year when valuations of so-called Unicorns — startups valued at $1+ Billion — are being marked down by investors, we will present the case that Machine Zone, recently rebranded as MZ, is a $10 Billion Unicorn in the making.

This is audacious claim. A January 2016 Unicorn list compiled by Fortune Magazine assigned a $3 Billion valuation to Machine Zone based on a WSJ report in June 2014 of a funding round of $250 Million led by JPMorgan Chase. There was second hand confirmation of this in Pitchbook.

Machine Zone was not even listed on any Unicorn list a year ago simply because such lists required that valuations be based on reported equity financing with implied valuations of $1+ Billion. Machine Zone’s last reported funding round listed in Crunchbase was a Series B done a full four years ago when Machine Zone was just beginning.

We found Machine Zone’s absence from 2014 Unicorn lists both perverse and ironic. It was perverse in that Machine Zone didn’t need financing so it was excluded from successful startup lists. It was ironic because, unlike most other Unicorns, Machine Zone’s revenue levels and revenue trends are observable daily via app store data reported by analytics companies such as App Annie or Thinkgaming.

On July 15, 2015, Bloomberg reported that the company was in discussions with investors for an additional $200 Million in funding at an implied valuation of $6 Billion. Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat also reported rumours of this new funding round. But, he reported that Machine Zone was seeking $500 Million at an unstated valuation — not the Bloomberg figures. Takahashi’s source also said that “the pitch has met with skepticism.”

Machine Zone has refused to comment on any venture capital interest or funding. As we blogged at the time, compared to most startups who would relish disclosing funding rounds that would confer Unicorn status, Machine Zone “walks the walk, not talks the talk”.

The Evolution of Machine Zone’s Identity

Until this year, Machine Zone’s CEO Gabe Leydon averaged about two interviews a year and never talked about revenue, valuation or IPO plans. He never talked about the state of the mobile game industry. In fact, he rarely talked about Machine Zone’s two hit successes Game of War: Fire Age or Mobile Strike.

Instead, he used rare interviews to advance the theme that Machine Zone was a technology company with software platforms whose applicability and marketability extended beyond games.

In a 2013 interview, Leydon said that Machine Zone had developed a “game engine” that could be “re-skinned” to create other genres of games with the same underlying play and communications innovations. This comment was designed to counter the perception that Machine Zone was a one-hit wonder deserving less of a valuation than mobile game rival Kabam with multiple Top 10 hits at the time.

In 2016, Machine Zone has done just what Leydon predicted in 2013. It had “re-skinned” their top revenue rank Game of War: Fire Age to release another Top 5 revenue rank game Mobile Strike, published by their downtown Palo Alto studio Epic War LLC. What is remarkable to us is that there does not seem to be much cannibalization going on between the two games.

In 2014, Leydon talked about Machine Zone’s real time, crowd-sourced chat translation engine. We wrote several papers speculating that this chat translator would be a valuable addition to Slack as it would open doors to large multi-national corporations.

In a March 2015 interview with Bloomberg’s Robert Kolker, Leydon identified what he thought was the “Wow” factor of its hit game Game of War: Fire Age — the low latency of the game play.

“…Game of War accommodates about 3 million users in simultaneous play, with what the company clocked as a 0.2-second response time…. This is the largest real-time concurrent interactive application ever built. There’s nothing even close to it.”

He also hinted at the marketability of this technology outside of gaming.

Shortly after than interview, we wrote a paper speculating that Machine Zone’s game engine must be a NewSQL database. This was based on job requirements posted on its website and a Michael Stonebraker YouTube video in which Stonebraker said that database requirements for today’s massively mobile multi-user online (MMO) games are the same as modern, cloud-based online transaction processing (OLTP) databases required by banks, airline reservations, order entry systems, real-time ad auctions.

It turns out that Machine Zone’s MMO game “purpose” shaved years of the development of a modern OLTP database compared to development path taken by Google and Facebook. The original “purpose built” databases of the likes of Facebook, Google, and Yahoo were designed to be massively scalable and globally distributed. They did not have to handle transactions.

