After PC downloads and social fail, PlayFirst sees its fortunes rise again on mobile

Few would argue that 2011 was a good year for San Francisco-based PlayFirst. After raising $9.2 million in funding to create social games, the developer saw the Facebook version of its flagship casual game Diner Dash flop, its third failure in a row on the platform. By December the company had backed off Facebook entirely to refocus on mobile — a strategic retreat that has paved the way for the company’s comeback.

Since making the switch to mobile, PlayFirst tells us it has has doubled its monthly active users to 8 million and has been profitable every month since January. While PlayFirst’s Dash-themed games still account for 50 percent of the company’s revenue and volume on mobile, the company is rapidly expanding its lineup with new free-to-play games like Mall Stars, the female-focused casual title that blends citybuilding and tycoon elements that launches today on iOS.

Inside Mobile Apps had a chance to chat with PlayFirst CEO Marco DeMiroz, who explained just how the company went from layoffs in December to planning to grow its headcount by 20 to 30 percent by the end of the year.

Inside Mobile Apps: PlayFirst has completely refocused on the mobile casual gaming space. What does your business look like now?

Marco DeMiroz, CEO PlayFirst (pictured right): Smartphones and tablets have been on a five year consistent growth cycle and it’s a tremendous opportunity to build a game company. When I came on board in November, I realigned the company to focus on nothing but mobile gaming, and nothing but iOS in North America. I really wanted to make sure the studio was designed to develop high quality games very rapidly. As a result, we’ve been very successful. We’re on a path to be, in my opinion, a top five mobile game company. Now our growth strategy is to go beyond North America. We’re actively looking to expand into Europe and Asia on iOS and work with partners to expand our footprint on Android.

IMA: How much has your business grown since PlayFirst adopted the mobile-first approach?

DeMiroz: Since I came on board we’ve doubled our revenues, our DAUs, our MAUs… we’re pretty much on target to achieve my objectives for this year. In the past the company tried PC and Mac downloads, streaming… those relationship are still legacy attributes that will disappear by this year. There’s no one at the company right now doing anything other than mobile gaming.

DinerTown Zoo has been around for about 10 months now and we’re making more money now with the app than we have before. We’ve been trying limited time offers, episodic limited time offers, we’ve brought chance content to the game… All these benefit our understanding. We’re starting to have a lot more robust economy and additional capabilities to manage our monetization.

IMA: Why do you think PlayFirst has found so much more opportunity on mobile than it did on Facebook?

DeMiroz: My assessment is the social game side has really become an oligarchy. You have Zynga, EA, and wooga and they’re very dominant. The monetization is extremely clustered around the top five to eight players and it has a very, very short tail. On mobile, it’s a lot more egalitarian. We’ve doubled in the last four months or so, but I also feel that we’re still at the beginning of our growth cycle. We haven’t done anything in Europe or Asia or Android. We could triple our revenues just by expanding geographically and moving onto another platform. It’s a lot more competitive — there are about 90,000 game apps in the App Store — but on the other hand, differentiation works to advantage. We have a strong brand name and we have high quality games.