Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
This horrendously boring event, which can be cringe-inducing in its mock seriousness and cheese factor, involves grown men and women drawing 32 balls (representing the qualified teams) from 4 glass pots and placing them into eight groups. To punch it up, there are lots of speeches and terrible musical performances. Despite this, the draw, which is televised in 170 countries, is expected to be watched by almost 200 million human beings.
Why? Because the draw matters. Matters, at least, to the billion or so people who care about the sport of football and its ultimate tournament, the World Cup. The aspirations of teams and nations to footballing glory will hang, in some measure, on the result of the draw.
FIFA announced the seeding for the tournament today and produced a first surprise: they abandoned the tradition of seeding based on performance in the last two World Cups and went with FIFA rankings as of October 2009. On this basis, France were excluded from one of the top seedings (which prevent the best teams from eliminating each other in the first round); while Holland moved into France's spot.
The #1 seeds will be spread out across the 8 groups, and include hosts South Africa, Brazil, Argentina, England, Holland, Germany, Italy, and Spain. No arguments there. Excluding France was extremely fair, given their poor form of late (and the taint of their qualification over Ireland on Thierry Henry's handball). It was equally fair for them to elevate Holland, who have been on a tear and are FIFA ranked 3rd in the world.
The other major decision FIFA made was to put the North American teams in Pot #2 with the relatively weak Asia/Oceania teams, rather than with the unseeded but stronger South American or African teams, who went into Pot #3. This was clearly done to enhance the likelihood of African teams making the elimination rounds, but makes it much more difficult for the USA and Mexico, who would have had a high probability of drawing South Africa, the weakest seeded team by far, in the group stage.
From the USA perspective, the best case would be: 1. South Africa (or England, who always suck outside Europe); 3. Paraguay (or Algeria, if #1 is England); and 4. Slovakia or Slovenia. The worst case would be 1. Brazil or Spain; 3. Ivory Coast or Chile; and 4. France or Portugal.
And then there is the proverbial "Group of Death." Every World Cup has one, or at least a debate about which of the several tough groups truly constitutes this cup's Group of Death. The GoD refers to a group in which at least three strong teams are drawn together, meaning that one pre-tournament contender gets sent packing before the elimination round. There's a chance for a Brazil, Mexico, Ivory Coast, Portugal group, or a Spain, USA, Cameroon, France group.
When the dust settles, and we've endured Sepp Blatter, and Charlize Theron, and David Beckham, the freaking Soweto Gospel Choir, Johnny Clegg, et al., at least we'll have a tournament.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
Wednesday, June 24, 2009
Wednesday, May 20, 2009
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
I've talked quite a bit in the past about the turning point that the year 2004 represented in the video game business. To recap, in that year the internet revolution finally rocked the game business to its core, with electronic distribution and new business models reaching mainstream acceptance. Between the release of World of Warcraft, the launch of Half Life 2 through Steam, the Shanda, TenCent and JAMDAT IPOs, and several other events, 2004 was a watershed year for the industry. I've argued that the nature of value creation in the video game business, traditionally grounded on intellectual property ownership and retail distribution, was forever disrupted.
But something else of great importance happened in 2004 that often gets overlooked in critical reviews of the business. It was much more subtle and easy to miss -- a publisher launched a super high quality product and offered it for sale at a very low price. This relatively small act of busting the pricing cartel and using QPR (quality/price ratio) as a competitive weapon had profound implications for one of the industry's great companies.
The game was Sega/Take-Two's ESPN NFL 2K5. This American football simulation, developed by Visual Concepts, was first launched on the Sega Dreamcast in 1999. It was considered innovative, but hampered by it's exclusive association with Sega's poorly-accepted hardware platform. In 2001, the franchise went multi-platform, and in 2003 added the ESPN branding to its NFL license. Sega aimed the product directly at one of the most popular and successful video games of all time, EA Sports John Madden NFL Football, with limited results. In 2003, Madden outsold 2K4 over 10-to-1.
In 2004, Sega agreed to co-publish 2K5 with Take-Two. The companies, faced with a daunting entrenched competitor but possessing a high quality product, took an innovative approach: they offered the game at retail for $19.99, less than half the price of Madden. And they sold boatloads. They went from less than 10% unit share of the football category, to well over 30%, and expanded the overall market.
The success of the 2K5 strategy provoked an extremely aggressive response from EA. By the end of December 2004, EA announced a five year exclusive licensing arrangement with the NFL and the NFL Players' Association. By the end of January 2005, they added a 15 year deal with ESPN, effectively stripping the 2K franchise of its branding (and most of it's legitimacy as a football simulation).
