For most of us, our first introduction to Scopely came in the form of a Robert Kirkman tweet back in August. The Walking Dead creator posted a picture of a mysterious unmarked package he’d received that just happened to be covered in bloody fingerprints.
The tweet was part of a wide-ranging marketing onslaught by the company for its new mobile game The Walking Dead: Road to Survival. And like most things related to the blockbuster zombie entertainment franchise, the game was a hit, gouging the mobile game competition like two enthusiastic thumbs up in the eyeholes of the undead.
In its first week, TWD:RTS hit more than 4 million downloads and was a Top 25 Grossing Game in 17 countries. More people downloaded in its first few days than saw Straight Outta Compton, the No. 1 movie at the box office that same weekend. It was also Scopely’s sixth consecutive No. 1-selling game.
Earlier this year in April, the company teamed with Hasbro to launch the Yahtzee With Buddies mobile game, which got more than a million downloads in its first four days, with players now playing more than 50 million turns in the game per day.
The combination of marketing prowess, reach, and distribution has helped Scopely grow revenues by more than 19,556% from 2011 to 2014. As CEO Walter Driver exclusively told Fast Company, the company’s business has grown by five times in the last seven months, and its annual revenue run rate is now more than $150 million a year.
Driver says this isn’t some fluke driven by an immature market and zombie popularity, but rather just the tip of the iceberg. He and Scopely investors like The Chernin Group and Evolution Media Capital believe the company’s business model and strategy makes it the fastest-growing, most innovative entertainment company you’ve barely heard of.
Scopely was founded in 2011, just as the cracks were beginning to show in the explosive popularity of mobile gaming companies like Zynga, Playfish, and Playdom, which were churning out games for the masses. All new games were created in-house by an ever-increasing employee count. But Driver saw an opportunity to adopt the kind of entertainment model favored by companies like HBO and Netflix, partnering with independent producers to curate the best possible lineup of content.
“Obviously the story of Zynga is well known, and watching them scale was interesting in that they hired more than 3,000 people in 36 months to make games,” says Driver. “But the platform matured, and hiring more people to make more of the same stuff isn’t really how entertainment works. That’s when your talent level deteriorates, your culture deteriorates, and you can’t possibly hire a few thousand world-class people in a few months. It just doesn’t work that way. People are looking for new experiences from a variety of creators and voices, and you can’t really build a widget factory fast enough to mass-produce entertainment content like that. The content has to surprise and delight people, and it’s very tough to do that if your production process is uniform.”
But at the same time, Zynga did have a huge advantage when it came to distribution, cross-promotion, analytics, business development, and leverage in the mobile marketplace with Apple, Google, and Facebook. “All the business around games got better with scale, but the ability to create new content that was interesting and surprising got worse,” says Driver. “With what I knew about the entertainment business, I was thinking about how in almost every form of media, there’s a division of labor between the people distributing and monetizing it, and the people who are creating it. You have cable networks and showrunners. Book publishers and authors. Record labels and bands. Free-to-play games was one of the only forms of entertainment in the Western world where the people making the games were also the people distributing and monetizing them.”
The idea behind Scopely was that if mobile gaming was now mainstream media, there wasn’t yet a company designed from the ground up to be the central business and technology infrastructure to support creators. “So we wanted to build this central hub, to then work with the most creative producers and help make them successful, while constantly looking for where the next piece of exciting content will come from, rather than trying to have it all in-house,” says Driver.
The role Scopely hopes to fill in mobile gaming creativity, in film and TV parlance, is that of indispensable producer. Let the creators create, and they’ll take care of the rest. “We want to free the studios and development talent from having to think about how they have to translate their game into Mandarin or German, what business partnerships they need with TV providers in France to promote the game to that audience,” says Driver. “On their own, that’s what they want to do. How do you get Google or Apple to take a meeting when you only have a product every 15 months? We have ongoing relationships and can work on that in a central platform so they can just concentrate on making great content. Which I think will yield far better results. The app ecosystem has become a lot more mature. It’s no longer a strategy for a 100-person game studio to make a game and hope Apple and Google feature it, spend a little bit of money for Facebook ads and hope it catches on. It’s not a viable strategy.
“A lot of the people creating some of the most innovative stuff work outside the establishment ecosystem, but they can’t compete because of their structural disadvantage, but if you can harness that innovation and creativity and put it in a vehicle that can compete, that’s when you can get really encouraging results, and that’s why we’ve had six consecutive No. 1 games.”
While the primary engine of the Scopely model is its partnerships with development studios, the other side of it is its aim to work with partners with already established IP, just as it has with Skybound Entertainment with The Walking Dead, or Hasbro with Yahtzee.
“A lot of the biggest brands and entertainment brands know there’s this new era happening right now, know they should be on mobile, but don’t know how to do it well,” says Driver. “As this reality is setting in, a lot of these IP holders are wondering what to do with their brand. They don’t have the infrastructure, audience, or expertise to go create an experience that reflects the quality of their brand.”
That’s where Scopely steps in to figure out what’s unique about their IP from a gaming perspective, find the best content creators for that brand, then finance the development, and distribute it so they don’t have to wait for the next movie or TV season starts to keep the brand out there and their fans happy.
“Most gaming companies are really good at making one kind of game, and your IP may not fit in that box,” says Driver. “We can figure out what the right experience should be and who the right creators are to make it happen.”