Category MZ (Machine Zone)

Machine Zone (MZ): Game Unicorn with Marketable NewSQL Database?

 

Summary: This paper speculates that the startup Machine Zone intends to market a NewSQL database as a service and merits a $6 Billion valuation.

Written: July 25, 2015

Zone (MZ) is a Palo Alto-based  startup with a Top 2 iOS USA app store hit called “Game of War: Fire Age.” (GoW).

MZ describes Game of War: Fire Age as:

“.. a real-time mobile massively-multiplayer online game and parallel chatspeak translation application that translates over 40 languages for its players in real-time, connecting game players around the globe at the same time in a single virtual universe.”

We have written three other articles about this startup in the past year:

Machine Zone: IPO or What?   July 6, 2014 published by SeekingAlpha

Machine Zone: The $4 Billion Unicorn that Walks the Walk  March 24, 2015 published on our own blog http://glomoinvesting.com

Machine Zone and the Perversity of Unicorn Lists  March 26, 2015 published on Medium and our own blog

The theme running through prior articles is that the MZ’s status as a multi-billion dollar “Unicorn”  is not well known. This is because:

  1. The last company-confirmed VC funding round and implied valuation was made years ago before GoW was released. (The WSJ reported in June 2014 a funding round led by J.P.Morgan Chase valuing the company at $3 Billion, but this has never been confirmed.)
  2. The CEO Gabe Leydon has averaged about one interview a year for the past three years. Official press releases are even rarer.
  3. Even in rare interviews, the CEO shuns financial and game metrics, which have to be impressive. Instead Leydon uses these occasions to assert that MZ’s technology has applicability and marketability outside of gaming.

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.  Bloomberg noted that new valuation, double that reported a year ago,  hinged on investors being convinced of the marketability of MZ technology beyond mobile games. The article referenced an earlier Bloomberg interview with Robert Kolker where Leydon first made public statements about the marketability of its technology.

Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat also reported rumours of a new funding round.  But, he reported that MZ was seeking $500 Million at an unstated valuation — not the Bloomberg figures.  Takahashi’s source also said that  “the pitch has met with skepticism.”  Takahashi emailed Leydon for a comment and received this response:

“We do not comment on rumors and speculation about fundraising or valuation, but [Machine Zone] does not need additional investment. We are 100 percent focused on [Game of War] and expanding on the technology that powers it.”

What struck a chord with Takahashi was Leydon’s explicit statement about no need for additional funding.  For us, it was his explicit separation of gaming from technology as two distinct areas of focus.  For us, we see Leydon suggesting that MZ’s future includes a technology business separate from a mobile games business.

What follows is our attempt to flesh out where Machine Zone is headed. It is obviously speculative given the dearth of official pronouncement from the company.  (BTW, we have had no contact, received no remuneration, no free meal, etc. from the company or anyone remotely related to MZ.)

But, it is clear to us that there is concrete evidence of these intentions — pitch decks, written strategic plans, lists of customer inquiries, etc.  After all,  VC investors must have seen something beyond gaming to value the company at a reportedly $6 Billion in 2015 and $3 billion in 2014 versus what we think are our methodical valuations for their gaming business alone of $2.75 Billion in 2015 and $2 Billion in 2014.

We start our effort to flesh out where MZ is headed with Leydon’s March 2015 Bloomberg interview.  Here is quote in which he identifies the “Wow”  factor of their hit game  — its the low latency.

“…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.”

Later, the Bloomberg interviewer relays Leydon’s comments on the marketability of MZ’s technology outside of gaming:

“Leydon, meanwhile, intends to focus on what his new networking technology can accomplish outside the gaming world. He says dozens of companies have asked to license Machine Zone’s translation engine. Its applications, he says, span beyond gaming and into finance, logistics, social networking, and data analysis.”

In our prior 2015 papers, we focused on the marketability of MZ’s real time chat translator. We identified two well known, highly successful companies where chat is core — Facebook’s WhatsApp and Slack, the fastest growing SaaS startup of all time.  We mentioned that both companies would benefit greatly by adding real time translation to their chat.  But, we offered no insight then as to the business model MZ might adopt.

The market for a chat translator is a vertical market limited to a handful of social / business communication companies like Facebook and Slack, and come to think of it, Microsoft.  Given the limited list of potential customers and the fact that MZ doesn’t need cash, a SaaS model doesn’t seem right. What feels right is that MZ should offer a single exclusive perpetual license in return for stock.

In an earlier article, we “slapped” an addition $1.25 Billion valuation for the chat translator business on top of a methodical estimate of $2.75 Billion for the gaming business to arrive at a nice round valuation of $4 Billion for MZ in mid-2015.

Facebook could pay this amount. Slack probably cannot afford the dilution at this time. But, the more intriguing choice would be Slack because MZ’s history is a inversion of Slack’s.

Slack started out as Tiny Speck, a startup attempting to build a massive multiplayer online (MMO) game. The game was never completed, but a better way for a team to communicate became the motivation to start Slack as a side project.