But EA accomplished this at tremendous cost. At the time of the deal, there was speculation that EA paid in excess of $300MM for these rights. Let's do some math. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that number is correct. It creates a royalty burden of $60MM per year for each of the five years of the deal, that must be amortized across units sold. Assuming 5 million units sold at $35 wholesale (it's likely more units at a blended lower wholesale), that's a royalty burden of $12 per unit, or over 33%. Based on my direct experience as an NFL/NBA/MLB licensee at JAMDAT, that's almost twice what we paid for non-exclusive rights to the league and players' association in a typical deal.
Play that out a little further. That's over $25MM annually that would have dropped to EA's bottom line, or around 8 cents per share. Just to give you a little perspective, EA earned 75 cents per share in fiscal '06 and 24 cents per share in '07. They lost $1.45 per share in fiscal '08.
EA accomplished their goal of eliminating the 2K series as a competitive threat (in fact, they eliminated it as a product altogether), but at tremendous cost to profitability from one their most reliable profit contributors, Madden. At the time, the analysts lined up to praise the deal, assuming that EA knew what it was doing and that they could grow the football market to accommodate the increased royalties. But I wonder how many of them would think it was anything other than a Pyrrhic victory now.
Friday, April 17, 2009
Following up on my post about OODA, I thought I'd expand a little on the reason for strategic planning and some specific methods I've used in the past to facilitate planning.
One of the important lessons that Colonel Boyd derived from his study of military history was the importance of decentralized decision-making and field-level initiative. As the military has applied Boyd's concepts on the modern battlefield, this lesson has been further reinforced. Quoting from the Boyd Wikipedia entry:
"... [T]he most effective organizations have a highly decentralized chain of command that utilizes objective-driven orders, or directive control, rather than method-driven orders in order to harness the mental capacity and creative abilities of individual commanders at each level."
This only works if you have (1) creative, intelligent commanders (or managers in business); and (2) a strategic framework that establishes common objectives and helps establish a context for orientation, the second "O" in OODA. This orientation context is vitally important -- I like to call it a "shared hallucination" of the company's place and purpose. Managers need the flexibility to make quick decisions, but unless those decisions are consistent with the overall strategy of the organization, the results can be haphazard and uncoordinated.
Clear, simple articulation of corporate strategy is crucial. I have primarily used two tools to help me do this: a recursive goal-objective-strategy-metrics approach to writing the annual plan, and a threat map.
In my recursive goal-objective-strategy-metrics approach, the CEO establishes the top-level plan. This plan is comprised of a single, overall goal for the company (a thing to be accomplished, not a mission statement), some key objectives that support the goal, the strategies necessary to achieve the goal and satisfy the objectives, and some metrics by which success can be measured. This top-level plan should fit on a single page.
The recursive aspect of this approach is that each of the strategies from this top-level plan becomes a goal for the next level plan. So if one of the top-level strategies is "Finish the product before Christmas," the VP of production gets this as her goal and will develop objectives, strategies and metrics to reach it. This can get pushed down even further into the organization, so departmental managers get an annual goal and articulate their objectives, strategies and metrics.
The beauty of this approach is that it rolls perfectly back up into the master plan. If you want to know why the art department is outsourcing to China, for example, you can see that it satisfies their goal of delivering all art assets in September for $1MM, which serves the higher goal of shipping for Christmas on budget, which serves the top-level objective of reaching cash flow break-even by the end of Q1. And if one of the lower-level strategies fails, if China outsourcing can't deliver by September, you can change it to something else consistent with the overall goal. And that change propagates up and down the chain.
In practice, I only used this tool at the top-level and one level down, as a way to coordinate strategy at the VP level. But it worked to keep everyone on the same page. Actually, the process of writing and critiquing the plan as a team was more important than the resulting document, because the process surfaced tensions, fostered debate, and led to a better plan.
The other strategic planning tool I really like is the threat map. The way I create a threat map is to put my business in the center of a series of three concentric circles. The first circle closest to the center represents the immediate, near-term competitive threats, the next circle represents the medium-term threats that might arise in certain circumstances, and the outer circle represents the long-term threats.
Radiating out from the center I draw several axes, representing the things that will make the company successful (or its key vulnerabilities). I then place the competitive companies and market trends on the map, in the temporal bands, near the axis along which they are attacking my company. In addition to clarifying competitive threats, this was actually a great way to see opportunities, set priorities, and think about candidates for alliance, business development, and acquisition.
