Something interesting happened in mobile gaming during the COVID-19 pandemic — at least if you ask Darcy Taylor.
Taylor, the co-founder and CEO of Leaf, the Vancouver-based free-to-play mobile gaming group, says that the pandemic acted as “an accelerant for people entering the gaming ecosystem.”
“Occasional players started to make gaming a part of their regular entertainment suite,” he says. “Before, you used to say gaming was a 14-year-old in their bedroom. And now, it’s ubiquitous. I think you could argue that everyone is gaming now, from the eight-year-old to the 48-year-old.”
There was no reason why we couldn’t build a gaming powerhouse out of Canada that could compete on a global level”Darcy Taylor, co-founder and CEO of Leaf
And Taylor doesn’t see this trend slowing, perhaps in part because Leaf’s suite of games — IP-driven mobile titles from already-familiar franchises, such as the Trailer Park Boys, Archer, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — have built-in audiences. This smartly curated portfolio, bolstered by a number of recent high-profile acquisitions, including the $159 million acquisition of Vancouver’s East Side Games in February and the $37 million purchase of Truly Social Gaming a month later, propelled Leaf to an IPO earlier this year, making the studio Canada’s largest publicly-traded free-to-play mobile gaming company.
Of course, Leaf’s success was not entirely pandemic driven, nor is it because the company trades in familiar IP. Taylor and his team lean hard on data-based decision making as well as data-sharing with their partners to build a mobile gaming juggernaut in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour neighborhood.
“Instead of watching international companies come in and gobble up Canadian talent and build studio powerhouses, [we thought] there was no reason why we couldn’t build a gaming powerhouse out of Canada that could compete on a global level,” Taylor says.
Part of building up that powerhouse is giving its gaming partners the power to develop products on their own terms, armed with data from the parent company Leaf.
“We’re there to provide value-add services that allow them to focus on their business,” Taylor says. “Our view is that the game development world is a mix of science and art, with a heavy overlay of culture. So it’s not about us trying to make one homogeneous culture. It’s about a mix of great leaders, great entrepreneurs, great game builders, great storytellers, who really want to share their knowledge across the group.”
Leaf’s primary product focus is on IP-driven games, but also on an audience that is both highly engaged and underserved. One example Taylor provides of the latter is Leaf’s recent acquisition of exclusive mobile game rights to the Rupaul’s Drag Race franchise.
“In the LGBTQ space, you could argue that there’s no viable game there,” Taylor says. “And there’s a tremendously active following of the [show], with RuPaul being an Emmy-award winning host of one of the most fabulously successful shows around the world. We think we’re providing content to an audience that they will find compelling.”
On top of all this, Leaf’s entrepreneur partners have access to the company’s Idle Kit development platform, on which they can build their games. Third-party developers using Idle Kit are able to bring fully optimized, easily monetized games to market faster — and with a higher likelihood of success — than their competitors.
“We help de-risk development,” Taylor says. “Studios do art design and gameplay very well, and what we provide is a framework that does the science, on the back end.” The science, as Taylor calls it, is everything from live ops and events management to analytics and API tools, allowing developers to “increase the surface area of their success.”
In turn, Leaf has access to large, rich datasets from its various gaming partners, which the company then feeds into its analytics tool and provides back to its partners, allowing them to further optimize their game operations and decision-making process. The whole thing, in short, is a fine-tuned, data-driven machine.
Data makes the difference
With more data and a large portfolio of games, Leaf is able to take a holistic approach to their marketing, and make increasingly data-driven decisions relating to how they reach, acquire, and attain new players. Leaf is able to provide gaming entrepreneurs with a hugely diverse set of data points to help them achieve their product goals, in addition to access to other gaming entrepreneurs already operating under Leaf’s umbrella: “They get to talk to like-minded people who’ve either gone down those paths, or have some life experience, and it’s a tremendous value to all parties within the group,” Taylor says.
While the team at Leaf is constantly at work analyzing user gameplay to develop best practices for its partners and developers, Taylor is reluctant to divulge too much information as to what, exactly, this analysis looks like. “I don’t want to give away the special sauce,” he laughs. He will divulge that the team conducts frequent A/B tests to learn about player reactions and habits and to determine what types of gaming elements or incentives drive loyalty. “Then, we basically disseminate that knowledge and those toolsets across our studio partners, as well as across our Idle Kit partners,” he says — not unlike what a SaaS model.
As Leaf prepares to continue developing new games such as Rupaul’s Drag Race, it is doing so off the back of a Q1 that saw whopping 95% year-over-year revenue growth. Taylor says Leaf is just getting started, and he’s excited to continue building the gaming industry within Vancouver in particular, and Canada in general.
“We think Canada, and Vancouver in particular, is a talent hotbed for gaming companies, as well as people in gaming,” he says. “Our view is that going forward, we will be a global player in this space while flying that Canadian flag.”