If you own a smartphone, chances are you know and maybe even the game’s latest incarnation, . What you may not know is the story behind the franchise: How an Italian entrepreneur put all his cash on the line as a co-founder of King, the company that created the game, in the early 2000s, with a big idea: re-invent gaming for the online world.
That person is Riccardo Zacconi. He’s guided the company through the many phases online gaming (desktop, Facebook, mobile, and more), taking King public and eventually selling it to gaming giant Activision Blizzard in 2015. In this episode of MashTalk, Zacconi talks about that journey, his thoughts on Mark Zuckerberg, and what the future holds for gaming now that people are starting to question all the time they’re spending on their devices playing games like, well, Candy Crush.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pete Pachal: I was reading a little bit about your background, and I think you might be the first knight we’ve had on MashTalk. Is that correct? Or at least the Italian equivalent of a knight?
Riccardo Zacconi: Yeah, that’s right.
PP: Is there a ritual when you get that?
RZ: Yeah there’s a ritual with the ambassador who basically welcomes you and gives you a cross and a few other things
How long ago did that happen?
I think it was maybe a year and a half ago. It’s kind of a secret actually, I don’t share it.
Well, congratulations, belatedly. So when did the first Candy Crush come out?
We launched it on mobile in November 2012. We started the company back in 2003.
So why did you why start King, and what were you doing before then that sort of led to that, because it was sort of a different era, Web 1.0 as we refer to it now.
We launched King in 2003, and I started the company with my co-founders who I met back in 1999. At the time we all working at a startup, a portal in Europe. We had a big investment at the time from a Swedish investor, and with about 10 million dollars back in 1999, we built a company from 20 people to 800. We ended up selling the company to Lycos, unfortunately in equity and not in cash.
And so it was a good experience, not zero money, but a good experience. I learned that companies have to be profitable, and that was very important for my thinking later on.
Still, a better exit than a lot of people had back then.
On paper, yes. It was great cause I met my co-founders then, and then after that I did online dating for a short time. We started one of the first free dating sites in Europe, and it went crazy without any marketing. Then once after having sold the company, I realized that actually there were others who are doing really well also with a paid model, and specifically match.com, and I looked into launching the first paid dating service in Europe. And instead of launching completely from scratch I joined a company called uDate. And this was back in 2002.
Post crash, very healthy company, but we sold the company a few months after I joined. So from that I made some money, and I reinvested the entirety of what I made there in King, and that’s how we started.
So you invested all your own money?
Yeah, I put everything I had basically in there, and I had nothing. I lived in the flat of a friend of mine, a very good friend of mine for two and a half years. And I gave away my car, gave away my rented flat, everything.
Wow, what gave you that confidence that this was the thing to do?
There was no other option. It was a tough time to raise money. During tough times, it’s often when you have to be more creative. So we put in all our personal money to perfect the beta in 2005.
We launched on the web. At the time, the key model was download, so you would pay for a download. In our case you would pay to compete against others.
So this was sort of pre-Flash games — that was sort of like the online model at the time was like you’d have a Flash game with some ads on it.
Exactly, you would either play Flash, with an ad model behind, or you would play as a download model, but no one was actually offering games where you would compete against others, and monetize online, not just as a download.
So what were some of the titles, some of the games.
Oh we launched more than 200 games, and those games where basically one-level-only games. So Candy Crush was based on one of the games we developed at the time. So many, many years later when we moved to Facebook, and then to mobile, we took the best games we developed previously and launched those games in a different way. We called it “saga” format where you have a map, and you play with others. And we launched games on the web with Facebook first, and then in a way where you can play cross-platform, also mobile.
I’m glad you mentioned Facebook, because it seems to me they sort of changed things radically. Because that’s what we did on Facebook, honestly, if I think back to 2008-2009, roughly. You basically went to Facebook to play Farmville, Scrabble, Knighthood, and the things you guys were doing.
Yeah, so we’ve seen many platforms basically coming to market in some ways. So we were on the web, then we got disrupted suddenly by Facebook. We tried to get on Facebook, but we didn’t really try hard enough in some ways, and so at some point Zynga came up, came to the market and took away most of the users, who at the time were playing on the web, on Yahoo. And so the Yahoo games channel lost 45 percent of the users in one year, between April 2009 and 12 months later.
And that was sort of a natural migration.
It was a natural migration because the Facebook platform was more fun to play on. Because you would play with your friends instead of basically playing by yourself. And then Zynga integrated on mobile, and the players went from the web to Facebook.
It took us about two years to really crack Facebook, on PC, and find a way to bring our best games from the web to Facebook. And that was the coming of the second platform, which was mobile, which then disrupted the web, and Facebook on the PC. But this time, it was an easier transition, because we had already a few very successful games, on Facebook on PC. And we innovated there by allowing the same games to be played fully cross-platform between PC and mobile. That’s what really gave the company an incredible boost.
I’m curious: Did you get a sense that Facebook wanted to kind of move away from a games-driven model, and that sort of helped spark your push to not being as reliant on them?
No, because for us it was all upside, meaning we were on the web, we were scaling the Facebook platform, and we were still No. 2 when we launched on mobile. And there was still a big gap between us and Zynga. For us, mobile was not basically reducing the reliance on Facebook — we invested more than ever on Facebook. It was really to crack this new platform. I had no idea the ramp would be so fast.