MZ produced the hit MMO game that Slack could not complete. As a side-project, MZ built a chat translation engine that would make Slack invaluable as a communication platform for multinational companies. You could argue that MZ is a doppelgänger of Slack and so a union (reunion?) between these doppelgängers would be intriguing to say the least.

We now turn our attention to fleshing out the rest of Leydon’s comment about the  marketability of MZ’s technology outside of gaming.

Unlike us, it would be obvious to most software engineers what marketable technology MZ might have considering the description of their game: a real-time mobile massively-multiplayer online game accommodating about 3 million users in simultaneous play with 0.2-second response time.

It would have to be a cloud-based DATABASE.

And, unlike us, those familiar with databases and real-time MMO games would know instantly that it would have to be a particular type of database, as MMO games essentially are about transactions, defined as logical operations on structured data.

Making that connection only occurred to us after viewing a Michael Stonebraker YouTube video when he mentioned that the database requirements for real time MMO games are the same as modern, cloud-based online transaction processing (OLTP) databases required by banks, airline reservations, order entry systems, etc.

What MZ has is what banks, airlines reservations systems and real-time ad auction exchanges require in a database today.  Behind a game with annoying Kate Upton ads is a state-of the-art scalable, globally distributed online transaction processing (OLTP) database.

The rest of the database development world is coming around to what MZ set out to do from day one.

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.  Requirements were relaxed for structure and consistency, defined as “all nodes see the same data at the same time”.

As a result, semi-structured “NoSQL” databases like Yahoo’s Hadoop, and Google’s BigTable, now open-sourced as HBase, became state-of the art.  Startups like MongoHQ and now publicly traded Hortonworks arose to offer NoSQL databases as a service (DBaaS).  IBM bought Cloudant and Apple bought FoundationDB to gain access to NoSQL technology.

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.

The database world follows Google.   In 2012, Google made the now 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 scrapped its “NoSQL” BigTable in favor of a “NewSQL” Spanner, which it now uses for its mission-critical Ad platform.

MZ’s focus has been “NewSQL” from day one.  It didn’t waste 4-5 year before coming around to what Google finally concluded in 2012.  Obviously, there are questions about the specifics of MZ’s stack and the degree of ACID compliancy.

We can only offer a non-scientific sample of job requirements posted on its website: a combination of MySQL, HBase, Hadoop and Vertica where Verica is now a Hewlett-Packard piece of software allowing SQL-like queries of NoSQL databases like Cloudera’s Impala.

Other than hiring and retaining world class database talent, the DBaaS industry has low barriers to entry.  The basic software components — MySQL, HBase, etc. —  are open sourced.  The computer power needed to scale this service offering can be incrementally purchased from Amazon’s AWS.

We think that MZ has significant competitive advantages over other NewSQL competitors. First, is the location of its new HQ in Palo Alto which is the epicenter of U.S.’s database talent pool.   The HQ is located on Page Mill Road across the street from Stanford University in the storied Stanford Research Park that used to be Facebook’s old headquarters.  There would be little relocation friction for new MZ hires from Stanford, nearby Facebook in Palo Alto, or Google in Mountain View.

We also think it was fortuitous that MZ never considered moving to some trendy area of San Francisco city like some of the largest mobile game companies in the U.S. — Zynga,  GLU Mobile, and Kabam.  Our view is that the gentrified, more cerebral San Francisco peninsula is better suited for enterprise software developers and their families than the manic, hipster environment of the city, which is better suited for consumer and e-commerce startups.

The San Jose Business Journal reported in September 2014 that MZ had leased an estimated 140,000 square foot space for this new HQ. Furthermore, there is an adjacent 140,000 square foot space now leased short term by Nest, now owned by Google, that may be available to MZ later.  At 250 square feet / employee, this new HQ could accommodate up to 1,000 employees, plenty of room to expand considering MZ’s current headcount is reportedly only 300.

It has also been reported that MZ will  be spending $50 Million to configure a dedicated 4,000 server data center within a larger server farm complex south of Las Vegas. This investment also might set itself apart from less well-funded competitors as it will provide MZ with a dedicated server farm to experiment with various software/hardware configurations.

But, the most important advantage MZ has over other NewSQL competitors is that its database is literally “battle tested.”  Remember Leydon’s claim in the Bloomberg interview  — 3 million globally distributed users in simultaneous play with a 0.2 second response time.

MZ’s pitch deck to prospective investors now probably includes more references to Google and its Spanner AdTech platform than Supercell and Clash of Clans.

Will VCs now fork over cash at an implied $6 Billion valuation for a recognized (finally) Unicorn comfortably feeding off a $1.1 Billion game cash cow and who is positioning itself to offer a Google-like Spanner-as-a-Service?

You bet they will.

