Strangely, PlayFirst has been largely forgotten. As the earth shifted beneath the tectonic plates that was the upward thrust of the mobile revolution, many PC publisher/developers have bitten the dust – especially the early casual game pioneers. Remember them? Remember when PC downloads and try-before-you-buy was the disrupting force in the industry? Most of those early portal-publishers are gone or diminished, unable to make the transition to mobile fast enough. Big Fish Games was an exception, PlayFirst was not. Like many once-great stalwarts of the casual revolution, their transition was painful and slow. If it had not been for Marco DeMiroz and Becky Ann Hughes, they might not have made it at all.
To be fair, it takes a whole team of dedicated individuals to turn a company around, not to mention a wise board and some smart investors. PlayFirst has rebuilt itself almost completely with fresh blood and loads of new talent. But it was the passion, faith and quick thinking of DeMiroz and Hughes that lit the fuse – though they will be the first to demure and give credit to their people. Still, it was Hughes and DeMiroz who, in a make-or-break 56-hour marathon, made the tough call to re-focus the business entirely on mobile and then lay down the framework for the plan that would, they hope, not just save the company, but build it into a mobile powerhouse to rival their South of Market neighbors.
Marco DeMiroz is not your typical CEO. He looks and sounds more like that great science teacher you had in high school, the guy who still burns with a passion for organic chemistry and delights at the little puffs of smoke he produces with his magic beakers. Marco is refreshingly cheerful, and his eyes sparkle with a child-like enthusiasm. He is a roll-up-your-sleeves visionary with boundless energy and some impressive chops in the tech industry.
DeMiroz has made some very interesting and strategic hires since he came on board 18 months ago, people with some serious street cred, like Tom Hall of Doom fame, Paul Chen from Papaya and Brian Booker of Creative Brain, to name a few. But DeMiroz has some street cred of his own. He’s a true Silicon Valley veteran, coming out of Oracle, Sun and SGI. But it was his stint at General Magic back in the early 90′s that’s most interesting, and perhaps the most relevant highlight of his storied career.
In case you’ve forgotten, or just didn’t know, General Magic invented the precursor to the smart-phone. Back in the last century they called them PDA’s – personal data assistants. But PDA’s were ahead of their time and General Magic followed Apple’s ill-fated Newton, both relegated to Wikipedia obscurity. But that vision – that the whole world would one day be connected by a computer held in the palm of a hand – wound up changing the world. When DeMiroz was approached by the PlayFirst board almost two years ago, he saw his chance to get in on what he calls “One of life’s major inflection points.”
“I didn’t come here to save PlayFirst,” DeMiroz says. “I came here to help build an enormously successful mobile gaming company. We think we can be the next Gree or DeNA.”
PlayFirst is blessed with a deep and popular library of IP – Diner Dash, Chocolatier, and Dream Chronicles, to name a few. It’s the Dash franchise that pays the bills and helps fund the company’s reinvention. But they are not the company of Flo. And this is not your momma’s PlayFirst.
“We don’t want to be the Dash company,” DeMiroz says. “For us, PlayFirst is the brand, like EA is the brand. Flo is part of who we are, but not totally who we are. Our effort for the past 18 months has been PlayFirst, PlayFirst, PlayFirst. And it’s an ongoing effort.”
After touring their offices and spending time with DeMiroz, Hughes and others, it’s clear that PlayFirst has changed. They are one hundred percent focused on mobile – no more downloads, no more shrink-wrapped retail. And the energy in the office is palpable. These people are on a mission. These people believe. To an outsider, who knows only the old, Flo-centric PlayFirst, the change is startling. It really feels like an entirely new company.
“We’re really a two-year old mobile gaming company,” DeMiroz says. “Out of the fifty-seven people currently on board, forty-seven joined since I joined the company a year and a half ago.”
So how is PlayFirst making this pivot? How, with the rather ambitious goal to double revenue in 2013, will PlayFirst earn more cash with less Dash? The answer is twofold – strategic partners and genre-expanding, original IP. You will see things come out of PlayFirst in the next several months that will make you whistle with admiration and shake your head in disbelief. They didn’t bring Tom Hall in to make girl-games with unicorns and ponies. They’re going after boys. And they’re going to do that with mid-core strategy SIMS like Mortal Instruments™, which they’re developing in partnership with SONY Entertainment ahead of the release of the upcoming film.
PlayFirst is going to take risks with new genres and new IP, but they’re not going to mess with the golden goose. Oh no. The Dash franchise, which according to DeMiroz is the second most downloaded piece of IP after Angry Birds, is one of the big user-acquisition and innovation engines that will be key to PlayFirst’s becoming the next big mobile player. The Diner Dash franchise, which includes the games with Flo and her cadre of familiar, cartoony friends, is being modernized and optimized. And it’s making money. A lot of money. Revenue grew by 40 percent last year, they more than doubled their user base, and they’ve seen a lot of success on Google Play. Then there’re the movies.
“We’re partnering with Branded IP, like movie studios,” says VP of Product and Marketing Becky Ann Hughes. “Hotel Transylvania was one of them, but we are partnering with them to create games like Mortal Instruments and Cloudy 2. But really, the key there is they spend millions and millions on marketing, and they have such big presence at the launch of these that there’s an opportunity for us to deliver great game content and also get a lot of scale with that partnership and then, along with our platform, driving scale into our platform and monetizing across our games which is really critical, and what it really comes down to is building community.”
Aligning themselves with entertainment giants like SONY is brilliant, if not obvious. This will not only help them fund technology developments, hone live-teams and generate revenue, but the vast reach and huge marketing campaigns behind big tent-pole releases such as Mortal Instruments, Hotel Transylvania and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 will become (if all goes well) user acquisition juggernauts. Think of it as UA stealth mode.
By platform, Hughes means P3N, the PlayFirst Publishing & Promotion Network – a proprietary, publishing and promotion platform inside every game that gives them enormous user acquisition leverage.
“We have our own ChartBoost, our own TapJoy,” DeMiroz says. “And we’re really careful about what content we expose to our users.”
PlayFirst has proven to be just as valuable to big entertainment brands as those brands are to them. They created 300M impressions for Hotel Transylvania with Hotel Transylvania Dash prior to the movie’s release – a significant achievement that, if it can be maintained, bodes very well for DeMiroz’s aspirations and PlayFirst’s future. They have an evergreen franchise, top talent, a brilliant plan, strategic partnerships and a proven technology layer beneath their games. All they need to do now is execute and deliver some great new games.
PlayFirst may have been forgotten by some, but they’ve been busy like little cobblers in the night readying themselves for a renaissance that, if it delivers on the promise, will be legendary, and worthy of the many talented people who helped build the house that Flo built; people like John Welch, and Kenny Dinkin. And let’s not forget Eric Zimmerman and Nic Fortugno who, with the pioneering studio gameLab, invented Flo and the whole plate-juggling time management genre in the first place.