For example, in the case of JAMDAT, we had three axes: intellectual property, distribution, and game quality/innovation. On our map, we identified EA early on as a medium-term threat to us via intellectual property, so we sought to license the most dangerous of their properties from them, effectively neutralizing their threat and co-opting their advantage against us for several years.
Another example: we identified content aggregators as threats to our direct distribution relationships with carriers. In response, we carefully avoided using them as an alternative to the lengthy carrier sales process, even at the cost of immediate and incremental revenue, so we wouldn't inadvertently strengthen the aggregators' collective market position against us. This is a perfect application of strategy to value creation; the default response of the sales team would have been to simply maximize revenue, but that would have diminished our long-term competitive advantage.
Ultimately, the threat map and the annual plan are just tools. Without intelligence, creative thinking, and decisiveness in execution, the best laid plans are worthless. These tools can help direct a good team, but they can just as easily reveal weak organizational design and bad hires. Caveat emptor.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
Once again, there are three English Premiership sides in the final four. It's the third year in a row that we have a chance for an all-England final -- Sepp Blatter's head must be exploding. Not only does it reinforce Blatter's rants about the excessive strength of the Premiership, but it also increases the English clubs' claims on the $300MM in Champions League TV revenue, giving these top clubs an even larger war-chest with which to acquire the foreign players that Blatter has been trying to limit.
There was some great drama in the quarter-finals, at least in two of the ties. In the two that weren't particularly competitive, Arsenal dismantled Villareal 4-1 on aggregate, and Barcelona absolutely shelled Bayern Munich 5-1 on aggregate. Barcelona's 4-0 win at home was particularly eye-opening; they dominated Bayern so completely, and looked so dangerous in attack, that match could have been 8-0.
The Man. United-Porto tie was surprisingly competitive. Porto came to Old Trafford and toughed out a 2-2 draw, grabbing two crucial away goals. That put United in position to have to win on the road in Portugal. Which they did, but only 0-1 on an early goal from Christiano Ronaldo. If Porto had managed a late goal and a 1-1 draw, the Portuguese side would have gone through on away goals.
But the most enjoyable tie was certainly Chelsea-Liverpool. Chelsea was on the road in the first match and punked Liverpool 1-3, setting a seemingly impossible bar with three away goals. Liverpool had to win 0-3 on the road to win the tie. They opened the match at Stamford Bridge with two first-half goals and Chelsea was clearly sweating bullets down 0-2 at the break. Chelsea roared back in the second half and went in front 3-2 with 10 minutes to go. But then Liverpool scored twice, making it 3-4, pulling to within a goal on aggregate, and, with 4 away goals, seizing the tie-breaker advantage. It was down to the wire until Lampard scored in the last minute to clinch it for Chelsea, 4-4, 7-5 on aggregate. Classic.
Predictions? I think Arsenal can beat United (they beat them 2-1 in their league match back in November), but I just don't think it's in the cards this year. I pick United to go through to the final again by a slim margin on aggregate. Barcelona v. Chelsea will be highly competitive, but this year the Spaniards are just too strong to bet against. They've scored 87 goals in 30 matches in La Liga, an average of almost 3 per match, and have an astonishing +63 goal differential. They are just humiliating teams this year. I think they go all the way.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
I got a lot of re-tweets over the weekend regarding a blog post by Kas Thomas on "The Principle of the Last Responsible Moment." Thomas' post has mostly to do with project planning and the fallacy of the complete specification. But the actual principle he's talking about is a military tactic which is oriented toward threats, or in the realm of business, competition.
I've always been a big believer in strategy, but I'm an equally big believer in execution. They are the yin and yang of business competition; execution limiting and informing strategy, strategy creating the pathway for execution. I've always thought it absurd when somebody describes a business as being either a "strategic play" or an "execution play" -- business competition is inherently always both.
The military has been dealing with the problem of strategy vs. execution for a long time. Everyone has heard the truism that "no plan survives contact with the enemy," but the military has a doctrine to deal with that fact, called "OODA" -- Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. OODA was first articulated by Air Force Colonel John Boyd, and it describes a continuous command and control feedback loop, in which unfolding circumstances inform changes in strategy and execution. It is to the military what agile development is to the software team.
To me, Boyd's key competitive insight is the idea of "tempo" -- the speed with which you can run your feedback loop compared to your enemy. The most profound disruption occurs when you can strategize and execute inside the decision-making window of your enemy. As Boyd wrote about aerial combat:
"Time is the dominant parameter. The pilot who goes through the OODA cycle in the shortest time prevails because his opponent is caught responding to situations that have already changed."