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Machine Zone and The Perversity of Unicorn Lists

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Machine Zone (MZ) is a Palo Alto-based, mobile gaming startup with a massively popular Top 2 iOS USA app store hit called “Game of War: Fire Age.” [GoW].

MZ describes Game of War: Fire Age as:

“.. a real-time mobile massively-multiplayer online game and parallel chat-speak translation application that translates over 40 languages for its players in real-time, connecting game players around the globe at the same time in a single virtual universe.”

A New York Times reviewer of Game of War’s said:

“The game’s most impressive feature is an instantaneous translation of text-based online chat. If someone writes “MDR” in French (for “mort de rire,” or “dying of laughter”), an English-speaking player sees it as “LOL.”

Game of War is MZ’s only published game to date. We have estimated (see below) MZ’s current annualized revenue run rate at $1.1 Billion based on that game alone. At a valuation multiple of 2.5x, half way between publicly held mobile game companies Glu Mobile and Zynga, we place MZ current valuation at $2.75 Billion.

This is a conservative valuation. According to its CEO Gabriel Leydon, there is third party interest in licensing it real-time chat translation engine. We believe that this technology would be a valuable addition to the likes of Facebook’s WhatsApp and/or Slack.

Yet, Machine Zone cannot be found on any so-called Unicorn lists — startups with $1+ Billion valuations like the one Fortune Magazine recently published. To qualify for such lists, a company must be mentioned in the press as receiving a round of venture capital and a whispered valuation of $1+ Billion.

No matter if the funding and valuation came with “liquidation preferences” that would limit any loss in the investment and skew the implied valuation upward.

No matter if a company like Machine Zone is so profitable early on that it does has not needed any venture capital since a Series B round years ago.

Specifically, CrunchBase reports a total of $13.3 Million in VC funding for MZ, with the last round being a Series B done a full three years ago.VentureBeat reported a total of $16 Million so there could be some $3 Million in angel money not captured by CrunchBase.

At a $2.5 Billion valuation, the VC return would be 156x. MZ’s return compares favorably to the 100x return that VC’s looks for every couple of years to make up for all of the other failed investments in their portfolios.

Machine Zone’s exclusion is not only perverse, it is ironic. Unlike other Unicorns, the public has access to mobile game company “cash register” data supplied for free by analytics companies like App Annie or Think Gaming who record “freemium” game in-app purchases bought through iOS Apple Store or Google Play. Anyone interested in tech would love access to “cash register” trend data of other Unicorns like Uber, Airbnb and Dropbox.


The Bancorp: Bad Moon Rising

  • The Bancorp is a Philadelphia area bank whose stock has fallen 50% in 2014 due accounting and regulatory surprises.
  • On top of that, it announced it was discontinuing its commercial lending operations and set aside a $1.2 Billion portfolio for sale with an overall 6.5% mark-to-market discount.
  • An 8-K filed on the last business day of 2014 revealed a partial sale with a mark-to-market discount of 20.2%.
  • Another 8-K filed 3 days ago revealed that the EVP of commercial loans resigned effectively immediately.
  • Until there are assurances from management as to the quality of the remaining portfolio for sale, we rate this stock a sell.

The Bancorp (NASDAQ:TBBK) is a Philadelphia area bank founded in 2000 by the pioneering banker and lawyer Betsy Z. Cohen. A few bullet points from her resume:

  • Second female law professor on the East Coast after Ruth Bader Ginsberg
  • Founded Jefferson Bank in 1974; Sold it in 1999 for $370M
  • Instrumental in financing Philly’s Walnut Street downtown revival
  • Board Member – Aetna US Healthcare, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bryn Mawr

Since inception, the bank’s Chairman has been her son, Daniel G. Cohen. A few bullet points from his resume:

  • CEO of three publicly-held companies whose market values crashed due to CDO investments
  • CEO, IFMI, 2010-12 when market value crashed 91%
  • CEO, Alesco Financial Trust 2007-10, when market value crashed 87%
  • CEO, RAIT Financial Trust, 2006-9 when market value crashed 98%

2014 was a bad year for The Bancorp as the bank was rocked by a series of surprise accounting and regulatory disclosures resulting in a 50% drop in its stock price.

TBBK Chart

TBBK data by YCharts

First there was an April 18, 2014 8-K disclosure in conjunction with the release of its 1Q14 results that “newly identified adverse classified loans”, caused a one-time addition to its loan loss reserve of $11.8 Million. The next trading day the stock dropped 14.9% from $18.60 to $15.84.

Then there was a June 10, 2014 8-K disclosure that the FDIC found that bank was in violation of the Bank Secrecy Act — namely that reloadable prepaid cards issued by The Bancorp were being used for extensive money laundering. The next trading day the stock dropped 30.3% from $16.36 to $11.40.

On December 1, 2014, there was 8-K disclosure that CEO Betsy Z. Cohen, 72, would be retiring at the end of the year.

Her son, Daniel G. Cohen, 42, remains Chairman of the Board. Four other Board members are Board members of other companies that Daniel G. Cohen has at one time controlled.

