June 23, 2024

Mikayla Macfarlane

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The meaning of the massive success of Scopely’s Monopoly Go | Walter Driver interview

17 min read
The meaning of the massive success of Scopely's Monopoly Go | Walter Driver interview

When Savvy Games Group bought Scopely a year ago for $4.9 billion, some people wondered if it wasn’t such a smart deal. Then Scopely launched Monopoly Go, a hit mobile game based on Hasbro’s iconic board game, and that title has generated $2 billion in revenue just 10 months after launch and three months after hitting $1 billion.

It’s safe to say that Savvy Games Group, which is owned by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, got a pretty good deal. That’s just one of the takeaways of the massive success of the mobile game, and it has a lot of implications for the world of gaming. (Brian Ward, CEO of Savvy, and Scopely leaders are expected to speak at GamesBeat Summit 2024 in Los Angeles on May 20-21).

Monopoly Go’s been downloaded 150 million-plus times, with more than eight million people playing every day of the week. Bridging classic Monopoly gameplay with innovative features and new worlds to explore, the game has struck a chord with players worldwide. It captures the essence of the Monopoly experience while delivering a rich universe where millions engage daily in rewarding interactions with friends and competitors.

As Scopely’s third game collaboration with Hasbro, Monopoly follows the successful launches of Yahtzee with Buddies and Scrabble Go. But this had a tough gestation, with development stretching across seven years. Scopely has 2,300 employees, and that gives you a sense of scale of game development. This is the kind of bet that companies are making in the modern age of gaming.

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During the Game Developers Conference last week, I caught up with Walter Driver, co-CEO of Scopely, to talk about the tremendous success of Monopoly Go and where the company goes from here. One of the things that is likely to happen is that Scopely will make some acquisitions.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Javier Ferreira (left) and Walter Driver are co-CEOs of Scopely.
Javier Ferreira (left) and Walter Driver are co-CEOs of Scopely.

GamesBeat: What’s on your mind right now? I’m sure we’ll talk about Monopoly Go, but what else is happening?

Walter Driver: Every GDC is a different experience, both where the industry is and where each company is inside it. This has been an exciting one for us coming off the Savvy transaction and almost a year of Monopoly Go. We’re in the most exciting position we’ve been in at a GDC since the company started. It’s a chance to catch up with all the people doing the most interesting things outside the company. We’ll see where we might have opportunities to partner with people that are doing things we think are exciting.

GamesBeat: What’s the strategy you think is best in this position? Expansion on every front seems possible now. When you get into a fortunate position, what are your choices?

Driver: We’re in a unique position right now being primarily constrained by what we think is a great idea. Our focus is our most scarce resource right now. It requires a mindset shift. We have less constraints in terms of access to capital than many other companies. It raises the bar around where you want to allocate that focus. We have a number of exciting things we’re working on internally that we’re already committed to. This week has been a lot about what is happening at companies all over the world that might be worthy of further engagement from us. Things we might be able to be a force multiplier around in some way.

We’ve always believed at Scopely that no matter how much innovation you have inside any company in the games industry, there’s exponentially more innovation happening outside your company. We’ve always had an orientation of maximum curiosity about what’s happening outside. Figuring out what teams are on to something that we never would have thought of, that might potentially be something that audiences care about a lot for a long time.

It’s an interesting time in the ecosystem from a deal perspective. A lot of companies that were very active in the last few years are much less active right now. The regulatory environment for large cap tech companies makes deals a lot more complicated. Interest rates being high makes the private equity type folks–bigger deals are more expensive for them. It definitely feels like a unique moment in time where a lot of companies that in the past might have been having conversations with a lot of other companies are waiting and seeing whether there are partners that might make sense for them. That’s definitely fertile ground for Scopely right now.

GamesBeat: Some of the competition has dropped out. Companies have gotten less expensive as well, it seems. There must be opportunity.

Driver: There’s definitely opportunity. A lot of great companies out there. The landscape of both buyers and investors has shrunk a little bit. Even the ones that are out there are more cautious than they might have been in their deployment of capital than they were in the past few years. In that environment you get to spend more time getting to know some of these teams and figuring out who’s the right fit for them and for you. We’ve been building those relationships and seeing what rises to be actionable.

GamesBeat: How many people are at Scopely now? Did you grow, shrink, and grow again, something like that pattern?

Scopely has a broad slate of mobile games.
Before Monopoly Go: Scopely had a broad slate of mobile games.