This is a massively important idea. Getting your opponent to respond to your moves prevents them from seizing the initiative and surprising you. I've seen this play out in business many times. In traditional video games, long development cycles created numerous examples of teams that conceptualized new products and delivered them to market while their competitors were mired in delays, grabbing market share and reinforcing brand. We've all seen supposedly weaker technologies vanquish more established ones through rapid, directed innovation in response to market forces.
Time is of the essence. If we've learned anything from the media and technology revolutions of the last 30 years, it's that things happen a lot faster than everybody thinks.
Friday, March 27, 2009
This week I spent a day at Dean Takahashi's GamesBeat conference (where I did a panel with some sharp investors from other venture firms) and two days at the Game Developer's Conference (including a solo session in the business track -- slides posted here). Didn't get a chance to see many GDC sessions, given all the meetings and presentations, but I was able to see a couple, and walk the floor and check out what was on display at GDC. I also caught up with many old friends and colleagues over the course of my time there, and met with a number of entrepreneurs.
I went to my first GDC in 1993. Literally, the entire game developer community fit into a single banquet hall in San Jose that year. The next year, the "old timers" (Chris Crawford, Ernest Adams, etc.) were both lamenting and celebrating the explosion of newbies. They asked for a show of hands at dinner in '94, which indicated that about half the attendees were at their first GDC. Fifteen years later, with the demise of E3, GDC is now the pre-eminent show on the domestic calendar. This year's GDC was certainly as well-attended as any show I can remember.
What's great about GDC is that despite the huge surge in attendance, it still feels like a "gathering of the tribe" and the speakers are still remarkably forthcoming and candid about their craft -- you rarely feel like you are sitting through a sales pitch when you attend a technical session. I always learn more at GDC than any other conference.
There were a couple of big trends in evidence that I think are worth mentioning:
1) Digital Distribution: between the massively-hyped OnLive launch, the Qualcomm-backed Zeebo, the large number of MMO's and casual game plays, the frothy (and mostly misplaced and uninformed) attention given to iPhone/iPod Touch, and the frequent lamentations about long development times and huge budgets for traditional console and PC games, digital distribution was clearly the trend of the show. It seems to me that the old-line publishers are way out of position on this one. I predict that you'll see a strange detente between retail and traditional publishers (maybe a trade-off on used games vs. digital distribution) as they circle the drain together.
2) Virtual Goods: with advertising on an apparent decline as a way to monetize free games, a worry about how many online subscriptions an average user is willing to take on, and a yawning gap between the retail price points and free-to-play ARPU, virtual goods has emerged as the "white knight" business model for games. Easier said than done. I heard that Don Choi from OGPlanet gave a great presentation on the actual mechanics of virtual goods, but I sadly missed it (Don worked for me as a business development executive at JAMDAT before returning to Korea -- he's a very smart guy).
3) The Economy: not what you'd think. It was really the profound lack of visible concern about the economic melt-down that was so startling. Attendance was up. The "job fare" aspect of GDC seemed to be in full swing. Certainly the venture appetite for games is not what it was two years ago, but I got the distinct vibe that the industry expected to make it through the down-turn, with most job losses hitting the big publishers rather than the indy/next-gen developers.
4) Hardware Transition: again, significant by its general absence from the discussion. We're 4 years into this cycle, and historically at this point we would have been obsessing about Xbox vs. PlayStation vs. Wii, speculating about hardware and who was getting early access to dev kits, etc. I heard none of that. I saw a lot more MMO-enabling technology than console-enabling ones. It begs the question whether there will actually be a transition in the traditional sense. With the X360 and PS3 already moving well in the direction of being living room set-top boxes and home media hubs (with music, online services, Netflix, etc.), could we possibly see a disc-less PS4 from Sony?
Friday, March 6, 2009
My friend Rick Heitzmann sent me a blog post by Stephen DiMarco from Online Metrics Insider titled Powerball vs. Moneyball Marketing. It is interesting reading. DiMarco's point is that there are two approaches to marketing: the Powerball approach, which is a high risk/high return, "swing for the fences" strategy; and the Moneyball approach, which (hat tip to Michael Lewis) is a metrics and measurement-driven strategy designed to "engineer outcomes."
I'm no marketer, so I can't really comment on DiMarco's post from that perspective, but I think his analogy is broadly applicable to the current state of the video game business. The packaged goods publishers are playing a lot of Powerball -- buying lottery tickets for new IP, spending horrendous sums of money up front with very little understanding or measurement of audience dynamics, and hoping for home run outcomes. The fact that every so often a new game becomes a monster success keeps everybody buying lottery tickets.