We see a “bad moon rising” for The Bancorp in 2015. We see “trouble on the way”.

In its 3Q14 10-Q, the bank announced that was discontinuing it commercial lending operations. Based on an independent third party review, it marked down the portfolio by an additional $38.9M to a fair market carrying value of $1.2 Billion:

” In addition to $44 million in the allowance for loan losses which was net against those loans, an additional $38.9 million expense resulted from the valuation to estimated sales price, which was also net against those loans. “

Here is a 3Q14 conference call exchange, as transcribed by SA, confirming the view of $82.9M as the difference between the outstanding principal and the fair market carrying value of the portfolio at that time.

Paul Frenkiel– Chief Financial Officer

Sure. Yes, those actually are separate, so maybe the easiest, I think the way you are trying to look at it was that at the end of the second quarter we had a reserve of about $46 million. We had some activity during the quarter, so we ended up with the reserve about $44 million and $38 million was basically in addition to that.

Matthew Kelley– Sterne Agee

Got you. So we can really think about it as an $82 million write-down or 7% or 8% of the unpaid principal balance. Is that the right way to think about it?

Paul Frenkiel – Chief Financial Officer

By 38 in addition to the 44 that had accumulated over a period of many years.”

On the next to the last business day of the year, December 30, 2014, the bank issued an 8-K stating that it had sold a portion of its $1.2 Billion commercial loan portfolio:

“The sold loan portfolio had an outstanding principal balance of approximately $267.6 million, which had been adjusted on the books of the Bank to estimated fair market value in the third quarter of 2014 upon the classification of the Bank’s related commercial lending operation as a discontinued operation and the transfer of the related portfolio to “held for sale” status. As a result of the estimated fair market value adjustment, the carrying value of the portfolio, as of September 30, 2014, was $213.5 million.”

Several things about this first sale caught our eye. The first thing was the mark-to-market discount associated with this relatively small piece of the portfolio:

(267.6 – 213.5) / 267.6 = 54.1 / 267.6 = 20.2%

This was way out of line with the overall average discount of 6.5% established just two months earlier.

Second, the sale was not for cash nor to an established third-party. It was for note receivables issued by a newly created LLC with the bank itself as 49% minority partner.

We ask ourselves, “How toxic can the full portfolio really be if this is what the bank had to do to sell just a portion of it?”

Maybe, they planned on an asymmetric sequence of sales, with the very toxic piece cut out first and sold to a related party at a steep discount.

Then they would sell the remaining clean piece with a mark-to-market discount of only 3% to an established third party willing to pay cash for a clean bundle.

But if this were so, why did The Bancorp not include an explicit statement in the late December 8-K of the planned asymmetric sale sequence?

Another 8-K has been just filed by The Bancorp on January 9, 2015 reporting that Arthur Birenbaum, EVP, commercial loans has resigned, effective January 8, 2015.

Investors need to get straight answers to the following questions now or during the bank’s 4Q14 earning conference call:

  • What is the overall mark-to-market discount on the remaining $900M commercial loan portfolio?
  • Can the bank give assurances that the remaining portfolio is fairly valued in light of the 20% mark-to-market discount associated with the piece just sold?

Below is a spreadsheet summarizing our view of the accounting of the two transactions to set aside the commercial loan portfolio in 3Q14 and then to sell the first piece on December 30, 2014.

It also includes a “what if analysis?” as to future mark-downs of the remaining portfolio for sale

Bancorp Sale of Loan Portfolio

Additional disclosure: Investors are always reminded that before making any investment, you should do your own proper due diligence on any name directly or indirectly mentioned in this article. Investors should also consider seeking advice from a broker or financial adviser before making any investment decisions. Any material in this article should be considered general information, and not relied on as a formal investment recommendation.


Machine Zone (MZ): A $4 Billion Unicorn That Walks the Walk

Published: January 11, 2015)

Machine Zone [MZ] is a Palo Alto-based, mobile gaming startup with a massively popular Top 2 iOS USA app store hit called “Game of War: Fire Age.” [GoW].

MZ describes Game of War: Fire Age as:

.. a real-time mobile massively multi-player online game and parallel chat-speak translation application that translates over 40 languages for its players in real-time, connecting game players around the globe at the same time in a single virtual universe.

This is how the New York Times described the real-time chat translator embedded in GoW:

The game’s most impressive feature is an instantaneous translation of text-based online chat. If someone writes “MDR” in French (for “mort de rire,” or “dying of laughter”), an English-speaking player sees it as “LOL”

GoW is MZ’s only published game to date. We wrote first about MZ in a Seeking Alpha article eight months ago, estimating then that its annualized revenue run rate [ARR] was at $831 Million with a 2.5x valuation of $2.04 Billion. We were the first to establish MZ as a $1+ Billion startup, aka a Unicorn.

