Q&A with Tim O’Brien: PierPlay, Scrabble® GO, and more

Q&A with Tim O’Brien: PierPlay, Scrabble® GO, and more


From Annlee Ellingson at LA Biz

Scopely Inc. is making its Scrabble® GO partnership with PierPlay permanent, acquiring the Culver City, California, game development studio.

The two companies have partnered since 2016 on building a new mobile “Scrabble” game in collaboration in North America with Hasbro Inc. and internationally with Mattel Inc.

Now Scopely, which invested in PierPlay, has bought the company outright. Terms of the deal, scheduled to be announced Tuesday morning, were not disclosed.

The move follows the successful launch of Scrabble® GO earlier this year. The title marked the biggest word game launch ever and the most-downloaded word game in the world. More than 2.5 million people are playing it daily, with the average session lasting more than 100 minutes per day.

“PierPlay is another example of a unique studio relationship that allowed us to successfully tackle a different game genre and IP,” said Scopely Chief Revenue Officer and Board Member, Tim O’Brien, in a statement. “This acquisition is the culmination of an outstanding long-term partnership that we believe will continue to flourish as we welcome PierPlay as a Scopely Studio and build more ambitious projects together.”

PierPlay co-founder and CEO Lorenzo Nuvoletta will continue to manage the game studio’s 25-person team, which is currently working on an as-yet-unannounced game while a Scopely Studio in Barcelona supports Scrabble® GO. Before launching their own company, PierPlay’s co-founders created “Bingo Blitz” at Playtika.

“We’ve loved being part of the ‘Scrabble® GO game team, and formalizing our relationship allows us to participate even more in Scopely’s great culture,” said Nuvoletta. “Having experienced the momentum and growth of the business firsthand, we are extremely excited to officially be part of Scopely.”

The acquisition also comes on the heels of $200 million in new funding last month that doubled its Series D to $400 million and brought its valuation to $1.9 billion. The new financing came from Advance, a New York-based family-owned business that invests in a broad range of media and technology companies, and existing investor The Chernin Group, a consumer-focused investment firm in Playa Vista.

Scopely said that as a profitable business it plans to use the additional capital to continue to expand its portfolio of games across new genres and IP through mergers and acquisitions.

The company previously acquired FoxNext Games from The Walt Disney Co. and Digit Game Studios, the Irish game developer behind the companies’ massively multiplayer online/strategy game Star Trek™ Fleet Command.

Scopely’s portfolio also includes Looney Tunes World of Mayhem, WWE Champions 2020, The Walking Dead: Road To Survival, Yahtzee® With Buddies and Wheel of Fortune: Free Play.

During the coronavirus crisis, “people have been playing even more games,” said Scopely Chief Revenue Officer Tim O’Brien. “It’s nice to be able to help people out during these hard times.”

O’Brien expanded on the acquisition in an interview with L.A. Biz, including how Scopely came to work with PierPlay, the launch of “Scrabble Go” and how the coronavirus crisis has impacted business at the mobile game company.

How did Scopely first come to work with PierPlay?

Back in 2016, we wanted to make “Scrabble.” We had a unique opportunity to bring the license together through Hasbro and Mattel — both IP holders wanted to work with a new partner, because [Electronic Arts] had had the game on the market for many years. We had an existing relationship with Hasbro with “Yahtzee.” It’s been extremely successful, so they were eager to work with us on another project.

So we were looking for the best team in the world to build the game, and we got introduced to Scott [Jablow], Don [Adriano] and Lorenzo [Nuvoetta], who were the team that had made “Bingo Blitz” for Playtika, and as soon as we met them, we were like, “Wow, these guys are great. Very passionate.” Our visions aligned on what we could do with “Scrabble,” and they had a team of a little under 10 or 20 people at the time, and we invested in them and helped them get their start and started making “Scrabble” together.

How did it come about that Scopely took over a “Scrabble” mobile game from Electronic Arts?

I can’t speak to EA’s strategy, but I know that Hasbro and Mattel were looking for a partner that would be willing to invest and build “Scrabble” for today’s market. With the success that we’d seen with “Yahtzee” — super social, deep, rich gameplay that’s a business that’s been growing every year since we launched it — they knew that we were a team that could really bring the “Scrabble” experience to life in mobile and kind of honor the core “Scrabble” gameplay that “Scrabble” players have known for years, as well as bring in a new set of features and experiences that can appease the word game players on mobile today.

So when you get an opportunity to turn a piece of IP into a mobile game, do you look for an outside partner to help with that, as you did for “Scrabble Go” with PierPlay?

It depends. We have a number of internal studios already that we work with on projects and then we have external studios as well. So if we’re thinking of green-lighting a new project, we’ll go through an entire slate planning process, we’ll do a bunch of consumer research, and then once we get very focused on, “OK, this is the game we want to make, this is the category we want to be in, this IP could make a lot of sense,” then we will go out to our global studio network and find the right partner. It could be internal, it could be external. I think that’s one of the unique thing about Scopely is they don’t all have to be made by internal game studios.

Why did you decide at this point to take Scopely’s relationship with PierPlay to the next level with a full acquisition?

When [PierPlay] started off, they were in a WeWork office down the street from our Culver City office, which was kind of fun because … they were right next door, so they’d come over and eat lunch and hang out all the time. We really got to know them well, and then through the process of building the game, it just became very obvious that this is a team we wanted to work with for many, many years.

In 2017, they actually moved into our office because one of the core things at Scopely that we have to have on any product that we’re building is a one-team vision, and so whether it’s an external team or working with our Scopely product people, we want to make sure that everyone is aligned behind the vision and shooting for the right outcome. With PierPlay, once we got into the game development process, it became very clear that ultimately they would become a fully owned studio in our network.

What can you share about the new game that PierPlay is working on?

My gosh, I can’t tell you anything, unfortunately. I can tell you it’s in the casual category, and it’s a very exciting one, but I can’t tell you much. It’s exciting enough that the PierPlay team was very passionate about making it.

What do you think the effect the coronavirus crisis has had on the launch of “Scrabble Go”?

I think for sure it has created an environment where there’s more people with time on their hands to play games. We see that across our portfolio. With “Scrabble,” we already knew that the retention numbers were the highest in our portfolio … and it’s “Scrabble.” The IP has been around for [80-plus] years. People love “Scrabble.” If you’re a word game player, you know “Scrabble.” It was our job to make sure that consumers and the market knew that “Scrabble Go” was here, because we knew that once they got into the game, they would stay and play and invite their friends to play.

Have you seen an impact on your other games as well during this time?

We’ve seen about a 10% increase in revenue across the portfolio. This could be industry-wide, but for sure our casual titles have seen substantially more installs happening. And then our core titles like “Star Trek Fleet Command,” the number of people playing each day increased 11% from January to April [and] average daily playtime per user increased 22%. So the core games, people are just playing a lot longer, and the casual games you’ve got more people coming in.

Are you seeing any impact from the global health crisis on advertising?

There was an impact earlier in March [when] we saw some of the CPM brand advertising slow down, but the in-game advertising from other games hasn’t really slowed down, and I would say it’s rebounded at this point for us at 100% now.

How are you preparing for the economic fallout from the pandemic?

For us, business is up. From our perspective, we continue to scale and grow. We haven’t [frozen] hiring. In fact, we’ve opened up more head count across a number of projects and areas in the company. We’re continuing to invest and green-light new games; continue to invest in building audiences for our games. We’re going to continue to be very active in the M&A market, so we’ll just continue to build and scale the business as we have been and [are] very focused on building the best games possible.