Scopely Raises $8.5M, Doesn't Want to Reveal What It's Building (But I Will)

By Michael Carney , written on September 19, 2012

From The News Desk

“Real gangstas move in silence and violence,” a founder told me today, quoting rapper Biggie Smalls.

That (co)founder was Scopely CEO Walter Driver, who was attempting to explain why his year-and-a-half old company continues to operate in stealth beyond occasionally teasing its existence and a clandestine financing round or two. “There’s not too many advantages in talking about where we’re taking this before we get there,” he says in what's becoming a predictably evasive refrain.

The company co-founded by Driver, former Applied Semantics co-founder Eytan Elbaz, and former MySpace development platform lead developer Ankur Bulsara, has thus far revealed little more about its objectives than saying it's a social, mobile developer and publisher. The secrecy doesn't appear to be slowing things down, however as the startup today announced $8.5 million in further financing from an impressive list of investors who – you’d have to assume – have seen what’s hiding behind the curtain.

The round was led by Anthem Venture Partners with participation by “primary investors,” The Chernin Group, Greycroft Venture Partners, and New Enterprise Associates (NEA). The list of “other notable investors participating,” as the company puts it, is far longer, but no less decorated:

Former Yahoo CEO Terry Semel; ShoeDazzle and Honest Company founder Brian Lee; Buddy Media CEO Michael Lazerow; LiveRamp CEO/Rapleaf Chairman Auren Hoffman; Red Swan Ventures; Double M Capital Managing Partner Mark Mullen; Amplify Co-Founder/Accel Venture Partner Richard Wolpert; TechStars CEO David Cohen; TechStars NY Managing Director David Tisch; Burstly CEO Evan Rifkin, Sands Capital, Factual CEO Gil Elbaz, and Aydin Senkut’s Felicis Ventures.

Driver explains the size and name-dropping popularity of the financing, saying, “This round is a reflection of how ambitious our plans are.” Although the company describes the latest round as a seed financing, its $3.5 million July 2011 round – a never-before disclosed figure – raised from an equally impressive roster would suggest it's more of a Series A.

Whatever we call it, I think it’s fair to say we’ve established that people want into this company. So what the hell does it do? Or rather, what does it plan to do? If the company had its way, we still wouldn't know.

Despite a lack of on-the-record comments from Scopely, I’ve been able to piece together more than most. Here's the general outline.

The company is working to create a platform to empower developers to more easily create and market social games to large audiences. Based on limited information, it seems like this might be as if independent games got the marketing juice of being a part of the Zynga or Rovio portfolios. To the extent that this is accurate, it's a seriously tall order.

“When we started, we did a pretty comprehensive review of the consumer mobile landscape,” Driver tells me. “We talked to a lot of companies in the space and are trying to address a lot of the systemic issues that people are facing.”

Driver went on to say that the disconnect between consumer acquisition and long term retention challenges is the biggest issue plaguing most gaming companies. “When you’re paying a lot for users, if there’s not a lot of long term engagement, then its hard to make the math work,” he explains.

The only public facing products to come out of Scopely to date are its “With Buddies” iOS multiplayer game franchise that the company claims to have millions of active users. Available titles include Dice With Buddies and Jewels With Buddies.

So we know the following; A+-list founders; A team of 30 engineers – among them, a 19 year old former Thiel 20-Under-20 Fellow who started Harvard at 15 and dropped out by 17 – all recruited with promises of beard grooming oil, sex panther cologne, and $11,000 cash wrapped in bacon as part of a campaign called “Most Interesting Engineers In The World”; $12.1 million in capital raised from an investor list longer and more decorated than Vladimir Putin’s campaign donor list; a few well-received social games; and corporate secrecy that would make Steve Jobs proud.

It would appear Scopely is caught in a strange contradiction. Its strategy of delaying the marketing and hype machine until its finally ready to deliver on lofty expectations is a wise one. Just ask anti-poster child Color. That said, its large, name-dropping financing rounds and deliberately kitchy recruiting campaigns suggest it enjoys the role of tease and storyline puppeteer. Sooner than later, Scopely is going to have to add substance to its sizzle, lest the world move on and forget why it thought the secretive company was interesting to begin with.