Eric Johnson

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Co-Founder Yat Siu on Animoca’s Big Menu of “Fast Food” Mobile Games

Animoca_Large_WhiteIf you’ve never heard of Animoca, it’s probably because — like nearly every company in the mobile games industry — the Hong Kong-based studio has never had a huge hit on the scale of Temple Run or Candy Crush Saga.

And Animoca couldn’t be happier about that.

Co-founder Yat Siu calls them “fast food apps.” His 150-person company, a conglomerate of 12 smaller studios, has developed and published more than 350 apps, he said, currently at the rate of about four every week. Its goal is to one day crank out a new app every day as it expands its reach further into Asia and beyond.

Siu, who is also the CEO of Animoca’s parent company, Outblaze Ventures, said as much in a recent interview with AllThingsD. But he also had a lot more to say about the advantages of working outside of Silicon Valley, the maturation of Google’s Android ecosystem and why quantity is sometimes better than quality.

Yat Siu HeadshotAllThingsD: What’s the difference between being based in Hong Kong and being based in Silicon Valley?

Yat Siu: In terms of our [Android] ecosystem, it is the dominant marketplace, whereas in the Valley, there’s a lot of focus on Apple. We don’t have that much venture capital available to us, so we have to focus on profitability and the bottom line very, very quickly. Our games aren’t all profitable, but our business is. And we’re just a small island city, so we do not have a domestic market. It’s go global or die.

How do your games fare in different regions?

When we first started [in 2011], the U.S. was our biggest market, but just because it had a larger ecosystem. That’s changing today. North America as a continent is now in second place to Asia because Japan and Korea are driving a lot of the revenues. … The people who are buying iPhones or Android phones in the U.S. today are not the first movers, whereas in Asia, a lot of the marketplace still has way under 50 percent smartphone penetration rates. In Japan, at the start of this year, it was under 30 percent.

Is Android fragmentation a problem for you? Putting most of your eggs in that basket means you’re dealing with phones that range from the very low end to the very high end, right?

Two years ago, we had a testing rack of 600 devices. Now, Samsung is outselling basically everyone else, except in China and Japan. The second thing that’s different now is that “low end” is no longer really “low end.” You used to have really poor devices with poor resolution and processing power. Even the so-called “cheap” devices that are sold in China today are quad-core or dual-core devices; they just cost $100, is all. And they’re all standardizing around Jelly Bean (the most recent version of the Android OS). The whole Android philosophy was, “Here, take the operating system. Do what you want. Good luck!” We had weird memory issues because people would be coding stuff on top. Now, with Jelly Bean, most of the stuff that’s going on in the operating system is going on in the application side.

Pretty Pet Salon is one of the more popular games Animoca has published, and started a "Pretty Pet" franchise.

Pretty Pet Salon is one of the more popular games Animoca has published, and started a “Pretty Pet” franchise.

Tell me about your games and how they perform. How do you evaluate success?

We look at every product as a gateway to another product. The key driver is popularity. Monetization will come, we think, once people are in there, but the ability to cross-promote to other games becomes important. We want to make sure that the user always has at least a few of our games to play, because we don’t believe that there is such a thing as a person who can play a game for years and years and years. It’s “fast-food apps.” People just want to consume quickly, move quickly and go on to the next thing. It doesn’t mean that they won’t come back to it, but they’re not prepared to invest console-style, sitting down and playing for four hours.

And if you spent $60 on a game, you’re probably going to invest a lot more time than if you spent nothing or spent 99 cents.

That’s true, too, definitely. But also, with mobile, whether it’s in trains or one-handed game time, sometimes it’s just when you’re lying in bed, the behavior that we’re seeing now is that a person is playing a game, and then after five minutes, he wants to move on to another game. He’s not necessarily playing the same game for an hour. He’s like, “I feel like something else.” It’s no different than people switching TV channels every once in a while, except they’re switching games.

So it’s not as much of a “hits-driven” business for you as it might be for others?

It’s all relative. What is a hit? Because it’s a global audience, a niche segment is pretty large. And yet, if you have a five-million-user niche, is that a hit? It’s probably a hit for an indie studio, but it’s not a hit for us because of the scale we operate in. Typically, we call anything a hit if it has over 15 million downloads, but as a franchise, as a series. We might have one app, and then if it does well and has a few million downloads and reasonable revenues, then we put sequels and additions on top of it. Out of the series, we may wind up having something like 20 or 25 apps.

Thor Screenshot_1For those games that aren’t sequels to existing games, how do your studios come up with new things to publish?

We have studios that are as small as six people. The producer is empowered to have his own budget and his own creative vision. There’s a weekly meeting where all the producers come together and talk about what they’re doing, and then go off and do their own thing. The advantage for the business is, if you start off with a studio of six people and it bombs, who cares? It’s not great for them, but the business can afford to do it. If they do well, they have a platform.

The independence of our studio is also attractive to our staff. They have the chance to be a startup without the startup risk. They don’t have to worry about payroll or finance, they can focus on the product and build their own team. The additional unintended advantage is that, in Hong Kong, we’re unique. So, if you want to do games and you want to publish your games, then, frankly, there’s nowhere else to go. People come to us because the other option is banking or finance — which is a good career, just not if you don’t like it. If we were in the Valley, we might end up getting slaughtered by the amount of recruitment and loss of staff. Who knows?

But it’s worth noting that you do also maintain an office here in San Francisco for non-game development roles like partnerships and PR.

In the past, the meccas of the global gaming space used to be different. They used to be Sony, Nintendo and, at one point, Sega. But it was never centered around Silicon Valley. That changed with the smartphone. Now the new mecca is the Bay Area, because Google Play is here and Apple is here. We have an office here because we have to pay homage to the new temples. Even though we’re not in the Valley, it’s absolutely required for us to go in. Every other app company that’s international that wants to succeed must do the same.

Star Girl ScreenshotAlmost all of your revenue, about 95 percent, comes from in-app purchases. Are you looking at other business models?

Advertising will come, but it is not dominant yet. Primarily, the buyers for that now are other app companies, and we’ve got our own network. If we focus more on our cross-promotion, we get more out of that than necessarily opening up inventory to everyone else. Right now, ads are generally low-quality, and they’re also spammy, so it’s a bad user experience. But that will change. The experience is there already — think about how much time you’re spending on mobile versus PC — but [ads] have to deliver value to the user. Facebook has the right idea. People who like casual games, you should really only show them other casual games. Today, the targeting doesn’t exist.

What does your conversion rate of non-paying to paying players look like? The typical curve has a lot of people at the bottom paying nothing or almost nothing, then a long tail with a bump at the end, composed of a small number of players who pay a lot.

That is the hardcore type of model, where basically you have a very low conversion rate, something like 2 percent, and a very high consumable model where people can spend thousands of dollars. That’s not our model. If you look at games like Pretty Pet Salon, you’d be hard pressed to spend more than 20 bucks, just because of the game play. We are expecting to have more volume of titles with a larger frequency of players coming in from outside. So, for instance, Pretty Pet Salon has an 8 percent conversion rate. Now, when we start working with Forgame (Animoca recently accepted a “strategic minority investment” from the Chinese hard-core game maker), that is different. We will listen to their suggestions, and it does appear that that will be the strategy, because people are prepared to spend that kind of money. It’ll be a learning experience for us.

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