We launched Candy Crush in November 2012, we had a board meeting in October. And in this board meeting we approved the budget for the next year, and a month after having launched Candy Crush on mobile, we already achieved the entirety of the budget for the next year. So it was like being on a rocket.
Did you launch only on iPhone at first? Or was it on Android as well?
We launched almost contemporaneously. In fact, this was a really important decision, because we already had a user base on PC, and since our games were fully cross-platform, it allowed all of our players to play immediately with all of their friends independently where they were — whether they’re on a PC, on an iPhone, or an Android device. And that basically unleashed the potential of the game.
It sounds like the social dynamic behind Candy Crush, being able to play with friends, with leaderboards or whatnot, was a key part of this.
I think it was very important, yeah. Because it was more fun to play with others, but we introduced a very gentle competition so there was not a winner or a loser, like in our old model, it was a, “I passed you,” so you would receive a message, saying, “You’ve just been passed.” You want revenge and try to pass your friend again. Or you could invite friends to play with you.
So when’s the Candy Crush movie coming out? When’s that happening? There was an Angry Birds movie, there’s an Emoji Movie…
Well we had the Candy Crush TV show, but to do a movie you need characters. We launched the new Candy Crush Friends, and it’s very much focused on characters. So we have had characters in the game, in Candy Crush, since the beginning, but now we’re really bringing them to life, giving them personalities in 3D, and also really making them a core part of the game. I think that once we have that, the sky’s the limit.
Apple, Google, and Facebook are taking a hard look at like the engagement that they are getting. They’re talking about digital well-being, and time well spent, and that simply because a person is engaged for a long time, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re having a good experience. There’s almost like this moral question that comes in like are you doing something good? So I bring this up to you because I have a couple friends who are Candy Crush addicts, they characterize themselves as, “Ugh, I’ve got a problem, I’ve got to stop doing this.” What have been your discussions internally and perhaps externally about that phenomenon.
Sure. I think, first of all Candy Crush is a great game; it’s a fun game. But it’s actually structured in a way that it does not require you to play for many hours in a row. It’s exactly the opposite in fact. We structured the game in a way that it’s easy to learn — you can play it in three minutes. Candy Crush now has more than 3,800 levels, but each level can be played over just three minutes. Because we think that the mobile experience is not one where you stay many hours on the device playing, but is one where we want you to be able to play in a short space of time — while you’re waiting for the bus, or you’re in the underground, or you have a moment for yourself and you want just to relax. In fact, the model in which we started with the business model was: stopping the player from playing.
RZ: Yeah, after a certain amount of time. You have all these levels. If you do not pass a level, you lose a life. You have five lives, and once you lost the five lives, we will tell you, you either stop playing and wait 20 minutes, or you pay, or you invite some friends. So if you don’t want to pay, and most people actually do not pay.
Yeah, that’s a barrier.
You have to wait 20 minutes. So it’s actually really putting a brake saying, “Hey wait a second.” And this has been really a part of the success, because we have retained our users, now for over five years, and Candy Crush is doing extremely well. I think that for us the key metric is, the retention of the users, to see basically how many people come back. We’re not looking at how much time you’re playing everyday, that’s not the key target for us.
Where do you stand on the whole phenomenon or the question of games being fads or not, I think some games are indisputably fads, and fade a way. But what is the difference between something that’s faddish or something like Candy Crush and Angry Birds. Is there an end to Candy Crush in sight, and when will the next thing come?
I think the world of games has changed dramatically. So in the old days when we started, we developed a game, and once we developed a game, we launched the game, and then we would immediately focus on the next game. So no one would be taking care of the game, we launched it, and the users would play it, and once the user gets bored, because they finished the game or because it’s repetitive, and after a while you want to do something else, they would move over to the next game.
We’ve built a portfolio of games. Now, we actually learned something which is really important: The user, when they like a game, if we give them more content, more surprises, more reasons to come back every day, more reasons to continue playing — they’re not looking for something else. And it’s something which is familiar but surprising at the same time. That’s what we’re trying to achieve. And that’s why Candy is doing so well, and that’s why the No. 1 priority for the company is to make Candy into an everlasting game by continuously innovating. The day we stop innovating, the day we stop providing the user with a reason to come back, and fresh content and fun things to do within the game, we will lose the users.
What are your thoughts on VR and AR? Augmented reality seems like the big hot thing, or was for a while there with Pokemon Go, but it seems to be coming back now with things like [Apple’s] ARKit, and all these other platforms. Any plans there, and any thoughts on that space in general?
I see VR very different from AR. So, VR great experience is really fun, but I think it’s very difficult actually to play on VR, especially if it’s for more than let’s say, 10 or 20 minutes. I personally feel sick, so we’re not putting our efforts on VR at King. AR I think is different. AR can be great fun as we’ve seen from other players in the market, and it’s something which definitely we are experimenting with also. And it’s fun! That said, I think our games do not require an AR environment to be fun to play, do not require any other hardware to be played. Our focus is to make sure that our games have wide appeal, that you can play them on any phone, in any region in the world.
I heard Zynga’s for sale. Do you think you could talk to your bosses at Activision and see if it can happen?
I’m not personally involved, so I don’t know.
What’s your opinion of Mark Zuckerberg?
He’s extremely product focused, he’s very strategic in his thinking, and he loves what he does.
Do you think could beat you at Candy Crush?
Yeah, he’s very good.
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