Conversely, the approach that companies like MiniClip, or some of the social network-based publishers are taking looks a lot like DiMarco's Moneyball strategy. I'd be willing to bet that MiniClip knows exactly the amount of traffic they can drive to a game featured on their home page, and structures their economics accordingly.
We once had a meeting with some senior executives from a well-known video game publisher when we were running JAMDAT. The head of studios for that publisher finished getting demos of our best-selling products and famously said, "A monkey could make these games." What he was responding to was the lack of whiz-bang 3D graphics, the lack of fanboy, nerd-core "innovation". He was used to playing Powerball. We, on the other hand, were playing Moneyball. We knew from studying our customer data that our audience didn't care a rat's ass about the kinds of things that Gamasutra editors cared about. They wanted simplicity, accessibility, and value. So we made products to "engineer" that result. And we acquired IP that fit into that mold, like Tetris.
What Michael Lewis described the Oakland A's doing in Moneyball -- buying players who were undervalued by other clubs but who were overachievers in the metrics which actually produced results -- is really quite similar to the the ideas of customer acquisition leverage and audience measurement in the entertainment business. I think there's going to be a lot of value created exploiting this in the future.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
In Lahore, Pakistan, a group of up to a dozen terrorists brazenly ambushed two minivans carrying the Sri Lankan national cricket team and officials, killing 7 police and civilians, and injuring 9 of the cricketers.
Just another sad and pathetic day for Pakistan, fast becoming the Somalia of South Asia? A blow to Pakistan's government, which -- after the destruction of the Islamabad Marriott, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, and the Mumbai attack fiasco -- appears to have no control over the security situation inside its country? All certainly true, but I think, ironically, this incident is potentially more profound in its regional implications.
The government of Pakistan has recently embarked on a new strategy for dealing with its internal security issues. After failing to defeat the Islamic militants in combat over the last year or two (despite inflicting mass casualties on the Talibs in Bajaur and elsewhere), and after failing to root out the Islamist sympathizers in their internal security services, Pakistan has started a campaign of appeasement, including several cease-fires and an agreement to allow the propagation of Islamic sharia law in the Swat Valley. The theory seems to be to grant autonomy and an Islamic identity to these loosely-governed regions in exchange for peace in the rest of Pakistan.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to assassinate Taliban and al Qaeda leadership inside Pakistan, with 4 CIA drone missile attacks killing 90 people since the new president took office. These attacks have been brutally effective but wildly unpopular inside Pakistan; viewed there as both a provocation of the enemy and an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty.
And, now, the Lahore attacks. This is not like Mumbai (an attack on an old enemy), or the Marriott (an attack on a symbol of American influence), or Bhutto (an attack on a controversial politician) but rather an attack on what is probably an institution second only to Islam in Pakistani esteem: cricket. If you think I'm exaggerating, you've never been to South Asia during a test match. I was in Mumbai and Delhi a couple of years ago when the Indian national team was visiting Pakistan for a series of one day internationals, and these huge cities were literally shut down during the matches. I was trying to get a deal done, and my Indian counterpart was getting a text message from his wife after every couple of balls were bowled. After India won, there was rioting in the streets of Mumbai.
The ICC (the FIFA of cricket) has already questioned whether Pakistan can participate in the 2011 World Cup as a host (they were going to co-host with India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh). No team is going to go to Pakistan to play, and it's equally unlikely that the Pakistan team is going to be welcomed abroad.
I think this could be the tipping point for the moderate majority in Pakistan. Up until now, I think you could be a moderate, worldly Pakistani and still be an apologist for Islamist terror. There is widespread popular support for the Taliban as freedom fighters in Pakistan, widespread hatred for the US and India, and the usual Islamic tendency to blame a long string of political, social, and economic failures on outsiders.
But this is by all indications a home-grown attack, on a national institution that will serve to punish and humiliate average Pakistanis in an area, cricket, where they are reasonably competitive (World Cup winners in '92, runner's up in '99). This attack is indefensible to even to the Pakistani apologist. There is not going to be a solution to the Pak-Afghan terror crisis without the political support of the majority of Pakistanis. And if there is not a change in mindset after this attack, it's likely time to consider a more aggressive worldwide censure and isolation of Pakistan.
Thursday, February 26, 2009
Monday, February 23, 2009
Tomorrow is the first match day of the UEFA Champion's League knock-out stage (live on ESPN2 @ 11:30am Pacific, with other matches rebroadcast on Setanta later in the day). There are sixteen elite teams left and some phenomenal ties. It's a great format: they play a two match home and away series, with the winner determined by aggregate goals and the tie-breaker being away goals. It is hard to produce a single fluke result and get through -- the quality teams tend to do well in this format because they are heavily rewarded if they can score goals on the road.
