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How the maker of mobile hit Game of War unpivoted itself

After venturing into the Internet of Things and blockchain technology, MZ (formerly Machine Zone) is all about games again.

How the maker of mobile hit Game of War unpivoted itself

Even if you’ve never heard of MZ or played its games, there’s a good chance you’ve seen some of the company’s work.

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Originally called Addmired, then Machine Zone, and eventually just MZ, the studio has poured tens of millions of dollars into TV commercials for Game of War: Fire Age and Mobile Strike, including Super Bowl ads with Kate Upton in 2015 and Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2017. Outside of TV, Game of War’s screaming soldier mascot has become a digital advertising staple, and an advertisement about a supposedly legendary Game of War player took on a life of its own last year as an internet meme.

But for much of the last two years, MZ has seemed more interested in technology than games, announcing forays into the Internet of Things business and blockchain technology. Meanwhile, the company has pulled back its marketing for Game of War: Fire Age and Mobile Strike, instead putting its promotional energy into Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire, which launched in mid-2017. While that game has done well on iOS and Android, the metrics firm Sensor Tower says it hasn’t reached the heights of its predecessors, and its revenues may have already peaked.

All of this led to a leadership change in June, when MZ’s board of directors replaced CEO Gabriel Leydon with Kristen Dumont, who had been COO. Although Leydon had insisted for years that MZ was really a technology company, Dumont says that obsession eventually caused the company to lose its way. She says that her job is to refocus MZ on its gaming roots and win back the confidence of players, investors, and employees.

“The company image and culture became a mirror of Gabe,” Dumont told me in her first interview as MZ’s CEO. “When anybody talked about Machine Zone, it was intertwined with Gabe’s opinions, and Gabe’s personality quirks, rather than the company being about our people, our products, and our players. That’s what should define [MZ].”

Mobile multiplayer without the spam

Before becoming Machine Zone’s COO in 2015, Dumont had spent roughly two decades as an attorney, providing legal advice to technology companies. Machine Zone was one of her clients, and over time, her conversations with Leydon shifted from legal matters to business strategy. He eventually convinced her to join the company.

“I wanted to actually invest in Machine Zone, and he wouldn’t let me,” Dumont says. “He kept saying, ‘I’m not going to let you invest. You just have to come join Machine Zone and put all these good ideas to work.'”

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Dumont says she was impressed with Leydon’s vision for the mobile games business outgrowing console and PC gaming–still an edgy idea in 2013, when Dumont started working with the company–and with the social elements of MZ’s games in particular. Unlike, say, Zynga’s FarmVille, which rewards players for bringing their Facebook friends into the game, Game of War is more like a traditional massive multiplayer game: Players form alliances with strangers and coordinate attacks on other groups. Machine Zone’s chat system even uses real-time translation so that players around the world can band together.

“There’s nothing that you do in the game that doesn’t upset, impact, or interact with another player,” Dumont says. “That was taking social to the next level a long time ago, and it wasn’t just spamming your friends.”

Dumont joined the company at a time of peak excitement. In 2014, a Wall Street Journal story claimed that MZ was seeking additional venture funding for a $3 billion valuation, and a 2015 Bloomberg story framed the rivalry between MZ and Clash of Clans maker Supercell as a high-stakes battle between potential gaming giants.

“I think I was drawn to Machine Zone’s very bold vision, and very bold claim that, yes, mobile is going to be the future,” Dumont says. “It’s going to be incredible growth, and I think Gabe’s original bet on the growth of mobile was the right one.”

Beyond games, then back again

For Dumont, things started to get off track in early 2017, when MZ launched a new venture called Satori. Although Leydon had been hinting for years that MZ was a technology company at heart, this was supposed to be his big move, with MZ’s in-game chat technology morphing into a platform for all kinds of public data. He envisioned having other organizations tap into that data for smart cities or other Internet of Things applications.

“The idea at the time was that the games had been an excellent alpha product for this real-time messaging platform, and that tech could expand into different verticals,” Dumont says.

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While Dumont believes that finding broader uses for MZ’s technology was a smart idea in theory, the problem was in the execution. Leydon clearly had a grand vision for Satori, but the venture never had a clear category beyond gaming to break into. This lack of a clear strategy, combined with Leydon’s zeal for the cause, started to affect employee morale. (While reporting this story, I came across a parody Twitter account for Leydon, calling him a “con man” with a “sociopathic narcissistic personality.” The account looks like the work of a disgruntled insider, but MZ would not comment on it.)

“I would say the culture was extremely hard-charged, and people started to feel confused, and maybe a little bit resentful about where they were spending their time because they no longer understood what they were marching towards,” Dumont says.

The final straw broke as MZ began moving into blockchain technology and cryptocurrency, including a partnership with Hedera Hashgraph Council on a blockchain alternative that was announced in March. Three months later, Leydon stepped down, ostensibly to run Satori as a standalone business. Dumont says the board’s decision was emotional and difficult, but ultimately amicable.

“I think crypto may be a very compelling space. I think there’s a lot of potential promise, “she says. “But it is a new and murky frontier, and to pivot the company very aggressively into crypto was a bridge too far for me.”

As for Satori, its fate seems uncertain. Leydon did not respond to a message on LinkedIn for this story, and two of Satori’s Twitter accounts did not answer requests for comment. Satori’s website provides no contact information except for a Telegram account that is no longer active, and MZ’s public relations representatives said they didn’t have Leydon’s contact information.

More games, faster

Dumont says MZ is now focused on its core mission of connecting people around the world through games. To that end, the company plans to start releasing new ones at a much faster rate.

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MZ will soon launch its first new game since 2017’s Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire. The studio is also planning two more games for 2019–one in the same vein as MZ’s current strategy games, and one that Dumont says will “surprise people”–and aims to release a new game every six months thereafter. That’s a significant change for a company that’s only released three games since 2012.

Mobile games are a cutthroat business, but Dumont believes MZ has an edge in its social features, along with its ability to analyze millions of players’ needs and habits in real time. This can be useful for grouping players into alliances with similar players, and offering them the right in-app purchases at the right times.

“Because we have spent so much time building out our infrastructure, our gaming engine, we are now able to develop games exponentially faster than we could in the past, and so that poises Machine Zone for very healthy growth for the future,” Dumont says.

Just don’t count on Super Bowl ads to be part of the new strategy. Dumont says she’d rather focus on marketing with more measurable results.

“TV’s kind of a rip-off, to be honest,” she says.

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About the author

Jared Newman covers apps and technology for Fast Company from his remote outpost in Cincinnati. He also writes for PCWorld and TechHive, and previously wrote for Time.com

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