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Every few months, I’ve stayed in touch with Robert Antokol, CEO of Playtika, a mobile game firm with projects like Slotomania and a $7.3 billion valuation. And I’ve had to ask him what he thinks about the state of the gaming industry. We’ve had this conversation because so much as changed.
“It’s a very big question because a lot of things have happened in our very big industry,” Antokol said. “Every six months in our time is like four or five years in other industries. We are in really different times. But I can tell you that in this new time there are a lot of new opportunities coming.”
I noted that we see a lot more uncertainty in the market now. Geopolitics have reared some ugliness with the war in Ukraine, venture capital investments have slowed as the public markets get choppy, and tech startups are seeing valuations starting to drop. I wondered if that will spill into the game industry and make acquisitions happen again.
“This is the main topic right now in our industry. As you said, two years ago, in the pandemic, everyone thought it’s going to be a big huge happy party,” he said. “In the last year and a half, I never saw my career of 25 years so many new startups, so many new companies. And the valuation becomes higher. In the last few years, it was really a challenge to look at a new company because the valuations became crazy.”
Then, in the last three months, everything came to a stop, he said. Mobile game companies saw that it wasn’t easy to grow revenue per user anymore, as it was at the beginning of the pandemic. The cost per install, or the advertising cost to gain a new user, has doubled in the last 12 months, he said.
“This is a big, huge problem,” he said.
In the last three months, we saw the best outcomes became much harder because it became harder to raise new rounds at the larger valuations, Antokol said. That manes that more companies will be targets for M&A deals. And that environment for startups will not get better for perhaps 16 months, he said. And Playtika is adjusting to deal with this new environment.
Where Playtika’s strategy never changes
Part of Playtika’s strategy never changes. Antokol believes game companies can drive retention higher with live operations (live ops), such as tournaments or holiday events or other new content in existing games. Keeping your existing players happy is better than spending a lot of money on acquiring new players, who may or may not stick around and who may or may not spend money. Antokol said Playtika never grew its business by spending a lot on user acquisition.
“Our main goal is to always think about retention, keeping players in the game,” he said. “You can do it by understanding the users and better knowledge about tools.”
With Apple’s recent privacy changes, it’s harder to track users and so user acquisition spending isn’t as efficient. And so the time of retention has come to the forefront. Playtika’s games like Slotomania grow by retaining their users for years and then adding new users through community growth.
Playtika also invested heavily in AI technology that can help it understand user behavior better and what details lead to better retention. And Playtika cooks new games for a long time, changing details through soft launches and eventually getting the user retention right.
“This is giving us the exact advantage that we need right now,” Antokol said.
That’s what it did with the recent launch of Switchcraft, developed by Playtika’s Wooga division, Antokol said. At the same time, Antokol has to convince game developers to stick with their existing games, rather than rolling over to new ones, by giving the developers the challenge of getting users to come back every day.
IDFA impact a year later
A year ago, Apple focused more on user privacy over targeted ads with changes to its Identifier for Advertisers (IDFA). It made it harder to track users without their permission, and made it a lot easier for users to opt out of tracking.
Antokol said his company always depended on its own technology, rather than relying on other technology on other platforms. And so he believes the transition for Playtika was better. Others were hit by a rise in advertising costs because they relied on user acquisition to feed new users into their games and generate more revenues. This is where Antokol said again that AI technology helped Playtika understand what was happening in games in a shorter time.
“It is important to give security to the players, it’s important to pay attention to the privacy of the players,” he said. “It’s important because it has become a jungle. So I’m happy with the change.”
Doing live operations in 2022 is just as important as ever, and the key to doing updates that are popular is to stay in touch with the community, Antokol said. If you understand the community and what they want, then it’s easier to come up with the live operations that keep them coming back to the game. The types of events range from face-to-face events now to in-game events.
Dealing with geopolitics
I noted that Israeli firms have had long and close relationships with Ukrainian game developers. How did the war affect the company?
It’s a big topic of the day, he said. When Playtika started more than a decade ago, the company had 10 people in Israel and 10 people in Ukraine.
“We are very close to the country, and it’s a huge tragedy that is happening right now and I hope it will end as soon as possible,” he said. “I’m very emotional about this subject.”
Playtika moved a number of people into Poland and Romania. I have noted that the operations of Playtika are based in Israel and that the company is ready to adjust to the changes. He said he knows companies are suffering and he hopes to see peace.
“As a company, we are thinking about the future,” he said.
I asked if investor behavior changed as a result of the war. Over the recent weeks, Antokol said that investors have been waiting. Playtika itself has invested in five different companies in the last three months. So he said it’s important to provide stability for startups. He still sees amazing teams making amazing games.
The talent wars
The talent wars are continuing. Antokol said the pandemic gave talented people a chance to work in different areas while working at home. That has been challenging to companies like Playtika that had a DNA where they worked together in the office.
Now they’re working in a hybrid way, and it’s an amazing way to work, Antokol said.
“We see that people are moving very fast from one company to another. I think in the last eight months investing in our employees and invest in our players are at the top,” he said.
But the last six months or so have seen less movement between companies. I asked Antokol how he keeps game developers, who often want to create new things, satisfied with working on live operations on the same games instead of making brand new ones.
He said that the pandemic made the communities bigger, and the developers love working with a growing community.
“This is my job to keep them excited about what they’re doing,” he said.
Blockchain games and the metaverse?
Antokol is excited about both blockchain games and the metaverse.
“I believe we were in the middle of the revolution. The industry needs new platforms, and I think this is going to be the next big platform,” he said. “I believe myself in metaverse and blockchain and they will accompany other new technologies.”
He believes that they can be applied to existing games, rather than brand new games.
“This is our challenge. This is how we challenge our employees,” he said.
While he wants to invest in the new things, they aren’t going to happen next month.
“It’s important because I believe it’s going to be the new platform,” he said. “They’re going to change the world and we as a company are going to be there.”
The impact of the big acquisitions
Asked how the biggest game deals are going to change the industry, Antokol is impressed that the biggest companies like Microsoft and Take-Two Interactive will now have really big mobile gaming divisions. That means that mobile will just be one of multiple legs in a games business.
“There are many challenges about managing,” he said. “Overall, I think this is where the world is going. consolidation.”
But Antokol isn’t sure how the big companies will do with complex businesses across the PC, console, and mobile industries. Add blockchain gaming to that and it will add new complexities.
“Right now, we are the biggest player in the mobile world. We’re really happy with the competition, and now we’re going to compete against someone,” he said.
I asked Antokol what it means to see a giant entertainment company like Netflix move into games. He thinks it’s a smart move as the industry consolidates with deals like Microsoft’s acquisition of Activision Blizzard.
“The big, giant independent companies want to be everywhere,” he said. “And this is a smart move for them. They have huge amounts of content. Now they need the platform, and they need the tools to bring the content to mobile. For a small company, it’s really hard to grow. It’s an exciting time.”
As for the last word on Playtika, the company is learning what it’s like to be a public company, Antokol said. He said the company wants people to understand it is a production technology company, with more than 2,000 people and lots of AI. Antokol wants investors to understand more about that.
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