Among the great games tomorrow (and the one ESPN is televising here) is Inter-Milan vs. Manchester United, the current leaders of the Italian and English leagues, respectively. They are two of the best teams in, arguably, two of the most competitive leagues in Europe. Manchester United won the Champion's League last year, beating England rivals Chelsea in a shootout in Moscow. Inter is coached by last-year's Chelsea coach, Jose Mourinho, who got turfed by his Russian billionaire owner, Roman Abramovitch, in the middle of last season's Champion's League knockout stage.
On Wednesday, the marquee match is probably Real Madrid vs. Liverpool, the current second-place teams in Spain and England. Madrid won the Champion's League in '02, Liverpool won in '05. But ESPN is broadcasting Chelsea vs. Juventus, which should also be a great match. Chelsea is currently third in England and Juventus is second in Italy. There's managerial drama here, too: the Juventus coach is Claudio Ranieri, who used to coach Chelsea; Chelsea is coached by current Russian national team manager Guus Hiddink, who stepped in last week after Abramovitch fired Big Phil Scolari (detect a pattern here?).
Friday, February 20, 2009
Pinch Media released an awesome presentation about iPhone app usage. I haven't validated their data directly, but if it is accurate it has some very important implications for the companies who think they can make a business with free, ad supported apps.
Check it out:
Most of this is pretty well-known to entertainment and e-commerce people: the hit dynamics, the seasonality, the pricing strategies. But the sharp usage drop-offs suggest that for most apps -- not the highly used, sticky ones, but the vast majority of apps -- too few impressions are being generated to justify an ad model. The key slides are #23-#25.
Wednesday, February 11, 2009
This afternoon at 4:00pm Pacific time on ESPN is the first match of the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying "hexagonal" -- U.S. v. Mexico. All the stars are back from Europe for this intense rivalry.
These teams absolutely despise each other. The Mexicans dominated the series from the 1930's until around 10 years ago. But in the last decade the US is 9-1-2 against them, the only two losses coming at Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, one of the toughest road games in the world. The nine wins include the humiliating (for Mexicans) 2-0 result in the 2002 World Cup finals in Korea, which propelled the US to the quarter-finals.
In order to prevent the Mexicans from enjoying a large expat crowd, US Soccer is holding the match in Columbus, Ohio, where only 2% of the population is Hispanic. They reportedly sacrificed over $1MM in gate revenue to hold the match at the most unfriendly venue possible for the Mexicans -- cold weather, small (24K) but vocal pro-US crowd, no Mexican population.
Should be a great game. Lots of compelling story-lines, including whether the Mexico coach, Swede Sven Goran Ericsson, keeps his job. As a US player once said, "When you beat Mexico, you're smiling for a month."
Wednesday, February 4, 2009
Almost two years ago, I predicted that the future of the internet may look more like mobile than vice versa.
I was referring specifically to the growing influence of platforms -- i.e., large traffic aggregation points with API's and/or application eco-systems. It seemed inevitable that these platforms would end up playing a similar role in the internet to the role of the carrier in mobile. That role is something of a double-edged sword for the smaller companies in the eco-system: on the one hand, a phenomenally efficient means of customer acquisition; but on the other, a powerful and potentially capricious master, who controls the flow of money, owns the customers, and can snuff your business out like a candle if need be.
The precipitating event for me back then was Myspace's power move on Photobucket, where the social network blocked the photo sharing site for violating terms of service relating to advertising. Myspace was probably a third of Photobucket's business at the time. Thirty days later, Photobucket was acquired by Myspace's parent, News Corp. That felt to me like the kind of thing a mobile carrier would do to a vendor. Show 'em who's the boss.
Since then, my prediction has largely come true. I was talking to the CEO of a company the other day who makes applications for a large social network, and I had an uncanny sense of deja vu. He was losing sleep over whether or not the social network would change its terms of service, alter the economics of customer acquisition, or choose an incompatible monetization strategy and effectively kill his business. I remember having those same fears when we were launching services on the US carriers in 2002-3.
So, what did we learn from being in this position and growing a valuable, public company under this Sword of Damocles?
- Brands Matter. First, when we were jockeying for position with our largely undifferentiated peer group in the early days, having recognizable and desirable brands under license really helped us. Having exclusive rights to branded content cemented our distribution -- while other companies were offering generic, easily replaceable card or puzzle games, or original intellectual properties that nobody had ever heard of, we brought Tiger Woods Golf (interestingly, it mattered way more to the carriers than to customers -- JAMDAT Bowling consistently outsold Tiger). Later, the power of our own publishing brand, which had become increasingly recognizable and synonymous with quality and value, gave us a similar kind of brand leverage to what MTV or HBO had vis a vis the cable companies. If you were launching a new games service, you had to have us in the mix.