Driver: We have about 2,300 people globally. That number’s historically been going up consistently over time. We’re trying to grow in a disciplined manner. We’ve certainly seen companies sometimes grow faster than they maybe should from a headcount perspective. Trying to balance the opportunities we have with also making sure that we protect the culture that got us here. We’re able to incorporate folks in a way that supports some of the things that have made the company what it is today. When you grow really fast, it’s challenging to effectively integrate those people and make sure that they understand what’s important to you from a cultural perspective.

GamesBeat: I saw from a blog post–Javier was saying that maybe less than a quarter of your revenue was going back into user acquisition. You had been getting that budget out of profits, not necessarily spending more than what was coming in. There’s some discipline to the user acquisition spending for Monopoly Go. But he was drawing this conclusion that, if you take a quarter of that, it’s still $500 million. It’s twice the budget of something like The Last of Us Part II. That’s the scale you’re operating at now.

Driver: There’s a lot of speculation from different corners of the industry about both the scale of the game and the scale of the marketing. We’ve had an orientation toward disciplined aggression in everything we do. It’s hard to win if you’re not willing to be aggressive when you see the right opportunities. We also are very focused on effectiveness and efficiency. Monopoly Go is an extremely profitable business for us. It has been since the moment we launched it. At the same time, it’s operating at a significant scale.

The numbers that people have talked about, to put it into perspective–some of these larger console games maybe occupy a disproportionate amount of mindshare for folks, especially journalists who cover the industry. But the scale of these mobile games is massive in terms of audience and revenue. To be successful in this stage of the market, companies might need larger resources than they did in the past. That’s one of the advantages that we have when we’re thinking about being the partner of choice for great game developers. If they make something amazing, we have the capabilities and the resources to maximize its commercial potential.

GamesBeat: A game like this, you almost wonder if it could have gotten by with less marketing spend. It was growing so fast. It seemed viral on its own. But even so, a game like this needs its push. More wind at its back.

Driver: We want to get our products in the hands of as many users as possible. The more that we can spend profitably to scale a game, the more revenue there is. It’s not about how little you can get by with. It’s much more about, how much can you invest behind something that’s resonating with huge swaths of audience around the globe? We had a chance to invest a lot more moving forward because the appeal of the game is so broad.

GamesBeat: Maybe it’s more like, if you spend and it keeps growing, that makes sense. If you spend and it’s not growing–

The front desk at Scopely Barcelona.
The front desk at Scopely Barcelona.

Driver: We wouldn’t keep investing if it wasn’t a great product and a great business. What’s been unique about the game is it appeals across almost every demographic of users in terms of age and gender, across a lot of different geographies. Those people are heavily engaged. I saw a survey that said only 15% of people consider themselves gamers, but 50% of people in the U.S. are playing games. Monopoly Go is a great testament to that. A lot of people maybe don’t consider themselves gamers, but they’re avidly playing that game seven days a week. That’s a big part of why the opportunity has been so big around that game.

GamesBeat: What does it mean that this success is happening as Savvy decides that this is where they want to put a lot of effort? One of their biggest moves has paid off very quickly.

Driver: We signed [definitive] agreements with Savvy a week before we launched Monopoly Go. Any time there’s a major inflection point like this right after a partnership begins, it starts the relationship off with a lot of goodwill and credibility. Savvy already had very big ambitions in the gaming space. Scopely was a substantial move, but it certainly put us in a position where everyone involved is feeling very good about the partnership and excited about leaning into it and going bigger. When you have early success, that creates momentum that you can build upon.

GamesBeat: Do you get new marching orders? What’s the next big goal to hit?

Driver: One thing that was exciting for us about this partnership with Savvy is that it wasn’t a marching orders kind of orientation. They were focused on building an important company in the space over the long term. They were supportive of us as a leadership team in figuring out the best way to do that. That was a very attractive situation where we could continue doing what we’ve been trying to do in the way we wanted to do it. On a larger scale, a very long-term time horizon, without prescriptive marching orders as you said. That’s never been part of the equation. We’re still finding the best path for Scopely and that’s very energizing to the company, an important part of our success.

GamesBeat: I always felt like Scopely was a very algorithmically savvy, automation savvy company. How does this new arrival of so many more AI capabilities affect what you do? Do you feel like that could change what you do as a company? Is there still more AI to embrace?

Driver: We’re at the very beginning of the potential impact there. A lot of that impact is ahead of everyone. There are probably two primary vectors of impact. There’s the productivity side and the product side that’s consumer-facing, player-facing. Companies across the industry are already finding ways to more efficiently create games and art assets and marketing creatives and that kind of stuff. Scopely’s made significant investments in our tech platform, Playgami, from the beginning, trying to provide the best game development teams in the world with back end tech infrastructure that can help them be more successful, more often, for longer. Especially the kind of technology that makes sense to build once and leverage across a portfolio, that may get better with scale.

