In the field of social games, one company is clearly the current king of the hill, boasting multiple top 10 Facebook games month after month while raking in big revenue on mobile platforms as well. You'll have to excuse the pun because the firm in question actually is King, the force behind the unusually addictive social/mobile sensation Candy Crush Saga.
Minus the mobile part, a very similar description was used to discuss Zynga just a few years ago. Now the fortunes of the two companies couldn't be more different. Privately held King has offices in seven different countries and plans to expand to 750 employees by the end of 2013 – which may not sound like a lot, but represents a sizable increase from the 400 people currently on its payroll.
Publicly traded Zynga is going in the opposite direction, laying off workers and shuttering whole studios. The most infamous closure was the New York office that housed most of the former staff of OMGPOP, creator of Draw Something and a company that Zynga had purchased for $180 million just 15 months prior.
The struggles of Zynga since the time its "Ville" games were the envy of the social gaming world have been well documented, but one thing that even CEO Mark Pincus has admitted is that his team was caught flat-footed by the rapid rise of mobile gaming. Their attempts to transition Facebook strength to smartphones and tablets mostly flopped, and as a result, Zynga is scrambling. Its future is tied to the elusive "midcore" market and hopes for legalized online and mobile gambling in the U.S., if it's tied to anything at all.
Zynga still had three of the top 10 Facebook games by monthly active users (MAU) in May, yet it talks more and more as if the kinds of titles that built it into an empire are a dead end. At the same time, King has essentially set up shop in what used to be Zynga's backyard and has shown few signs of slowing down.
How is this possible? As King's Games Guru Tommy Palm told Gamezebo at E3, it's due to a smarter game development process; one that capitalizes on the company's web portal and minimizes risk by only pushing the games to Facebook and mobile after they've been proven to have some winning qualities.
"We started out making more casual social games, rather simple games that we have on [King.com] now," Palm said. "We have more than 150 games there, and it's a very important part of our recipe of making games. We can, with very small teams, two to three people, try the games on that audience of currently 12 million active users. So we can cheaply take some risks and try to innovate and see if the game works really well there. And if it does, like in the case of Candy Crush, we'll take it onward and create a Facebook and mobile platform version of it."
Candy Crush is a perfect example of what Palm was talking about, because while it seemed like an overnight success last fall, it came the whole way through the King pipeline. The game made its King.com debut in mid-2011, hit Facebook in April 2012 and only came to smartphones and tablets about seven months after that.
It's not just a simple port process either, as King takes the time to build a version of each game specifically for the next platform on its journey. The idea is to make any iteration of any title feel native to the device it's played on. It sounds simple, almost like common sense, but it took the company nearly ten years of experience to get everything figured out.
The process pays off in other ways too. Palm said King is proud of its reputation for having polished, nearly bug-free games due to the time spent on them before they ever reach the mobile stage. A few titles have become truly cross-platform as well, something the company is banking on as a key feature going forward.
And while it's harder to pinpoint exactly how, King has even succeeded in giving games like Candy Crush Sagaand Pet Rescue Saga a great deal of virality. Gamers that usually shun Facebook and mobile games play them, and more importantly, they talk about them.
"These games have a lot of longevity to them," Palm said. "One of the reasons is the social component. If you look at Instagram or Pinterest under the Candy Crush tag, [there are] a lot of funny things that fans are showing. They're painting their toenails, writing out tutorials on how to make Candy Crush cakes. It's really cool to see that."