“I didn’t know how much I would enjoy being CEO,” ponders Nick Earl, Glu Mobile’s CEO since November 2016.
“But it’s been a joy to be part of this reimagination.
He adds: “Of course, the stock price has been rosy.”
Actually, “rosy” is something of an understatement. Since he became CEO, Glu’s share price is up 170 per cent, while annual sales for 2017 were up 43 per cent.
Right place, right time
In this context, Earl’s move to take the top job in the then-troubled company now seems like perfect timing.
Announced alongside the acquisition of US casual mobile games developer Crowdstar, he inherited a company that had just spent $45.5 million on two games - Covet Fashion and Design Home - which to-date have gone on to generate almost $200 million.
“We’d been talking to Crowdstar off-and-on for a couple of years before we came up with the right deal,” Earl reveals.
“I call our success a mixture of serendipity and intent.”
He won’t talk about specifics but reading between the lines it seems Crowdstar’s VC backers decided that after nine years and a couple of pivots, they’d finally had enough, hence the relatively cheap (but all-cash) deal. Notably some of Crowdstar’s senior management didn’t seem to agree and didn’t transfer over to Glu.
The majority of the 90-strong team did, however; no doubt helped by their sizeable performance-related bonuses, and Earls say the integration process has been going well.
We’d been talking to Crowdstar for a couple of years before we came up with the right deal.Nick Earl
It will be completed when the Covet Fashion and Design Home teams move into Glu’s new San Francisco HQ.
This, in itself, is another symbol of what might now be called the ‘Earl era’.
Previously, Glu had its 700 staff dotted throughout the US, with international offices in Russia, China and India.
Rationalisation, including most recently the sale of its Moscow studio, means that aside from its operational and QA-focused studio in Hyderabad, India, Glu’s US development talent is heavily centralised in what will be its 350-strong San Francisco HQ.
Other locations include the Toronto studio that operates Kim Kardashian: Hollywood and some small external studios.
Coinciding with this physical focus has been a renewed internal focus on creativity.
Lead by Earl and creative director Mike Olsen, who previously worked on EA’s successful Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes game, the result is a shift from Glu relying on expensive external IP, notably based on celebrities, to original content.
Glu is still in the IP licensing business though. It’s signed a deal to make a game using Disney and Pixar characters (due in 2019). It also has a long term deal with Major League Baseball for its Tap Sport series and is in the process of testing an official WWE game, WWE Universe.
Given the competition provided by existing WWE mobile games such as Take-Two’s WWE Supercard and Scopely’s WWE Champions, that deal seemed odd but Earl is enthusiastic.
New games are about growth but they’re also about opportunity.Nick Earl
“Actually it was an easy decision,” he explains.
“The team making the game are massive WWE fans. In that studio, they love baseball and WWE. And it’s no coincidence our baseball game has been very successful.”
“So while we’re aware of the competition, we think the combination of a motivated team, existing technology, and a strong game design in terms of simple core gameplay and deep metagame will do well.”
Back in business
Perhaps more importantly than its success, however, is the statement it makes that Glu is making new games and not just relying on existing franchises.
As well as WWE Universe, Glu expects to release genre mash-up Diner Dash Town and strategy game Titan World this year, also trying to reboot Racing Rivals, and with the Disney game and a social casino title following in 2019.
“New games are about growth but they’re also about opportunity,” says Earl.
“We want Glu to be an attractive company for talented developers to work at.”
More than just hiring, Glu’s rising confidence will see it getting back into what Earl labels “publishing plus”.
No specifics are mentioned, but it’s known Glu is working with a couple of start-ups to hone their games during the development process and eventually bring its operational smarts and UA dollars into play.
Assuming success, it also has the option to buy equity in the companies or directly acquire them.
One of Glu’s strengths has always been its ability to find, acquire and nurture talent.Nick Earl
And, yes, like most cash-positive mobile game companies Glu is now looking at more traditional M&A too.
“As the Crowdstar deal shows, I think one of Glu’s strengths has always been its ability to find, acquire and nurture talent,” Earl says.
“Our executive board contains five of our studio heads and three of those were from companies we acquired. They have a strong voice round the table.”
As for how long the ‘Earl era’ will remain rosy, 18 months in, things still seem positive.
Last quarter, bookings were a record $86.3 million, and the company increased its full year guidance by $35 million to between $360 to 370 million. Glu stock rose 23 per cent to a three year high on the news.
It remains loss-making, of course, Glu hasn’t been profitable for the past 10 quarters, but even this looks like it could change later in 2018.
No wonder Nick Earl is enjoying himself.