A lot of things that AI enables fall into that category. We’re spending a lot of time thinking about what additional capabilities Playgami can use to support development teams and make it easier for them to incorporate AI in how they operate games, and also move forward in ways that are player-facing. We’ll see innovation for sure in the kinds of experiences that are facilitated for players using AI.

GamesBeat: You seem to be a safe haven relative to the rest of the industry, thanks to the success of Monopoly. The industry at large seems to be facing a lot of fear right now – fear of AI, fear of layoffs. There’s a need to understand what’s happening and why. How do you look at where the whole industry is at?

Monopoly Go has crossed the $2 billion barrier.
Monopoly Go has crossed the $2 billion barrier.

Driver: The video games industry has been one of the most dynamic industries in the world. It’s the fastest-evolving area of media. We’ve never felt like it was either safe or that we should be afraid, because we know that it’s also the largest form of media. It’s going to continue to be a dominant form of how people like to spend their free time. The backdrop of the ecosystem just changes where the opportunities are and what tactics might be most successful.

We’ve certainly seen a lot of companies that, just in terms of their access to capital, are looking for partners that could be long term homes for what they want to do. We’ve done nine acquisitions in Scopely’s history. We’ve learned a lot from the people that have come into the company through those acquisitions, through the products that they’ve built. We believe that in a very dynamic industry, the best way to continue evolving is to continuously create DNA mutations in the organization that can help you evolve faster than everyone else. We’ve always believed that if we learn faster and evolve faster, that’s the safest haven that you can have in a rapidly moving space. One of the key ways we’ve been able to do that is by bringing teams in that might think differently and do things differently than we have. Seeing if we can learn from them and maybe unlock another degree of scale to their success.

GamesBeat: If you were to do a postmortem on Monopoly Go, is there anything that maybe could have shortened the process? Less than seven years?

Driver: Certainly in retrospect you could say many things could have shortened it, but every step in that process was required. Javier said that we worked on the game for more than seven years before launching it. In this space there are no shortcuts. You have to take all the necessary steps to do something great. Ernest Shackleton, the explorer, said, “By endurance we conquer.” I think about that a lot in the games space.

Sometimes the ability of teams to persist with the challenges they face in the development cycle and apply the learnings they have from year four to year five to year six, continuing to refine that experience–it’s often the last 10% that’s half the work, but drives 90% of the success. Our willingness to have conviction in these products and teams, to stay with them when maybe some other companies would have given up or killed them–when we believe there’s something important to be done and shared with the world, I think that persistence has been important.

GamesBeat: How do you think some of the greenlighting went right there? If you have to greenlight at each milestone, is there anything that enabled you to make the right decisions along the way?

Driver: There was a lot of passion from the team for what they were doing. In some ways a company’s most valuable resource is the passion of its people. You certainly see that from a lot of game teams. When there’s an enduring passion, a need from a bunch of talented people where they feel like they will figure this out, it’s very challenging to want to bet against teams like that. Making video games is hard. We believe that if you don’t approach it from a place of conviction first, then you’re never going to do something impossible. If you’re starting out with a feeling that you’re going to dip your toe in the water and assess and evaluate at every step along the way, it’s hard to do impossible things.

At the same time, because it’s so hard, you have to recognize and re-prioritize all the time across all the things you’re doing. Where do you want to persist and where do you want to double down? A lot of that is based on the rate of learning and improvement of the team through that process, and the passion and ambition of the team involved. If we see that they’re making progress against what could be a big opportunity, we’ve stayed with projects through what we call the valley of failure. Every project starts out seeming like it could be a big opportunity, and then you get into actually doing it and you realize it’s a lot harder than you expected. If you abandon it during that process, you’ll never come out the other side with something great.

GamesBeat: Are there some learnings from Monopoly Go that you could apply to the next game, or every game?

Monopoly Go is a hit mobile game from Scopely.
Monopoly Go is a hit mobile game from Scopely.

Driver: There have been a lot of learnings from everything we’ve done. We have a broad and diverse portfolio of products, a uniquely diverse portfolio. All the things we’ve learned from across a lot of different genres, a lot of different demographics of gamers, informed Monopoly Go, and certainly the things we’ve learned from Monopoly Go will inform the rest of the portfolio and future projects. A lot of important lessons went into Monopoly Go, and certainly a lot coming out.

