Bubble Galaxy

Two months ago LA game publisher and distribution platform Scopely finally pulled the curtain back to reveal what it’s been building with the $8.5 million it raised since July 2011. The vision was, not surprisingly, bigger than its “with Buddies” franchise of mobile games, despite the fact that all three titles released to date have been Top 5 games in the iOS App Store. Scopely’s big vision is its invite only Scopely Developer Network game distribution, marketing, and monetization platform for third-party developers.

Today, the company announced the first five studio partners who will work in conjunction with Scopely’s team, and rely heavily on its technology platform, to create and distribute multiplayer mobile games. Apparently the company didn’t aim low, as it attracted highly decorated firms Double Fine, Big Cave Games, High Line Games, Rocket Jump Games, and Zupcat Games.

But with all their previous success, why would these studios need to partner with Scopely? The idea is to free up their development resources to focus on building superior games, rather than having to worry about distribution and monetization, says Scopely co-founder and CEO Walter Driver.

“Scopely allows developers to focus their talents and resources on building quality games,” Driver says. “We get involved early in the development cycle, integrating social mechanics across each game, investing in marketing and cross-promotional opportunities with our existing user base and ultimately, launching games so they are poised for success.”

The importance of a successful launch cannot be understated, as it can quickly translate into high rankings and featured status with prominent App Stores, creating a self-fulfilling cycle. Those who have summited the mountain before, and have cleared a path to the top, become valuable partners. Once at the top, it’s important to continue delivering a satisfying and inherently viral experience to maintain this positioning. Scopely has proven adept at doing both, having dogfooded its own Developer Network platform with its more recent release Bubble Galaxy With Buddies. The app became to the No. 1 free game on the iOS App store within its first five hours and was downloaded more than one million times in its first week.

Double Fine, which is well known for the game G4 called the “Funniest Game Ever,” Psychonauts. The 12 year old San Francisco studio also recently grabbed headlines by raising $3.3 million on Kickstarter for the yet to be created Double Fine Adventure game. Dallas-based Big Cave Games, for its part, is behind ORC: Vengeance, which was named App Store’s Editor’s Choice and Best of 2012, Showpiece Games.

High LIne games is a Brooklyn publisher behind the W.E.L.D.E.R. words game that at one point reached the number one overall iPad app. Rocket Jump Games and ZupCat Games are both international firms, based in New Zealand and Argentina, respectively. The former created the popular rail shooter Major Mayhem, while the latter is well known for its Facebook game Race Town and for its work with Cartoon Network, Fiat, Kraft Foods, and MTV.

In addition to cross promotion within Scopely’s network of millions of active users, the publishers get access to the company’s Amazon Simple Queue Service (SQS)-based multiplayer technology and server-side infrastructure.

The company faces competition in the social and mobile game distribution space from the likes of Zynga and Chillingo, although they tend to focus more on offering marketing support than on pre-launch development resources. Also, the majority of these competing options tend to be one size fits all and purely “pay to play.” Scopely, on the other hand, is exclusive in the partners it’s willing to invite and negotiates revenue sharing models on a per-partnership basis based on the pedigree of the development partner and the resources to be dedicated.

Scopely was founded in 2011 by Driver, a long time social gaming entrepreneur, alongside former Applied Semantics co-founder Eytan Elbaz, former MySpace Developer Platform lead software developer Ankur Bulsara, and startup veteran Eric Futoran. The team also recently added former Zynga GM Andy Kleinman as its first Chief Business Officer. Scopely is backed by Anthem Venture Partners, The Chernin Group, Greycroft Venture Partners, and New Enterprise Associates (NEA), as well as several dozen prominent angel investors.

The company is well positioned in today’s game publishing landscape, but is likely to face increasing competition going forward. Earlier today, two Zynga Farmville veterans announced an eerily similar project called Red Hot Labs which is backed by Andreessen Horowitz, Greylock Partners, SV Angel, and General Catalyst. It’s unlikely to be the last. Driver downplays the similarities, describing Red Hot’s offering as “developer tools” while characterizing Scopely’s more as a “broadcasting network,” or in other words Final Cut Pro versus Fox.

As in many categories, gaming appears to be evolving such that the platforms and enabling technology providers have become more valuable than the content creators that use them. Not surprisingly, this is where today’s VC dollars seem to be flowing. Scopely’s biggest advantage is that it saw this trend early and has several years of head start over its competition. Driver’s challenge now, is to maintain that lead.