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Zynga’s cofounder bets that the next big thing is instant gaming

Justin Waldron helped usher in an era of social gaming with blockbuster titles like ‘FarmVille’. Now he’s betting his new company Playco is the new frontier.

Zynga’s cofounder bets that the next big thing is instant gaming
Michael Carter (left) and Justin Waldron (right) [Photo: courtesy of Playco]

As the cofounder of mobile gaming company Zynga, Justin Waldron helped usher in a new era of social gaming with blockbuster titles like Zynga Poker and FarmVille.

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Now, seven years since leaving Zynga, Waldron is ready for his second act: instant gaming.

Today, Waldron is announcing his new startup Playco, a company that develops web and mobile games that don’t require any installed apps or downloads.

Along with his cofounders Michael Carter, CEO of HTML5 app developer Game Closure; Takeshi Otsuka, former executive director of mobile portal provider DeNA; and Teddy Cross, senior producer at Game Closure, Waldron aims to corner the emerging market of casual gaming that leans into the social experience while eliminating any friction for adoption. Playco games are multiplayer experiences that are meant to be shared and played anywhere people connect online, e.g. social media platforms and even conference services like Zoom.

It all feeds into what Waldron says is Playco’s mission: “to bring the world closer together through play.”

“People already spend most of their time in these social apps, and we think they want more activities to do,” Waldron says. “Through creating games that people can play with their friends, frictionlessly, we can go explore building new genres and new types of games and new types of interaction.”

Playco has raised a whopping $100 million Series A funding, giving it a valuation “just north” of $1 billion, to rectify and pursue this mission. “We think that everybody in the world wants to play games with their friends,” Waldron says. “We think the market size for it is everyone who has a connected device. Although mobile gaming was supposed to grow into this huge diverse ecosystem that could make any type of game for all the types of people that are out there, what’s really happened is that it’s actually constrained by the business ecosystem.”

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The company is aiming to unveil details of its first batch of games later this year, with an official rollout slated for 2021.

[Photo: courtesy of Playco]
Although mobile gaming is already a massive industry, outstripping PC/Mac gaming and console spending by 2.8 and 3.1 times, respectively, and mobile games have shown considerable growth especially during the COVID-19 pandemic with widespread stay-at-home mandates, that upward trajectory in revenue doesn’t directly translate into actual downloads. According to a recent report, games generated nearly 70% of combined iOS and Google Play spending in Q1 2020, but garnered only around 40% of total app downloads. Add to that game developers butting against Apple’s dominant share of the app market, and it’s an ecosystem that’s simultaneously flourishing and stilted in certain areas.

“I can’t remember the last time that somebody actually told me, ‘Hey, have you heard of this app? You should go download it.’ It’s something that’s become burdensome in a lot of cases,” Waldron says. “It could be a couple hundred megabyte download. Then there’s log in and account creation—no one really likes the idea of a five-minute upfront investment just to see if they even like what they’re getting themselves into.”

The friction that creates for consumers is where Waldron feels Playco comes in. While even a casual gamer might be willing to clear the barriers of entry for a game, Playco is targeting those people who don’t even consider themselves gamers at all.

“We want to make games for people who don’t go looking for games,” says Waldron. “The way that you discover our games is in the social context. You’ll give it a shot because it’s not about the games at first—it’s about who you’re playing with.”

Playco game demo [Photo: courtesy of Playco]
To execute that vision, Playco is powered by what Waldron claims to be “the world’s most advanced web browser streaming game engine.”

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“We’ve built a very advanced webpage that ends up looking and feeling and performing just like a native app, but doesn’t require any of the downloads,” Waldron says. “We don’t want [players] to land on the page and say, ‘Oh, it’s a webpage, so we’ll forgive you for some lower quality here.’ We have the bar set very high. We want to make sure it stands up to any other game they’ve ever seen.”

As novel of concept as Playco is, the company’s success largely hinges on not only what games they plan to offer, but how those games leverage that unique multiplayer experience.

“We can learn from games that have succeeded in the past, but we have to blaze new trails here,” Waldron says. “I don’t think that a lot of [mobile] game companies have been able to focus on what it means to go and build the games that people want to play with all their friends.”

Although Waldron didn’t provide specifics on exactly what kind of games Playco will offer when it rolls out (genres could range from racing to action/adventure), he did underscore the importance of hitting the intersection of engaging enough to want to play but simple enough to figure out for the player that’s not a big gamer.

StarCraft was like the gold standard, real-time strategy game, and [mobile gaming company] Supercell succeeded with Clash of Clans, which is really like, how do you make StarCraft 10 times simpler and put it on mobile?” Waldron says. “The question we’re asking ourselves is how would you take a game like a Clash of Clans and make it 10 times simpler than what it is.”

In terms of revenue, Playco will operate like most mobile games as freemium model with in-app purchases. But given the company’s multiplayer focus, Waldron says there are unique opportunities for how those in-app purchases could pop up. “These social dynamics are so interesting in that people will be willing to pay in situations where they haven’t really been put in,” Waldron says. “An example would be if we had this shared game and shared goal, and one of us loses along the way, the game would have a continue screen like an arcade game: If you put in another quarter, you would come back alive and join your friend again. There are opportunities to create that sort of dynamic on mobile that hasn’t existed.”

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About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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