Based on Seeking Alpha supplied page view metrics, our first article on MZ for Seeking Alpha has become slowly over time our top viewed article among the 21 we have written for SA in the past year.

This article is a follow-up. We update our estimates of MZ’s annualized revenue run rate and valuation. We also cite a recent interview given by the CEO where he mentions interest in licensing MZ’s chat translation engine.

We have identified two well known, highly successful companies where chat is core — Facebook’s WhatsApp and Slack, the fastest growing SaaS startup of all time. Both companies would benefit greatly by adding real-time translation to their chat core.

Eight months ago, we derived a $2.04 Billion dollar valuation for MZ. Shortly thereafter, the Wall Street Journal reported that MZ was in talks with VCs for funding that would place a $3 Billion valuation on the company. Nothing materialized.

Based on increased ARR for GoW plus interest in licensing its real-time chat translation engine, we now place a $4 Billion valuation on the company.

Yet, MZ’s name still cannot be found on any Unicorn list such as the Fortune magazine list. This is due to the perverse qualifier that the valuation must be come from a financial press article or blog post referencing a VC funding round and a whispered valuation.

No matter if that valuation came from funding with “liquidation preferences”. No matter if a startup is so profitable, as is the case with MZ, that no additional funding is required after a Series B round done years ago.

Besides the perversity of MZ being excluded from Unicorn lists, the exclusion is also ironic. Unlike other Unicorns, the public has access to mobile game company “cash register” data supplied for free by analytics companies like App Annie or Think Gaming who record “freemium” game in-app purchases bought through iOS Apple Store or Google Play. Can you imagine discussion if we had access to “cash register” trend data of Uber, AirBnB and Drop Box?

The availability to the public of game revenue rankings has not been recognized for its place in the democratization of financial investing data. This trend was first recognized by famed fund manager Peter Lynch some 40 years ago.

The trend line goes from Lynch’s observation that anyone could see the financial implications of the L’eggs hosiery racks in grocery stores, to weekend box office receipts published by Variety, to near real time stock prices made available for free by Yahoo and Google Finance.

The line continues with real time audio of quarterly conference calls to transcriptions of these calls on SA (thank you SA!) to App Annie daily revenue ranking charts of mobile games by country.

App Annie even has revenue ranking data of games in “geo-lock” test releases in locations like Canada and New Zealand.

Freely available pre-release data of a game’s revenue potential is a step up from other well know pre-release indicators like out of town reviews of a Broadway-bound musical or reports of the reception of a test item on McDonald’s menus in Australia.

In addition to MZ’s absence from Unicorn lists, there are only a handful of published interviews with CEO Gabriel Leydon. You cannot find an interview where the CEO mentions revenue, valuation or IPO.

MZ is a rare Unicorn that walks the walk, not talks the talk.

This is in contrast to Kabam, the other mobile game startup identified as a Unicorn (no longer) who has talked the talk, and not walked the walk lately.

Based on our close observation of Kabam’s press over the past two years, we offer this Letterman-like list of the top 5 signs a Unicorn is talking the talk too much:

5.  Company still has a booth at SXSW five years after first showing.

4. SVPs give more interviews than CEO.

3. CEO quantifies to press revenue and money in bank.

2. CEO’s company pays for naming right to football field of alma mater.

1. CEO now spikes hair with mousse for video interviews.

Now back to how we derive a current valuation for MZ.

The table below presents our derivation of a current ARR of $1.1 Billion for GoW, up from our $831 Million estimate made eight months ago.

Estimate of ARR --Game of War

From this you have to subtract the loss of people disgusted by the Upton ads as evidenced by massive amounts of derisive tweeting going on in the last 4 months. The ads themselves, not the ad campaign, has been the only questionable move by MZ since inception. The source of MZ’s revenue growth in the past year has been the combination of organic growth in spending by dedicated players plus new downloads resulting from a $40+ Million ad campaign featuring the busty Kate Upton.

Indeed, we believe that MZ and its flood of Upton ads embedded in other free mobile games was the cause of an unprecedented, simultaneous #1 ranking of the free (ad supported) and paid versions of the same game, Trivia Crack. This was due to millions of freeloading players willingly forking over $2.99 just to avoid the Upton ads.

Below is a table of calculated price-sales ratios, specifically market valuation / annualized run rates, for the three pure play mobile game companies with substantial sales in the USA: Glu Mobile (NYSEMKT:GLU), King Digital (NYSE:KING), and Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA). The range is from a low of 1.83 for GLU to a high of 3.19 for ZNGA.

Price Sales Ratio of Mobile Game Companies

It should be noted that both KING and ZNGA sported 6+ price-sales ratios at the time of their IPOs.

We think that the midpoint of the figures above — 2.5x current ARR — is the appropriate figure to use in valuing MZ. This would place its current valuation at $1.1 Billion * 2.5 = $2.75 Billion.

But MZ has value beyond the ARR of a single game. MZ is not a one hit wonder.