Database design involves tradeoffs. As the online world’s need for monetization increased, especially real-time ad auction exchanges, a reversal in trade-offs has occurred. In 2012, Google made the often quoted declaration that if it had to choose between a NoSQL and a “NewSQL” database to handle OLTP, it would choose the latter:

“We believe it is better to have application programmers deal with performance problems due to overuse of transactions as bottlenecks arise, rather than always coding around the lack of transactions”

So, Google has morphed its “NoSQL” BigTable into Spanner, a “NewSQL”, which it now uses for its mission-critical sell-side ad platform.

An additional signal of Machine Zone’’s intent on being a fundamental technology company was a report in Las Vegas Sun that the data center builder Switch would be expanding its Southern Nevada facility to house an additional 4,000 servers paid for and managed by Machine Zone . This announcement came in the very month in which Zynga announced that it would begin selling off its own dedicated data centers and return to Amazon AWS as a cost savings move.

On February 18, 2016, Machine Zone and CEO Leydon had a “coming out party”. He broke out of his pattern of infrequent print interviews to give a full blown 39 minute video interview at the important Code/Media 2016 Conference.

In our opinion, it was here that Leydon first demonstrated his charm and ease at speaking as he mixed in fond memories of 90s skateboard videos with big picture views of the state of ad-tech. The interview was convincing evidence to us that Leydon was capable of leading an IPO and being the spokesperson for a publicly-held company.

Within the first minute of the interview, Leydon articulated a more focused view of Machine Zone as “real time” technology company. However, because the audience were media and ad-tech people, Leydon did not mention its database technology at all.

Instead Leydon startled the crowd with sharp criticism of 3rd party buy-side ad-tech platforms and the state of ad-tech in general. He casually revealed that Machine Zone had developed it own ad-buy platform specifically tailored to the acquisition and retention of freemium game players aka “whale targeting and retention”.

This platform was an alternative to relying on outside platforms like Chartboost and Tapjoy, used by Machine Zone’s rival Supercell and other top mobile game companies. According to Crunchbase, Tapjoy has received a total of $2.47 Billion in VC funding over the years.

Once again, by building its own buy-side ad-tech platform, Machine Zone has set itself apart from other mobile app Unicorns. Supercell, its chief rival in the mobile game industry, uses Amazon AWS for infrastructure and Tapjoy for ad-tech. Supercell does not have any internal chat function for players to communicate.

On April 4, 2016, Machine Zone issued a press release stating that it had changed its name from Machine Zone to MZ to underscore its new identity as a “real time” technology company. It also announced that it would begin licensing its real time transactional database, branded as RTplatform™. Leyton suggested in a follow-up conversation with Venturebeat that RTplatform ™ had wide-spread applicability ”from financial service companies to connected car companies to government institutions”

Valuing MZ’s Mobile Game Business

What follows is an estimate of MZ’s current valuation based solely on its mobile game business. There are three pieces of data required: (1) App Annie revenue ranks for MZ’s games; (2) an estimate of a power function relation between annualized revenue run rate (ARR) and app store revenue rank; and (3) “market-derived” valuations of pure play mobile game companies as a multiple their ARR.

For example, Activision Blizzard recently bought King Digital for 3.08 times ARR. Using that as a comparable and an estimate of MZ’s mobile game ARR of $2.0 Billion, we would arrive at a valuation for MZ of 3.08 * $2.0 Billion = $6 Billion.

We have used this methodology to value MZ over the past 2 years: Machine Zone: The $4 Billion Unicorn that Walks the Walk ; Machine Zone and the Perversity of Unicorn Lists and Machine Zone: IPO or What? (for Seeking Alpha).

We used the same methodology in articles to value other publicly-held mobile game companies — King Digital, Zynga and GLU Mobile — and the start-up Kabam. Finally, we have used the methodology to make prescient buy recommendations for two undervalued Japanese mobile game companies — Mixi and KLAB.

