Scopely Finds Hit Apps The Same Way Hollywood Lands Blockbusters

How "first-look" deals plus analytics have helped the L.A. company turn "Bubble Galaxy" and "Mini Golf" into big business.

You might know the name Scopely, but a whole mess of you know its games. In the last year, the 2-year-old startup has churned out a mind-boggling three No. 1 mobile games for the iOS and Android platforms: Bubble Galaxy With Buddies, a bubble-popping “puzzle game” involving a monkey, which became the top free app within six hours of its release last October; Mini Golf Matchup, which allows you to tee off against friends, became the No. 1 free app in 49 countries within 24 hours of its March launch; and Wordly, a Scrabble-meets-Boggle-meets-Risk spelling game, another No. 1 title within 24 hours of its release earlier this month.

Just how addictive is Wordly, in which you can pit your intelligence against the likes of Shakespeare and Voltaire? The typical player goes at the game 25 times a day, on average.

Scopely hasn’t found its success by replicating Zynga’s—or anyone else’s—model. In fact, the company isn’t even based in Silicon Valley. They’re in Los Angeles, which makes sense, given that their whole approach to game making is borrowed from the way that TV networks and movie studios make shows and movies.

Rather than develop games in-house—or acquire smaller studios à la Zynga—Scopely has set up the equivalent of first-look deals with a number of game studios around the world, acting as a consultant and distributor. "So they can start working on (the game), and we help them along with it, testing it against our audiences,” Scopely CEO Walter Driver says. Scopely is then able to offer game developers extensive data and feedback that wouldn’t otherwise be available to small companies that often amount to “20 guys in Vancouver,” as Driver puts it.

And much as networks order pilots before committing to a show, Scopely doesn’t fully partner on a game until after conducting market research and testing to determine that it looks like a hit. Then there’s the company’s very Hollywood attitude toward content.

Silicon Valley-based games companies “are allergic to content, yet they’re making it,” says Scopely CEO Walter Driver. “They don’t have any passion for entertaining people the same way we do.”

A former screenwriter and actor, Driver—who founded the company in 2011 with AdSense cocreator Eytan Elbaz and Ankur Bulsara—speaks from experience. “Designing a product for a game is a lot like writing a screenplay,” he says. “You’re trying to make someone feel a certain way, at a certain point in time. And you want to give them a richly textured experience that takes them to a place that they don’t get to be in their normal, everyday life.”

Driver learned this firsthand as an up-and-coming screenwriter who arrived in L.A. in 2004 after graduating from Brown. At the urging of his agent, Driver—who has chiseled features and a megawatt smile—also got into acting, auditioning for parts in shows like Gossip Girl (he came close to landing a lead role in Friday Night Lights). Being so entrenched in Hollywood allowed him to able to study the way the industry works.

When Driver eventually gave up his Hollywood career and turned in a more entrepreneurial direction, this education influenced the creation of Scopely, which also has a movie producer (chief business officer Andy Kleinman) and a Hollywood scion (VP of business development Chris Ovitz, the son of Mike Ovitz) on staff.

“I saw how slow the development cycles were, and where creativity comes from and gets inhibited. And in the TV business, I saw a system that could be applied to games,” he says.

The first-look type of arrangement also means that Scopely can stay lean—there are currently 85 employees—rather than having to support the huge overhead of a company like Zynga. Being small also means being able to take more risks creatively, says Driver.

“As these closed platforms evolve, a lot of things get harder for new companies. The barriers for entry go up around distribution, analytics, and, monetization. Infrastructure needs start to favor companies that have more scale. But the actual product creation process actually starts to favor smaller teams that can be more nimble. So there’s this weird, inherent tension.

“So I thought, what if we built a company from the ground up that was designed to take advantage of the efficiencies and economies of scale, monetization, analytics, and such, but were able to work in a very nimble fashion and have lots of different product teams that were outside of our organization that were trying new things?”

Mini Golf MatchUp

Mini Golf MatchUp, which was initially developed by the New Zealand-based studio Rocket Jump, is a perfect example of how this dynamic plays out—and pays off.

“Those guys had built this game we really loved, Major Mayhem, a critically acclaimed game. Really fun. It was kind of amazing what this small team had done. So we approached them and said, ‘What do you guys want to do next and can we help you make it a big phenomenon? They said they really wanted to make a head-to-head mini golf game. So we gave them access to our back-end infrastructure for our multiplayer stuff. We worked with them to build the game, then we handled all the marketing and distribution and ad sales. It launched in late March, and these two guys just kind of working out of their houses in Wellington launched the No. 1 game in 49 countries on the iPhone within 24 hours.

“It’s something they obviously couldn’t have done on their own. But we wouldn’t have had the idea to make this kind of zany mini golf game with crazy characters and stuff. All that really came from them. Then we turned that idea into a business.”

Unsurprisingly, Scopely has attracted Hollywood investors, including The Chernin Group and former Warner Bros. and Yahoo honcho Terry Semel. And the company is beginning to have discussions with major entertainment companies about partnerships that would involve those companies’ IP.

Driver stresses that no deals are in place yet and calls the talks “a corollary to being in L.A. and knowing all these people and understanding how their business works and being able to navigate that world.

“It makes sense.”

[Image: Flickr user Woodleywonderworks]

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