First, MZ is amazingly “lean” in terms of its operations as measured by ARR / employee. This translates into profitability, something rare among Unicorns.

Below is a table that compares MZ’s head count with two big mobile game companies based in San Francisco — the troubled dog of a company, Zynga, and the stumbling startup Kabam.

Headcount Comparison of Mobile Game Companies

Both Zynga and Kabam had a string of failed game releases in 2014. Unless the fortunes of these companies change in 2015, there could 1,000+ unemployed mobile game people walking the streets of San Francisco this fall.

While we are on the subject of headcount, the San Jose Business Journal reported that MZ has leased an estimated 140,000 square foot space on Page Mill Road in Palo Alto that used to be Facebook’s old headquarters.

Furthermore, there is an adjacent 140,000 square foot space now leased short term to Nest and Google that may be available to MZ later.

At 250 square feet / employee, this new MZ facility could accommodate an additional 560 employees now with another 560 employees being housed in the adjacent space once Google completes its futuristic new HQ in the Shoreline area of Mountain View.

The other metric of MZ that is amazing is its ratio of current valuation to total VC funding. CrunchBase reports a total of $13.3 Million in VC funding with the last round being a Series B done a full three years ago.VentureBeat reported a total of $16 Million so there could be some $3 Million in angel money not captured by CrunchBase.

At a $2.5 Billion valuation, the VC return would be 156x. At a $4 Billion valuation, the VC return would be 250x. MZ’s return compares favorably to the 100x return that VC’s looks for every couple of years to make up for all of the other failed investments in their portfolios.

We now turn to the case that MZ has value beyond the ARR generated by a single published game.

CEO Gabriel Leydon recently gave a revealing interview to Robert Kolker of Bloomberg Business Week. For us, this was the first interview of any substance that Leydon has given since GoW was released for iOS two years ago.

Leydon may have been asked about revenue, scale, venture capital, and IPO, but evidently he declined to comment. He also did not talk much about the specifics of GoW itself.

Basically, Leydon relishes talking about two things: (1) how hardcore GoW’s fans are; (2) how hardcore MZ’s engineering is.

A Leydon supplied metric on the hardcore GoW fan:

The average player…plays for two hours per day, in 12-minute sessions, 10 a day.

A Leydon supplied metric on MZ’s engineering prowess:

…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.

For us, the most interesting section of the interview was Leydon’s belief that the MZ’s chat translation technology would be of value to the likes of Facebook (NASDAQ:FB). (specifically,we presume Facebook’s $19 Billion acquisition WhatsApp)

From the interview,

It’s closer to a social network than it is a video game,” Leydon says. “Facebook has pokes and messages and things like that. In Game of War, you have attacks and friends and chats.” Leydon argues that Game of War’s social interplay is far more complex; among other things, Facebook interactions across language borders are limited.

He goes on

Leydon, meanwhile, intends to focus on what his new networking technology can accomplish outside the gaming world. He says dozens of companies have asked to license Machine Zone’s translation engine. Its applications, he says, span beyond gaming and into finance, logistics, social networking, and data analysis.

A more intriguing partner for MZ than WhatsApp would be Slack, the fast-growing collaboration and chat startup.

MZ’s history is a inversion of Slack’s. MZ completes what Slack starts. You could argue that MZ is a doppelgänger of Slack.

Slack started out as Tiny Speck, a startup attempting to build a massive multi-player game. The game was never completed, but a side-project piece of software developed for collaboration morphed into the fastest growing SaaS in history.

MZ produced the hit game that Slack could not complete. As a side-project, MZ built a chat translation engine that fills in critical gaps in Slack’s wild success.

Slack has already invaded software R&D and content creation departments, both requiring close digital collaboration. Slack is now moving horizontally throughout enterprises where these departments are core.

By adding a real time chat translation engine to its offering, Slack could make in roads into globally distributed enterprises that service other globally distributed enterprises.

For example, this might include global insurance companies like AXA and Zurich Insurance that handle insurance needs globally of a company like Exxon Mobil. It might include global banks like Citibank and Deutsche Bank that handle the banking globally for a company like GE or Siemens.

MZ’s chat translation engine could be a global enterprise door-opener for Slack.


Machine Zone: IPO or What?

Machine Zone [MZ] is a Palo Alto-based, mobile gaming start-up with a massively popular Top 3 app store hit called “Game of War: Fire Age.” [GoW]

MZ describes Game of War: Fire Age as

“.. a real-time mobile massively-multiplayer online game and parallel chat-speak translation application that translates over 40 languages for its players in real-time, connecting game players around the globe at the same time in a single virtual universe.”

What makes this building simulation and war strategy game so innovative is the real-time play among the massive number of players (100,000+) online around the globe at the same time.

The other innovative feature is its messaging system featuring a 40+ language real-time translator, including a crowd-sourced library of game jargon. It’s like real-time SnapChat run through Google Translate finely tuned by an incentivized, crowd-sourced library of gamer jargon.