- Grab Market Share. Immediately after the launch of BREW on Verizon, we had >70% market share of the games category. In the US broadly, by the end of 2005 when we sold the company, we had close to 30% market share (this is huge share; my rule of thumb in media businesses is that the winner in every category -- music, video games, TV, theatrical box office -- aggregates roughly 15-20% market share). By 2005, mobile games were no longer experimental; our partners at the carriers had P&L's and were being compensated on the basis of financial performance. Therefore, with our huge share it became harder for them to mess with us too much and their relationship with us became more symbiotic (the proverbial "win-win"). Had we been a <5% player, they could have eliminated us without significant consequence.
- Understand Their Strategic Needs. The carriers had their own businesses to run, of which we were a very small part. But the mobile games category fit into a larger story they were telling their shareholders about the future, and it was imperative for us to understand their strategy for mobile data broadly and help facilitate its execution. For example, they needed to be able to show that they could attract world-class content, so our investment in globally recognizable brands played into their strategy. We tried to help anticipate and solve their problems. We always tried to see ourselves from their perspective.
- Don't Be Piggy. Our peers constantly complained about the revenue splits that the carriers were taking (in our case, 20-40% of revenues). We watched those splits closely, and argued fiercely to maintain them, but we were always cognizant of what we were getting in return: relatively frictionless customer acquisition, billing and collection, the benefit of handset subsidies, etc. If we did the math realistically, the toll we paid to the carriers was a relative bargain. As many of the iPhone companies are soon going to find out, trying to run a nationwide marketing campaign -- even a viral one -- to attract people to your content is very, very costly. Our better carrier partners would embed demos of our games with a link to buy on tens of millions of handsets every year -- reach that would have cost us millions of dollars in marketing if we had to pay for it directly.
- Plan for End Times. We understood the fragility our our place in the eco-system. Even when we had 30% market share, 4 of the top 10 games, including the clear #1, Tetris, a highly profitable $120MM a year business, etc., we were paranoid. About everything. We constantly talked about threats to our business -- direct or indirect, internal or external or orthogonal. In fact, we had a "threat map" to help us visualize our paranoia. And in every area that mattered to our business -- content innovation, distribution, brands, business model -- we tried to develop defensibility and a fall back position in case of disaster. When you are not in control of the platform, you need a resilient business and a Plan B. The rug could be pulled out from under you at any time.
Friday, January 30, 2009
If you don't use Mint, the personal finance site (disclaimer: a Benchmark portfolio company), you should. It's a killer service. Mint provides a simple, powerful, web-based alternative to the bloat-ware that Quicken and Microsoft Money have become as a result of the "feature war" they commenced a decade ago. In this environment, where everybody is taking a second look at personal spending, Mint is a great tool for gaining insight into your finances and patterns of behavior.
Mint CEO Aaron Patzer wrote a guest column for TechCrunch today, providing some recession stats derived from Mint's 900,000 users. It contains some really fascinating data from real people, a counterpoint to the data we're getting about the recession from politicians, TV talking heads, and bankers.
Aaron sees the data revealing a recession that's less dramatic than the "Great Depression 2.0" news reports would have us believe (i.e., 10% spending declines across the board). But it looked pretty bad to me. A couple of grim numbers for consumer companies:
- Entertainment spending down 22%
- Home (services, furnishings, etc.) down 21%
- Travel down 24%
- Cash savings cut in half
- Debt up 10%
The gas/fuel decline of 32% isn't as meaningful to me, because it's likely driven more by the decline in gas prices since August than by changes in consumer behavior.
The decline in cash savings -- from roughly $11,200 to $5,500 augurs a much more troubling first half of '09. That number suggests that consumers have been deficit spending to the tune of $700 per month since the recession hit. Once that cash cushion is effectively gone, we could see the current average spending declines of $400-500 per month drop to over $1,000, or closer to 25% across the board. Since expenses like rent, utilities, and food are less susceptible to cuts, that extra $500 or so of reduced spending is going to hit discretionary categories -- entertainment, shopping, travel, dining out.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
PocketGamer reported today that Apple will create a "premium" area of the iPhone app store for games priced at $19.99, and will restrict distribution to a "number of large publishers, rather than the thousands of smaller developers currently selling their titles on the main App Store." The move is reportedly to help combat the race to the bottom that I wrote about last summer. To me, it suggests recognition by Apple that there is some benefit to a managed platform.