GamesBeat: It’s interesting that maybe everyone thought that mobile was over in a sense. That it had stalled out after Apple’s privacy push. It wasn’t as attractive a market anymore. Does this example prove the opposite?

Driver: It shows that mobile is still by far the largest segment of the largest entertainment market in the world. It’s bigger than console and PC combined. Any time there are shifts in the market, that creates opportunities. We always believed that the market wasn’t going anywhere. There are still a lot of people who love playing games on their phones. The companies that evolved the fastest around those changes would be successful.

We spent a lot of time thinking and encouraging people to embrace the changes. We see frequently that change is never painful, but resistance to change is. If you can build an organization that’s pro-change, seeing that as creating opportunities, you can ride those waves more effectively. Monopoly Go is a testament that it’s still very possible a massive new title in a post-IDFA era. We believed that to be true beforehand, and we’ve certainly heard from a lot of people even this week at GDC that it’s been a key data point in encouraging them that it’s still possible.

GamesBeat: Does the structure of the mobile industry look good to you right now? There are some changes. We have the Digital Markets Act in Europe coming along. That’s a big structural change in some ways that should help developers.

Driver: We’ll see. The bar is higher for developers than it was five years ago. There’s a massive amount of gamers out there, but a lot of them are already playing things that they like. To launch something that breaks through, you have to do something truly excellent that people feel a strong sense of magnetism toward. If you do that, some of the evolutions in the ecosystem may ultimately be beneficial to developers, but it’s going to take time for those things to flow through. The impact of those things will take time to fully manifest to developers.

GamesBeat: Has the scale of the success dawned on you, just how big it is? It’s bigger than the Barbie movie. It’s bigger than the Super Mario movie. Probably bigger than the last Halo game. I don’t know what else.

Amy jo Kim, Massimo Maietti and Howard Shin
Amy jo Kim, Massimo Maietti and Howard Shin talked about Monopoly Go at GamesBeat Summit 2023.

Driver: We’ve been working incredibly hard across a large portfolio of products for a long time to make stuff that people love, and make it on a bigger scale. Around 85 million people in the U.S. have downloaded the game in the last 12 months. That’s probably one in four American adults. That feels incredibly good to everyone involved at Scopely. Making something that resonates with people at such a large scale.

I don’t know if it’s fully internalized, but one of the great things about our industry, when you do something that works, you can reach a lot of people. There aren’t a lot of barriers to distribution, getting it in the hands of more people. The only barrier is doing something that’s compelling enough that they want to try it. It’s readily accessible to anybody with a smartphone in countries all over the world. I find that super exciting. When something is working, you don’t have to go country by country and build physical distribution capabilities to ship Monopoly Go to those fans. We can put it in the hands of people all over the world very quickly.

On the one hand it’s very exciting that things can scale very quickly, but as we said, it was seven years in the making. It feels like plenty of hard work went into getting it to where it is today.

GamesBeat: What are some things you think you still want to achieve?

Driver: We want to have the best experience of our professional lives. That was one of the primary goals when we founded Scopely, for as many people at the company as possible to be able to say that this was the highlight of their career, the thing they were most proud of. A lot of people already feel that way, I think, but a lot of us also feel that there’s more learning and growing to do. We’ve had a lot of progress so far, but as you said, it’s a very dynamic industry. It’s never easy to continue success here. You have to continue learning and evolving faster than everyone else. I guess what I still want to achieve is continuing to feel like I’m learning as fast as I have been for the last decade in the next decade.

Scopely is buying Stumble Guys.
Scopely’s Stumble Guys.

GamesBeat: There’s this notion of the cultural achievements of gaming that I think about a lot. Wouldn’t it be nice if gaming could lead to more peace in the world? Things like the Mario movie raised awareness of games among people, or the Last of Us show – raising awareness of games and game IP to more people who didn’t realize games had stories. We’re hitting these interesting cultural moments around games.

Driver: We’re massive believers in the power of play to bring people together. The first friends you make in your life come when you play together as a kid. When you grow up a lot of forces at work take you away from that spirit of play. One of the magical things about games is they create spaces people can come back to whenever they want and reconnect with that feeling of being a kid again, playing with your friends. The relationships and connections people form through playing these games are beautiful things. It makes a lot of people feel more connected, more seen, a little less stuck where they might be physically. They’re able to have friends around the world that they can count on to be there when they drop into a game. That’s a powerful force for good in the world. It makes people feel just a little more connected.

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