Glance across any tube or bus and chances are you’ll catch somebody playing Candy Crush Saga. The deceptively simple puzzle game has stormed the app charts since its launch last November to become one of the most popular commuter distractions across not only the UK but the world.
The game has over 44 million monthly active users, more than Spotify, Pinterest and rival social gaming firm Zynga’s Farmville. What’s more the Facebook version of the game has helped the studio behind it, King, unseat Zynga as the number one games maker on the social network.
Tucked behind Oxford Street, King is a London tech success story. Its colourful walls carry murals of the cartoonish characters that have helped the firm earn an estimated $600,000 (£387,000) a day and propel the company to a rumoured stock market float later this year.
But Riccardo Zacconi, the company’s co-founder and chief executive, is a somewhat unlikely King-maker.
At 46 and with a thin-skinned irritability, Mr Zacconi, shares more in common with traditional office managers than the stereotypical young, creative start-up boss.
“In my mind time passes much slower,” says the towering Italian when asked to recall when the London office opened. Nor is King an overnight success story – this year marks the firm’s tenth birthday. Mr Zacconi co-founded the company with Tiny Rowland’s son Toby, among others, in 2003, originally developing small-stakes gambling games for then-popular sites such as Yahoo and MSN.
At the time Mr Rowland called it “the female Party Poker” and its success attracted the attention of private-equity firm Apax Partners and venture-capital firm Index Ventures, who invested about $50m in 2005.
The onset of the age of Facebook created a hiccup in King’s growth, but in 2011 a now Rowland-less King moved on o the social network with Candy Crush Saga and a year later on to mobile when Mr Zacconi spotted the potential of both. Since then its growth has been explosive, with Facebook’s gaming boss calling King “the poster child for the fast-growing European gaming industry”.
“When we develop a game for Facebook and mobile we know that game is very likely to be a success as it was a success on King.com,” says Mr Zacconi. The company’s longevity means it has more than 200 games on its website, and the site acts as a testing ground.
So far King has launched just eight games on Facebook and three on iOS and Android devices – Candy Crush Saga, Bubble Witch Saga and Pet Rescue Saga. Simplicity is the key to the games. Candy Crush Saga, by far its biggest hit, starts off easy enough – get three of the same types of candy in a row to earn points. But as you progress over its 300 levels, things become more complex but remain just as addictive.
“The games are easy to learn, but they’re difficult to master”, says Mr Zacconi. Each level is designed to take a maximum of three minutes, a timeframe Mr Zacconi calls the “minimum common denominator” for consuming content – the length of a tube stop or a queue for a coffee. “You don’t need to dedicate hours to be able to play the game.”
Another reason for King’s success is that games synchronise across devices. Leave a level of Bubble Witch Saga on Facebook and you can pick it back up on your iPhone exactly where you left off.
Synchronicity sets King apart from other developers, but means it is competing against more rivals than most.
“On Facebook you have Zynga, on mobile you have Supercell and you have Rovio. However, if you look at Rovio or Supercell on Facebook they’re not big,” explains Mr Zacconi. “Our target is to become the key player on all platforms.”
So far they’re doing well. Earlier this year Candy Crush Saga overtook Angry Birds as the world’s most popular game and across all platforms King’s titles have more than 26 billion gameplays a month.
Earlier this year, Mr Zacconi said 65 per cent-70 per cent of King’s players were females aged between 25 and 45 and the company had over a million players in the UK.
King’s games are free to play but users can buy extra lives and “advantages” in-game, which is the firm’s main source of revenue.
The company has been in profit since 2005, longer than many London tech firms have even been incorporated, and the success seems to be down to Mr Zacconi’s business-minded approach.
Mr Zacconi, who started in consultancy, is not involved with the creative side but has set up a factory-like production line, with multiple small teams working on games for a maximum of three months. They’re then tested out on King’s website and if they fail, only three months’ work is wasted.
As Candy Crush Saga and Bubble Witch Saga show, Mr Zacconi only needs a handful of hits to generate big results. In June King abandoned advertising on Candy Crush Saga altogether because it was making so much money through in-app purchases. Mobile monetisation firm Think Gaming estimates King is making more than $600,000 a day from the game.
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that King had hired a cabal of bankers to handle a possible IPO but Mr Zacconi, who worked at an online portal sold to Lycos during the late-Nineties dot.com boom, is cagey on the subject. “It’s one of the options but at this moment in time I’m focused 100 per cent on building the business.”
Rival Zynga suffered a disastrous IPO, with shares falling 70 per cent since their debut in December 2011. But Mr Zacconi is confident King can avoid a similar fate.
“The growth model is very simple. If you think we have a portfolio of 200 games, we’ve launched eight on Facebook and three on mobile. We are still at the beginning of this.”
King, which has offices in Stockholm, Barcelona, Bucharest, Hamburg, Malta, Malmo and San Francisco, plans to hire 300 staff this year, 50 of those in London. Mr Zacconi, who lives in London with his Chinese-Swedish wife and son, also wants to crack Asia: “That’s one of the focus points of this year. We’ve set up a growth team.”
With Mr Zacconi’s workmanlike dedication and King’s well-stocked production pipeline, it’s unlikely that the company’s crown will topple any time soon.