Below are two “market-derived” valuations of pure play mobile game companies as a multiple of ARR. The first is a valuation of 3.08 * ARR that Activision Blizzard paid to acquire publicly-held King Digital in late 2015. Using King’s ARR, as reported in 10-Qs to the SEC as a checksum, we present below an estimate of the distribution of King’s ARR by individual game revenue and associated revenue rank as reported by App Appie.

 

king-valuation

 

The second is a market-derived valuation for Finland-based Supercell. While the company is not listed on a stock exchange, it is required by Finnish law to report financials once a year. In 2015, Supercell reported revenue of $2.326 Billion. We coupled that with a reported $5.5 Billion valuation that Softbank placed on Supercell when it bought an additional 22 percent stake in Supercell (bringing its ownership to 73 percent) in mid-2015.

As with the King valuation, we use Supercell’s reported 2015 revenue as a checksum when estimating the distribution of Supercell’s ARR by individual game revenue and related revenue rank.

supercell-valuation

 

For our valuation of MZ here, we chose the lower, more conservative, Supercell valuation of 2.36 * ARR. The higher 3.08 * ARR that Activision-Blizzard paid for King Digital was 20% higher that the market value of King at the time. Plus, most financial pundits felt that Activision-Blizzard paid too much for King.

In past valuation of MZ, we chose 2.5 * ARR based on market-derived valuations of publicly-held Japanese gaming companies. Given, the general downward drift in Unicorn valuations, the use of the lowest multiple of 2.36 * ARR seems appropriate today.

Based on the estimates above of individual game revenue associated with various iOS Apple USA revenue rank as reported by App Annie, we derive an estimate below of a 2016 power function of global ARR vs iOS USA revenue rank.

power-function-2016

 

We now present a current valuation of MZ based on its two hit games alone which rank #2 and #3 on the App Annie iOS USA revenue charts.

mz-valuation-april-2016

 

Note: during the writing of this paper in April 2016, Supercell’s Clash Royale and MZ’s Game of War have traded #1 and #2 positions multiple times. We are being conservative in our valuation here by using the lower #2 ranking for Game of War. Had we chosen #1 for Game of War with an associated ARR of $2.1 Billion, our valuation for MZ’s game business would have come in at $7.3 Billion instead of $5.7 Billion

Using “top-line” metrics like sales or monthly active users to value Unicorns has become suspect today. Observers of the startup scene have come to the realization of the futility of growing the top line if unit margins are negative and not likely to turn positive with scale. A freemium mobile game company has zero value if the advertising costs of acquiring a new user are greater than a user’s long term value (LTV), as measured by the discounted present value of money spent. Valuations based on solid top-line data have a greater validity if they are supplemented with some rough estimates of what a Unicorn’s full P&L looks like.

So, to add weight to our $5.7 Billion dollar valuation, we present below a rough estimate of MZ’s full operating P&L. First, our estimates shows that MZ has been responsible in growing headcount consistent with revenue.

headcount-comparisions

 

 

mz-pl

 

Our estimates for MZ’s contribution margin (sales — advertising cost) is a healthy positive number. It is likely that MZ has THE highest contribution margin in the mobile game industry given an estimated average annual in-app game spend of $550 per MZ game player.

It is likely that MZ currently is showing a small operating loss as measured by GAAP, but it would be positive if non-cash, stock-based compensation were backed out. The company is likely cash flow positive from operations. Because MZ as a mobile game company has no inventory or material accounts receivable, it does not need cash for working capital.

As CEO Leydon has observed, mobile games are the most efficient cash conversion operation in the history of modern business. At the Code/Media  2016 Conference, he observed that there can be a 120 second turn-around from cash out for an “call to download” ad to a new user download of a game to the first payment for in-app boosts posted to MZs cash account at the app stores.

MZ does not need cash for working capital or to cover operating losses. It has been reported that their new data center in Nevada is costing them $50 Million, and we could see them needing $100 Million per year for the next 5 years to expand data centers globally.

