SOCIAL GAMING

SOCIAL GAMING

Cashing in on the social hype

After being acquired by investment giant Blackstone last year, fast-growing social developer Murka has experienced further growth thanks to a shift in strategy. Joanne Christie talks to COO Barak David about the company’s plans

While the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has taken a heavy toll on some areas of the gaming industry, for others it’s provided an opportunity for growth. Social casino, for example, has seen a surge in activity, so much so that down under politicians are trying to ban it.

At game developer Murka, chief operations officer Barak David says growth doubled during the lockdown period. “Pre-Covid, in Q1 we grew 15%; in Q2, quarter-on-quarter, almost 30%.

“I’m really happy that we were able to provide good entertainment while people were stuck at home and really didn’t have anything to do,” he says, adding that the company “worked 24/7” to meet the extra demand.

He believes the effort will pay off, predicting that at least some of the market’s gains will be permanent. “Maybe in Q3 and Q4 growth will be more moderate, but the mobile gaming market is growing year by year and it will continue to grow in my opinion. Bottom line, there was a recent hype, but some of the demand will stay.”

For Murka in particular, the pandemic was somewhat fortuitously timed – shortly beforehand it had launched its first set of album collections of its popular Scatter Slots and Slots Era games. “This marked a big innovative step in our games and created a lot of excitement among our players,” says David.

SHIFT IN STRATEGY

The company has also been ramping up its game launches since launching an accelerator division at the start of this year. “Our accelerator division is akin to a start-up inside our company, responsible for developing new products and games,” he explains.

Already the division has launched two games – Solitaire Play and Slots Journey – and by the end of the year the tally is expected to reach four.

Partly, this new strategy is thanks to investment giant Blackstone, which acquired the company last year. The acquisition coincided with the company’s 10-year anniversary, having launched in Ukraine in 2009.

While its entire development team remains in Ukraine, the investment by Blackstone has seen it expand into other areas.

“Their investment has accelerated our transformation and we have grown to 500 employees in five offices,” says David. “We opened a new office in Cyprus this year and plan to open another office in Central Europe. With the support of Blackstone, we are also now looking at potential M&A opportunities.”

At the top of the wish list for M&A are casual games companies, in line with recent moves by SciPlay and Zynga to acquire companies in this sector of the market.

One of Murka’s strategies for making such acquisitions is via its recently launched Murka Growth programme, which actively targets small and medium-sized companies.

“We believe we have the right tools, data understanding and marketing knowledge, together with innovative and technological know-how, to take small studios, upgrade them and take them to the next level,” says David.

“We really believe that M&A is a win-win for both sides. If we find a studio that both meets our needs and connects with our strategy and spirit, together we can both benefit and take Murka to the next level. It’s one of our priorities.”

KEY STRENGTHS

But even with deals on the cards, David does not foresee the company’s development operations moving out of Ukraine. “Currently all our development employees will stay there even as we are growing. We don’t know exactly what the future will bring, but we do know that our development team in Ukraine is one of our key strengths, even if there is potential M&A and there needs to be a merger of the teams.”

And David is clear that the company’s desire to enter the casual games market doesn’t signify a move away from social casino. “We continue to dedicate a big portion of product to the sector, as well as develop new games in social casino.”

So far, much of Murka’s success in social casino has been due to its tactic of mixing genres and game mechanics and David says this is one of the key reasons it has been able to attract more males to its games than is typically the case in social casino.

While most social slot games cater to an older female demographic, David says Murka’s gender split is closer to 50/50.

“We believe it’s connected to the journey and progress mechanism in our main games, Scatter Slots and Slots Era. In contrast to your typical slot games, you set off on an adventure, completing stage after stage, progressing through the levels and going on a journey by playing the slots along the way. It adds a unique element. It’s this progression element that is attractive to both genders,” he explains.

With a higher male audience than other social gaming companies and with the bulk of its players (about 70%) in the US, one might expect Murka to have its eye on a move into sports or esports, but David says right now the company is not looking at these verticals.

And while he expects US players to remain the core audience, as the company expands he says this could begin to shift. “As we launch new slots games and casual games, which attract a slightly different audience, we will enter new markets and grow a more broader audience. In regards to their location, I think it’s too early to say because it’s all in the planning stage right now.

“It’s an exciting moment for us with our fast growth, lots of innovation and international expansion, and a lot of that is driven by Blackstone’s investment and support. In two years from now Murka will be in a much stronger place in the industry and this is our driving force.”