From a NYT review of GoW,

“The game’s most impressive feature is an instantaneous translation of text-based online chat. If someone writes “MDR” in French (for “mort de rire,” or “dying of laughter”), an English-speaking player sees it as “LOL.””

The game is also very social and hard to put down. Once a player joins a GoW “alliance” – similar to a “clan” in Clash of Clans — there is considerable peer pressure to continue playing for sake of the alliance. MZ’s early estimates were that players averaged 2 hours a day 7 days a week playing the game.

We estimate that the GoW’s current revenue run rate is $831M. The company is very profitable, with  a reported head-count of only 150.

Compare this with Zynga who manages a score of mobile and browser games none of which have cracked the Top 10, a headcount of 2,000 (but falling), and a similar revenue run rate (but falling).

Yet, MZ’s prospects for a 2014 IPO are dim because it is viewed as a “one hit wonder”.

This is in contrast to Kabam, the other US mobile gaming start-up most likely to do an IPO in the next year.  Kabam’s interviews with press are peppered with the quotes about how diversified they are with 3 hit games with lifetime revenue over $100M and three more potential hits on the way based on the blockbuster movies The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings, and Mad Max.

There is also investor wariness of mobile gaming IPOs due to the post-IPO stock performances of Zynga (ZNGA) and King Digital (KING). However, as we write this, King has climbed back finally to its opening price three months after its IPO, so the bad feelings about King have diminished.

MZ is not a “one hit wonder”. We believe CEO Gabe Leydon’s claim that MZ has developed a “game engine” that can be “re-skinned” to create other genres of games with the same underlying play and communications innovations.

MZ, along with with Kabam and the mobile division of Electronic Arts [EA], are in the running  to become the preeminent US-based mobile gaming company – “The Pixar of Mobile Gaming”.

MZ just needs diversification that will come with a second hit, preferably in a different genre, that boosts its revenue run rate over $1,500M.

It would be a shame for MZ to sell out now as it has enough cash for working capital and new development teams. Their total venture capital to date is reportedly only $16M so there is no urgency on the part of VC’s to cash out.

This is in contrast to Kabam with over $125M in VC money and higher cash burn rate from a reported headcount now of 800.  No wonder it is Kabam, and not MZ, who is always talking to the press about IPO plans and the damage caused by the Zynga and King IPO debacle.

But, MZ could use additional investment in 2014 to pay a dividend or to buy some of the shares of existing employees as shareholders. This would take the edge off the IPO wait.

King did something similar by paying out $504M in dividends over the two quarters before it went public. However, the taxation of dividend income might be quite a bit less in the UK than in the US.

What follows is an estimate of MZ’s current revenue run rate and valuation. We are doing this to quantify the outstanding financial performance of this company and to place it along side the elite companies in the mobile gaming world.

We use the same methodology to value MZ as we have employed in previous papers to value King, Zynga, and the start-up Kabam. We have used it also to make prescient buy recommendations of two undervalued Japanese mobile game companies – Mixi and Klab.

There are two pieces of data used in our analysis: (1) app store download and revenue ranking charts provided by data analytics company App Annie; (2) a mapping of App Annie revenue rankings to current revenue run rates.

Launched in July 2013 on iOS Apple store, GoW took only one month to become a Top 20 revenue ranking game on the App Annie charts. By September 2013, it cracked the Top 10 and remained there for the rest of 2013. In 2014, GoW has remained a Top 3 game on the App Annie charts.

Launched 9 months later on Google Play in May 2014, GoW shot up quickly to #6 on the revenue ranking charts and has remained there since.

Game of War Fire Age all time

(Source: App Annie)

Game of War Fire Age Jan 1 ios

(Source: App Annie)

Game of War Fire Age google play since may

(Source: Appie Annie)

GoW seems destined to join the elite “Billionaire Game Club” along with Supercell’s Clash of Clans, King’s Candy Crush Saga and GungHo’s Puzzle and Dragons. The first two games have remained a #1 or #2 revenue ranking game in the US now for a 1 ½ years and counting. However, Candy Crush’s downloads have been in decline for a year even though its revenue rank remains at #2.

The next step in valuing MZ is a mapping of app store revenue rank to revenue dollar run rate. GoW is a free to play game with in-app purchases. Downloads and purchases are primarily made via iOS Apple store and Google Play.

VC firm Andreessen-Horowitz’s mobile guru, Benedict Evans, has estimated that the current global ratio of monthly active users (MAU) of Android to Apple iOS is 1,000M to 470M or 2:1.

The reverse is the case for app store purchases. Evans has estimated that the trailing 12 month Apple iOS to Google Play app store revenue, which excludes presumably Apple’s and Google’s 30% cut, is $10B to $5B, or 2:1

According to App Annie, 75% of app store revenue is mobile games or $11.3B. So, roughly the trailing 12 month revenue for mobile game app store revenue is $7.5B for iOS and $3.8B for Android.