Use Cases for RTplatform™

We place the MZ’s valuation today at $9.1 Billion as a fundamental technology company. We think the valuation for its ad-tech platform is fair at $1.0 Billion, give that VC’s have poured over $2.7 Billion so far into Tapjoy, a comparable platform. We think the licensing value of its chat translator is fair at $400 Million, given the doors it might open for Slack. There might even be interest in the chat translator from Facebook or Microsoft, given the current interest in text messaging as a replacement for apps and mobile OS.

valuation-of-mz-as-a-tech-co

Admittedly, our $2.0 Billion valuation for RTplatform™ is the most speculative component as no comparable market-derived valuations are offered. One factor that caused us to value it so highly was the very fact that MZ hyped it. Here was a Unicorn company and CEO who had “walked the walk” for years and never made comparisons. Suddenly, it started “talking the talk.” as in “our specs crush your specs” and “ our new specs crush our old specs.” We believe the company can make good on the hype, given their amazing string of accomplishments.

According to the Venturebeat interview on the day of the launch, the company said its platform was “much more scalable than what is currently available in the market from rivals like Amazon or Google…” Leydon said PTplatform™ was “100 times bigger” than its current platform running Game of War.

The other factor underlying our high valuation was the use cases and market potential we were envisioning for a platform described by the company as a

  • massive platform for doing high-fanout data processing,”
  • many-to-many applications
  • an infrastructure that allows you to do some extremely large things in real time at scale.”
  • “unique ability to interconnect ‘billions’ of endpoints worldwide and transmit data at low latency”

In the Venturebeat interview, the company hinted at use cases “from financial service companies to connected car companies to government institutions”. In earlier interviews, Leydon hinted that its game engine was transactional with ultra low latency, which we speculated as meaning NewSQL. He compared it to platforms required for high frequency trading.

We present the following broad use cases for a real-time pricing or auction platform coupled with the “connected self” or the “connected car”:

  1. eliminate information asymmetry and “moral hazard” between insurers and customers;
  2. eliminate the “tragedy of the commons” like urban traffic congestion or overfishing;
  3. eliminate transactions costs causing “sticky prices” for services whose performance over time is uncertain;

A specific use case for (1) would be real time auto insurance pricing. In 2014, consumer auto insurance had been estimated to be a $190 Billion market. MZ should be targeting one of the top 4 auto insurers — State Farm, Geico, Allstate, and Progressive — as an exclusive licensee. They should aim for an announcement within the next three months, with a roll-out and initial monetization within a year.

This “early win” will shock the auto insurance industry, impress the VC investment community, and finally clue tech writers that MZ should listed along with handful of unicorns — Uber, Airbnb, Palantir and Slack — as having the greatest upside potential.

A specific use case for (2) would be a real-time auction for peak commute time on urban freeways. There is an article in Forbes citing a report which estimated the direct and indirect costs of traffic congestion at $124 Billion in 2013.

There was also something called the Millennium Project out of UC-Berkeley in the mid-2000 which used (then novel) mobile phones to gather data on drive times and traffic congestion in the Bay Area. In 2011, there was a report which presented in detail the problems in ”scaling up the Mobile Millennium traffic information system using cloud computing and the Spark cluster computing framework”.

Surely, the 2016 RTplatform™ would be a prime candidate to underpin any solution to urban traffic congestion. Needless to say, solving this problem would require government sponsorship so monetization by MZ for this use case might be a 5+ years off. But, announcing that it would be involved in a project to end urban traffic congestion would place MZ alongside only a handful of companies undertaking a “moonshot” and “make a difference in the world” type of project.

A specific use case for (3) would be dynamic pricing for sporting and entertainment events. Many Major League Baseball team are setting aside bleacher sections with individual game day tickets that vary by day of week, opponent, and weather. The National Football League is also starting to set aside individual game day tickets that vary over the course of the season by attractiveness of the matchup.

We could envision MZ’s platform taking this dynamic pricing of sporting events to a “real time” level by allowing both baseball and football fans to bid on game day seats inning by inning or quarter by quarter. Obviously, this use case seems ludicrous, but it does emphasize widespread instances of “sticky prices” due to transaction costs for a steam of services with uncertain, highly variable quality.