Is this the year we see a mobile gaming company break out from the pack and become the Zynga of iOS or Android? Andreessen Horowitz is betting so.
The venture capital firm led an unprecedented $18 million first round in TinyCo, formerly known as Brooklyn Packet. The San Francisco-based company is the maker of Tap Resort Party and Tiny Chef, which have both seen more than 5 million downloads. The valuation, we’ve heard, is somewhere around $98 or 100 million — certainly eyebrow-raising in this space, although TinyCo wouldn’t comment on it. Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen is joining the company’s board.
Both of TinyCo’s top titles are essentially resource management games with players designing either a restaurant or a resort. Revenue from both games comes mostly through in-app purchases of virtual currency, either Chef Bucks or Shells. TinyChef has reached the second top-grossing spot in the Apple app store.
Unlike Pocket Gems, another prominent game developer that took a smaller $5 million round from Sequoia Capital in December, TinyCo opted for a sizable financing round. Considering the rankings of their titles in the app store, neither company should have really needed funding. Before the round, TinyCo was able to grow to 40 employees on the back of its own revenue.
“Mobile-social gaming is at a pretty nascent stage,” said co-founder Ian Spivey. “In 12 months, it’s going to be a very different landscape with 100 million new Android handsets and 50 million more iOS handsets coming on. More and more people are going to become comfortable making in app payments and the quality of games is going to go up.”
He said, “We want to give ourselves all the tools we need to become that market leader.”
TinyCo migrated into mobile games from the Facebook platform, where the company came too late to market to make a dent by the time Zynga, Disney’s Playdom and Electronic Arts’ Playfish had taken off. Ali previously sold a social gaming company Esgut to SGN in 2008.
“We learned a lot about virtual currency and social mechanics,” Spivey said. “But as a company we didn’t get a whole lot of traction.”
Andreessen Horowitz said in a statement that they invested in the company because Ali is “a smart, veteran gaming entrepreneur who’s learned from his mistakes and is focused on building a company of consequence instead of pursuing the acquisition route.”
In May of last year, the company launched Tap Resort Party, a simulation game where players have to create a resort for virtual tourists. They retooled the elements of the resource-management game genre to work on mobile devices — like how to use drag-and-drop effectively on a touch interface and how to work without a hover state, like there is on Facebook canvas games.
The viral channels are also quite different with a lower dependency on Facebook for user acquisition. Spivey and Ali wouldn’t say too much about how they are acquiring users, but they have created a social layer over all of their titles called TinySocial.
The company will also be making a huge investment on the Android platform this year, where they have not yet released any titles. However, with the advent of in-app payments on Android, TinyCo is betting that the same lucrative route of pushing virtual currency purchases will take off on the platform.
“Android is going to be a very big part of our business by the end of 2011. We’re very bullish,” Spivey said. “It will take Google awhile to get in-app purchases right, but we think they will. Plus, they’re obviously projected to sell 100 million handsets this year.”
Even though the device shipment numbers make the market seem ripe for a star, the fragmentation between the two major platforms and within Android itself make mobile a more challenging space.
When Zynga launched Farmville in mid-2009, Facebook had about 250 million users all on a single platform. In contrast, Android has down shipped about 75 million devices through the end of last year, according to Gartner, and Apple has sold about 160 million iOS devices. (These numbers also do not account for single users who have more than one device.)
Incumbents on the Facebook platform have not seen the same level of success on mobile. Zynga, for example, has had to acquire to get into the space with purchases like Newtoy, which makes Words With Friends.
The last thing to note is that if the TinyCo funding kicks off a wave of financing rounds for mobile game developers, it’s the third-party CPI and advertising networks that may benefit the most as developers pay aggressively to acquire users.