King.com is beating Zynga, EA, Disney and others at their own games. While competitors are reeling, retrenching or redefining themselves in an estimated $12.1 billion casual-gaming market, King has side-stepped the carnage by making mobile games that can be played simultaneously -- the industry buzzword is synchronized -- on multiple computing platforms such as the Facebook website, iPhones, Android devices and iPads.
Some call King Europe's answer to Zynga. In addition to its headquarters here, King has major operations in Stockholm and Barcelona. (The U.S. office is in San Francisco.)
The bustling London office -- in the heart of the trendy Soho neighborhood -- sardines in nearly 100 people, who share walls with storyboards of new games. A mural depicting characters from the popular game Bubble Witch Saga dominates one wall.
King's games are "tremendously simple to pick up and play, yet difficult to master," says Scott Steinberg, CEO and lead analyst of TechSavvy Global, a gaming researcher.
King executives refer to the recent success -- its last two titles have been its most popular -- as Facebook gaming version 2.0, a blend of video magic and data-analysis mathematics.
King CEO Riccardo Zacconi says he has seen the future of social gaming, and it's on the screen of a smartphone or tablet. "Play anywhere, anytime," he says. "I believe that in a year from now, this is going to be a standard," Zacconi says.
Advertising revenue and in-game purchases from King's social games have soared into the millions since the private company went mobile. Its workforce has tripled, to 365, this year. Breakneck adoption of wildly popular casual game Candy Crush Saga -- it has 8.1 million daily active users, according to AppData -- has vaulted King to the second-largest game developer on Facebook, behind Zynga, with 46 million daily active users. There are even murmurings of a King IPO next year.
Facebook noticed. It's embracing its new friend. "Eighteen months ago, (King) did not have a game on Facebook," says Sean Ryan, Facebook's director of games partnerships. "(King) took the arcade and casual category, and developed rich content with a social component, to what was a single-player approach."
King's new favored status included a recent dinner at which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hosted Ryan and Zacconi.
At the same time, Facebook's fissure with Zynga over their partnership has plunged their relationship into murky status. In a regulatory filing in late November, Zynga said it will no longer have to display Facebook ads or use Facebook payments on its own properties, such as Zynga.com.
Zynga will no longer be required to use Facebook as the exclusive social site for its games, or to grant Facebook exclusive games. Facebook, which filed a similar disclosure, will also be able to develop its own games after March. Its deal with Zynga previously prohibited that. Facebook has said it has no plans to make games.
"Our amended agreement with Facebook continues our long and successful partnership," Zynga Chief Revenue Officer Barry Cottle said in a statement.
Zynga and EA had no public comment on King.
Future king of social games?
The nearly decade-old King, with offices in Europe and the U.S., is not "a flash in the pan," Ryan says. "But they came out of nowhere in an area that was unexpected."
When it started in 2003, King gained a strong following for its games on Yahoo. By 2009, however, King's growth flattened because Facebook had badly battered Yahoo.
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