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Casual Connect: Avista's Heydon On An Investor's 'Holy Grail'
Casual Connect: Avista's Heydon On An Investor's 'Holy Grail'
July 23, 2007 | By Leigh Alexander




At his Casual Connect session, Paul Heydon, managing director of independent investment bank Avista Partners gave an overview of the the various factors that attract - or repel - industry investors, saying now is a better time than ever for developers seeking funding, and detailing his "holy grail" of online games.

Identifying the medium's primary draws for financial investors like Intel Capital and Softbank, Heydon noted the explosive growth of game portals and online media consumption, plus low production costs and the mass-market appeal of casual games. Particularly, Heydon said recurring revenue base and scalability are the critical factors that pique the interest of financial investors.

Heydon said that investors focus on companies that combine several key characteristics: experienced management, a strong technology platform, fast-growing profitability driven by revenues from ads, virtual goods or subscriptions, a diversified portfolio of multiple games (both in the back catalog and in the pipeline) and strong content -- that is, great games.

He identified 34 major gaming deals in 2007, with over $135 million raised from venture capitalist firms -- the largest being with Trion World Network at $30 million and IGA Worldwide at $30 million. Intel Capital and Softbank have made the most deals, at 8 a piece, with Benchmark Capital and IDG Ventures in second and third place with 7 and 6 respectively. According to Heydon, 108 venture capitalists and strategic investors have invested in games to date.

Of these investments, the two major categories are game portal and in-game advertising, splitting 50% of the total evenly between them, with casual MMOs third with 11.8%. Online game social networks, the focus of much of the conference, falls somewhere in the middle with 5.9% of total investments.

In particular, Heydon stressed that with more fundraising deals in 2006 in the sector than any other full year and investor interest in the sector at an all-time high, now is the best time ever for interested parties to raise money.

Heydon also noted that the World of Warcraft-style MMORPG model is less attractive to investors now -- only attracting hardcore gamers and lacking life cycles beyond five years, MMORPGs also fall short in that they only attract "hardcore" gamers, rather than the mass market. He also compared WoW's 8 or 9 million users to the 50-plus million who play Nexon's MapleStory or Sulake's Habbo.

It's not clear, says Heydon, that subscription-based business models are best, especially given the success of item-based selling models in Asia and the growing success of games like Three Rings' Puzzle Pirates and K2 Network, publisher of Korean online games. He singled out Bigpoint, a German company which now offers seven casual browser-based games and earns its revenues through microtransactions, as a company to watch.

Discussing aggregator game portals, Heydon says very few are generating "serious" revenues, and indicated their life cycles may be short. "Aggregation as a standalone strategy does not work unless you are the number one or two player," he says. "What's going to happen when casual game publishers have the power and control [over] revenue shares and pricing? Content owners will always win in the end -- and this business is clearly more about great games [than] about great distribution."

Heydon suggested that the belief that publishing a huge amount of games and selling them "everywhere" may not be a long-term sustainable business plan, given the large (and rapidly growing) number of publishers and developers in the downloadable games space. "It's doubtful that anyone will succeed long-term with undifferentiated content in a saturated market," he noted.

So what's Heydon's idea of "the Holy Grail" of gaming for investors? He believes that a website featuring a casual, mass market-focused MMO with great gameplay, interactivity, customization, VOIP capability, and user generated content combined with social networking elements is the right mix, adding that different types of advertising (onsite banners and in-game promos or product placement) should also combine.

"MySpace plus Skype plus YouToube plus Maple Story plus Habbo Hotel equals the Holy Grail," read one slide, with Heydon concluding, "The first game website that offers all the key features of this mash-up will indeed be the Holy Grail of online games."



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