Combine this with MAU numbers results in an average iOS to Android yearly spend per MAU of $15.96 to $3.80 or 4:1.

However, this is an average of “whales” and “zeroes” who spend nothing. According to a Swrve report, “zeroes” make up 98.5% of mobile game users. Disaggregating the weighted average of 1.5% “whales” and 98.5% “zeroes”, yields an average of $1,333 mobile game spend per MAU on iOS for those who spend at all.

Obviously, the Swvre number is based on all users not MAUs. Assuming MAUs are only 10% of Swrve’s number still yields an iOS average of $133 yearly mobile game spend per MAU who spends at all. Wow!

Getting back to valuation of MZ, we use the macro numbers above to scale up a “power function” relation developed by Think Gaming, Inc. between revenue and revenue rank for iOS Apple Store in the US.

We then test the relationship for reasonableness by comparing points on the curve with game-specific revenue disclosures by King for its three Top 15 hits.

Below is our latest effort at mapping Global app store revenue rank to estimated 2014 revenue run rate in $ Millions.

mapping update

Spreadsheet update

When we plot the log of both numbers, the relation is not linear, but kinked up at #3. Hence, it is not a pure power function. Mobile game revenue is very concentrated at the top and the long tail is very thin after game ranked 10,000.

This is in contrast to the original “long tail” work using bookstore data which came to the conclusion that excluding the book “long tail” from a store – books with revenue rank >10,000 — meant excluding 30%+ of sales.

For mobile games, it might turn out that excluding the mobile game “long tail” – mobile games with revenue rank >10,000 — might mean excluding only 5% of sales. By removing these games, mostly IP rip-offs, you lose only 5% of revenue but improve app discovery. Take note of that Apple and Google.

Because of a “power function” relation between revenue and revenue rank, a GoW at #3 is not really knocking on the door of the “Billionaire Game Club” but is still hundreds of millions of dollars away from #2.

The one well known example of a power function is the half-life relation. Another less well known example is the Zipf function named after a 1930’s linguist who mapped out word count in literature as a function of rank.

I like to characterize the top three global ranking games – Clash of Clans, Puzzle and Dragons, and Candy Crush Saga –as the “the-of-and” of mobile game revenue ranking. BTW, the last phrase is meta-Zipfian.

The final step in valuing MZ is to pick an appropriate price/sales (P/S) ratio. Below is a spreadsheet of the pre-IPO and current P/S ratio of King and Zynga.

trailing PS

Given the disappointing post-IPO stock performance of these two companies, we believe that investors in mobile gaming companies would never again pay the pre-IPO P/S ratio of King at 3.76 or Zynga at 6.82. We believe that the current P/S ratio of King today at 2.46 is an appropriate number to use in valuing a US mobile game company today.

Valuing MZ at a P/S ratio of 2.46 and a run rate of $831M produces a current valuation of $2.04B.

A year from now with the launch of a second hit and a run rate of $1.5B, we would up the P/S ratio to 3.0 and value MZ at $4.5B. An investment now in MZ has the potential to double in a year.

We estimate that MZ must be sitting on between $200M and $300M in cash, given its run rate and relatively small headcount, and the fact that mobile gaming companies have little cash tied up in receivables and inventory.

And MZ’s venture capitalists have no immediate need to recover its investments as total venture capital in MZ is reportedly around $16M with Y Combinator as seed investor, Anthos and Baseline in the Series A, and Menlo in the Series B.

The only need for MZ to seek outside investment in the neighborhood of, say $200M, would be to take the edge off the IPO wait of employees/shareholders by paying them a dividend or by buying some of their shares.

The best option would be to finance this through a Series C venture capital round.

A less preferred source would be a minority stake from a strategic partner like Softbank or TenCent who could open doors in the Asian market. But, Softbank is the majority owner now of both GungHo Online and Softcell, both of whom compete with MZ for gamers. A majority investment by Softcell could raise all sorts of conflict of interests.

The least preferred would be an outright acquisition by another publicly held gaming company.  Zynga is drowning since the tepid response to “FarmVille 2: Country Escape”. CEO Don Mattrick has admitted that Supercell’s similar  farming game Hay Day has “eaten our lunch”.

There is a single intriguing buy-out candidate in Electronic Arts [EA], with its mobile division on the rise. It now has “The Simpson: Tapped Out” at #7 and  “The Sims: Free Play” at #18. GoW would double that division’s revenue and boost mobile’s share of EA revenue to between 20% and 30%.

There could be some really interesting synergies between these two companies with MZ’s strength is massively global real-time play and communication and EA’s yet untapped ability to “put petal to the metal” .

That is, EA should be the early leader in porting graphics intensive games via its Frostbite 3D engine to the soon to be released iOS 8 featuring a new graphics API called Metal that taps directly into “metal”  — the 64-bit A7 CPU — achieving a reportedly 10-fold speed increase in 3D graphics rendering over the previous iOS graphics API called OpenGL.