How Mobile Gaming Publisher Scopely Turns Aging Content into a Gold Mine

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“Free-to-play is the dominant way that consumers want to play mobile games,” Chief Revenue Officer Tim O’Brien tells TheWrap

Scopely Chief Revenue Officer Tim O'Brien.

The developers at mobile video game publisher Scopely know that content is king. By licensing big-box franchises like “The Walking Dead,” “Star Trek,” and “Scrabble,” and adapting them into free-to-play mobile games, the company has created a cash cow. The Culver City-based private company, founded in 2011, doesn’t disclose its finances. Backed by investors including Jimmy Iovine, Arnold Schwarzenneger and Paramount Pictures Chairman Jim Gianopulos, Scopely has raised $658 million from investors since its launch. On Thursday, the company added $200 million to its Series D round, which was originally finalized in October — and now totals $400 million. In January, Scopely bought the mobile game “Marvel: Strike Force” from Walt Disney Co.-owned FoxNext Games studio, and the title is one of its most lucrative to date; O’Brien said it generated $180 million in revenue last year. The acquisition is Scopely’s latest since it bought Dublin-based developers Digit Game Studios in May 2019. O’Brien joined Scopely in 2014 after four years working in various business development roles at Disney Interactive’s gaming division. His work improving Scopely’s bottom line caught the attention of its top brass, and he was named a board member earlier this month. O’Brien spoke to TheWrap before the coronavirus pandemic about the company’s latest game release, a mobile version of the timeless “Scrabble” board game and its future plans. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. How do you generate revenue if Scopely’s games are free to play? There’s three ways that we engage consumers in the products where they can spend money in the game. One is in-app purchases. The other is through subscriptions. Almost all of our products have a subscription model to them now. We were early adopters as soon as Apple and Google decided to embrace subscription in games. We were there and early partners on both. And then we have advertising, so if you’re in the game since it’s free to play you can watch an ad and move forward in the game or get some type of (in-game) currency. How has mobile gaming evolved over the years? It’s been a crazy ride. I’ve been in mobile gaming since the (Apple) app store launched in 2008, and I’ve watched it evolve over the last eleven years now. Gaming is bigger than movies, television and books combined and mobile is the fastest-growing segment in there. Mobile is predicted to be a $70 billion business this year, and free-to-play is the dominant way that consumers want to play mobile games. The mobile games business is already larger than the PC and console game business. It surpassed it maybe two years ago. It’s a good place to be right now. What is the timeframe for making mobile games compared to console? We’ll build a game over a 1-3 year period. During that time frame, at some point we decide the game is ready to go into beta testing, and the first piece will be a technical beta test to see if the infrastructure stands up.Do people want to play this game? Is it fun? How long do they play it? Those are the first key things we look at, though that will vary by genre and game experience. What makes certain content a good candidate for a mobile game adaptation? When we’re evaluating (intellectual property), we’re thinking about the consumers or players or people who are really passionate about this. Will that translate into a gaming experience? Like ‘The Walking Dead’ game: Those fans are passionate, love the IP, want to spend more time engaged with it and want to really explore the world and get deep into the world, so we said, OK, we think there’s a game here we can make, and we think it can be a long-term durable business. And that’s generally how our thought process is. Are there advantages to games built on existing content? It brings a number of advantages if handled and built directly. You’re going to attract a larger audience, potentially, because there’s a big audience for ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘Star Trek’ out there that really want to go consume that experience. In a game like ‘Yahtzee’ or ‘Scrabble GO’, there’s a core mechanic people love to experience. The games are designed to give you the experience you want to create, and I think that’s one of the things we’ve done very well. It’s also really unique (that) we’ve done that across multiple genres; usually game companies are very deep into just one thing. Why is it often difficult for bigger game publishers to break into the mobile market? If this isn’t your core business and what you think about every day, it’s not easy to build successful global free-to-play games. There’s a reason there’s only so many games that break through every year, and I think that’s one of the reasons other media companies are moving more towards licensing as well right now. How crucial are the app stores to your business? Search and app store optimization has become very important because the charts don’t matter anywhere near like they used to. Both Google and Apple have kind of moved the charts down in terms of how much emphasis they put on them in store placement and been much more about curating products for the consumer. For us, that gives us a unique advantage when you’re working with big properties because people will search for “games like Scrabble,” etc., and in those situations having the actual core brand IP gives you a unique advantage. Or if someone types in “word games,” if our game is highly retentive and hitting the indicators the Google and Apple algorithms are looking for, most likely Scrabble will emerge quickly in that search. We definitely spend a lot of time looking at that and optimizing both storefronts. Tell us about your busiest markets right now. We think that there’s a big opportunity in Asia-Pacific. ‘Star Trek’ we launched across Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia last fall and made a significant marketing investment there, and we’re still running big promotions and marketing activities weekly. “The Walking Dead” has had significant success in Japan and so has “WWE.”