Category MZ (Machine Zone)

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.