This is something that the console manufacturers learned after the tidal wave of bad content killed the market in the '80's, resulting in the famous "ET in a landfill" period of the video game business. Nintendo brought the market back with tight gatekeeping of 3rd party publishers and the quality of the content they distributed. Since then, the symbiosis of platform management and marketing combined with publisher quality and standardized economics, produced an order of magnitude greater business opportunity than the more "open" PC gaming platform.
There is an article of faith in the venture community that open eco-systems create more valuable companies, and the example of the internet certainly gives credit to that viewpoint. But, as I've said before, the App Store itself is the "killer app" for iPhone -- the 15,000 apps available on the App Store primarily benefit Apple, rather than any single publisher or developer. It is extremely difficult to build sufficient market share to create enterprise value for a company when there are 20 free, me-too products in every competitive category.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
I read this interesting piece on Gamasutra today and it motivated me to write about the keynote I gave at the SMU-Guildhall conference on video game law and business earlier this month.
My topic was, broadly, the fallacy in the video game business that content innovation creates enterprise value. By enterprise value, I mean a return on equity for shareholders, usually at some multiple of revenue or earnings. Instead, I argued that while content innovation expands audiences and generates revenues, distribution innovation has historically driven outsized enterprise value creation in the video game business.
Here are my slides -- you can get the idea:
Ok, not that remarkable. I've spoken on this subject twice before -- once to an internal EA audience at their Vancouver online summit a couple of years ago, and I talked at some length on this topic on a panel that Dean Takahashi led at UC Berkeley last year.
But it's amazing how many people didn't get it. One person from a well-known market research firm challenged my thesis, arguing that "shiny disks are still a multi-billion dollar business." Well, so is the grocery business. So is the automobile business. But investors don't ascribe high multiples to those revenues.
Don't believe me? Do the math. THQ is currently trading at a $270MM market cap, despite $1B in trailing twelve month revenues -- .27X. Take Two is at .37X. Even EA is down to 1.22X.
The current valuation multiples in the video game business are predicated on earnings or revenue growth, and that's the context in which content innovation is linked to value creation. Activision gets a bump from Guitar Hero because that franchise supports Wall Street's revenue growth estimates, and because hit titles produce economies of scale that drive better margins and thus earnings growth.
But content innovation rarely produces long-term, defensible competitive advantages in the way that distribution innovation does. When EA created their global direct retail distribution platform in the early 90's -- highly innovative at a time when most of their competitors were still working through aggregators -- they created sales leverage that lasted for a decade, and created a market share and earnings multiple advantage that none of their competitors could match. It wasn't that EA had Madden & FIFA, it was that EA had those titles and could sell them in the four corners of the planet.
Meanwhile, the companies that have recently built innovative digital distribution platforms, often based on virtual goods sales or subscription revenues, are thriving, maintaining buoyant revenue multiples despite the downturn. Shanda, the Chinese MMO company, is trading at a 4X revenue multiple.
Content innovation is sexy. It's spectacular. It's what every editor wants to write about and what every gamer wants to play. But as an investor, you are better served looking for companies that are innovating on distribution.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Texan Clint Dempsey has been getting a lot of headlines in England for his good run of form at Fulham, particularly his double against Chelsea which allowed the Cottagers to steal a point in the west London derby. While he didn't seem to be particularly in favor with Fulham's dour coach Roy Hodgson early in the season, now he's a consistent starter and co-leads the team in goals.
However, the big news over the Christmas break was LA Galaxy star Landon Donovan's loan to my favorite team in Germany, Bayern Munich. Donovan joined the team on a tour of the Middle East where they played a few friendlies against local club teams. He scored a goal on the trip and seemed to get a fair amount of playing time.
With the winter break coming to a close, Bayern returned to Germany and played a couple of friendlies against top 2nd division Bundesliga teams Kaiserslautern and Mainz. On Monday against Kaiserslautern, Donovan came on as a sub for Toni after 60 minutes and promptly scored a terrific header (and performed a much subdued celebration from his Galaxy standard):
Then, yesterday against Mainz, Donovan scored the third and fifth goals in a 5-0 Bayern route. Here's his first goal, another superb header:
Bayern starts up the Bundesliga campaign again next Friday against Hamburg. Should be fun to see if Donovan can play at this level. He famously left Germany at the beginning of his career for MLS, seeking the chilled lifestyle of LA, more playing time, and the company of his actress girlfriend over freezing weather and bad food. Interesting to see if he's tempted to stay in Europe this time.