M&A in the White Hot Mobile Games Sector: Whose Next?

October was a busy month for M&A in the iPhone games sector. ngmoco earned a 10x return for its investors when Japanese mobile game community DeNA paid $400 million. Electronic Arts (ERTS) acquired top iPhone (AAPL) publisher Chillingo for the bargain basement price of $20 million in cash, suggesting that acquisitions in this sector will be small. Now bankers from Hollywood to Herzeliya are wondering if the mobile games sector is entering the start of “exit utopia” or a desperate sell-off?  More urgently, who will be next? Below are ten mobile games companies that might be attractive acquisition targets.

First the context- According to Nielsen, the iPhone grabbed 26% of US Smartphone market share in August, surpassing RIM (RIMM) for the first time. Google’s (GOOG) mobile operating system is growing even faster, capturing 32% of the US Smartphone market. Whether iOS (iPhone, iPad and iTouch) or Android, games dominate mobile content. For example, in the past 30 days 61% of US Smartphone owners and 54% of all UK mobile subscribers played a mobile game. As a result, the transition from iPhone to Android is stimulating M&A activity. Expect to see some of the following acquired in 2011:

Rovio: The Finnish developer of Angry Birds is the number one game in 70 countries with more than 30 million downloads, including 10 million paid downloads. Their strategy includes affordable pricing (99 cents) and ongoing engagement (free updates every 4 weeks). Using AdMob’s in-app advertising tools and their own house ads, Rovio is estimated to be earning 500-700k in monthly paid app and ad-supported revenue. Clearly, this is a company that could scale into a much larger player and has set the lofty goal of 100 million downloads, something only Tetris (Electronic Arts) has achieved. Potential buyers will need to bring scale and reach to  migrate an iOS and Android success story into a “Transmedia Property”. Just as Disney (DIS) bought iPhone game developer Tapulous earlier this year for a reported $50 million (including earn-out), studios like Sony (SNE), Paramount, 20th Century Fox (NWSA) and Warner Brothers could soon bring Angry Birds to a cinema, bookstore, console game or toothbrush near you.

Unity 3D: 3D has moved beyond the cinema to the TV, laptop, handset and game console. For example, Nintendo (NTDOY) announced its glasses-free, 3DS portable game player. Moreover, handset vendors are desperate to distinguish their wares and several OEM’s- including Sharp, Motorola (MOT), LG and Toshiba- are working on 3D handsets. What is missing is content- game developers don’t see a large audience ready to purchase 3D games. This year, global 3D TV sales are unlikely to surpass 5 million units. However, by 2015 that number should scale to between 50-88 million new 3D TV’s. Unity 3D provides a platform for developers to quickly create and deploy 3D games for online, television, console and mobile. Unity has more than 200,000 registered developers worldwide, including Electronic Arts, Disney and Coca Cola (KO). This could be an interesting strategic acquisition for a variety of players seeking competitive advantage in the 3D gaming sector.

Greystripe: Want to start a “Show Me the Money” discussion on Madison Avenue? Try raising the subject of mobile advertising. The entire sector is projected to reach less than $750 million this year (eMarketer), a pittance compared to the $70 billion on US television advertising. However, a growing number of Q4 campaigns from retail, automotive and consumer packaged goods brands suggests rapid growth. This is what inspired Apple’s $250 million acquisition this year of Quattro Wireless and Google’s $750 million purchase of AdMob. Among the remaining independents, Greystripe is strong in the In-App Advertising sector. Although games downloaded via app stores will contribute only 30% of UK mobile game revenues this year, the success of the Apple App Store has inspired new entrants to the App Store fray, from Samsung to Amazon. Look for Greystripe to get swallowed as the Big Guys prepare for war.

Gypsii: Think of Gypsii as a combination of Twitter and Foursquare for China. Micro-blogging (weibao) is a booming, although not yet profitable, sector in China. Local Twitter clone Sina Weibo claims to be the largest micro-blogging service in China, with more than 20m registered users since launching in August 2009. Gypsii uses a hybrid subscription and ad revenue revenue sharing model, including location-aware couponing, to incentivize its wireless carrier partners. In less than two years, Gypsii has deals with all three Chines carriers, nearly 3 million users and pre-load agreements with Nokia, LG, Samsung, Lenovo and Huawei. Despite the slow 3G uptake in China, there are nearly 400 million active mobile internet users in the Middle Kingdom. This includes the 50 million Chinese consumers earning $20,000 USD annually and spending at least $22 per month on mobile services. Web, mobile and e-Commerce (still only $2.5 Billion out of last year’s $29 Billion online eCommerce sector) companies seeking carrier relationships and a large base of consumers will be very interested in Gypsii.

Aurora Feint: While Apple may have its own social gaming network (GameCenter), third party social gaming networks like ngmoco’s Plus+ and German business to business social gaming platform Scoreloop have built large user bases. Aurora Feint takes a multi-platform approach, with expertise in iOS (iPhone, iTouch, iPad) and Android and cloud-based game services like leaderboards, achievements and virtual currencies. Aurora Feint’s high traffic numbers in the US- 3,400 games and over 45 million mobile gamers- make it the volume play in this sector and helped attract investment from major Chinese and Japanese gaming companies as well as  Intel Capital. The company is poised to expand its user base with a deal announced last quarter with Verizon (VZ) to curate and provide Android game recommendations.

Vivox: Until the advent of video games, humans generally played games with other people. Vivox, and quite a few other players, recognized the importance of social interaction and created a platform for developers and social networks to integrate voice chat, video, Instant Messaging (IM) and presence within the visual experience. The advantage for Vivox is the installed base of 25 million users across 180 countries and 2 billion minutes of monthly voice chat. Even if voice is rapidly becoming a commodity, Vivox’s scale could compliment the expansion goals for large game publishers, virtual worlds or social networks.

Backflip Studios: Few studios consistently crank out hit games. Boulder, Colorado-based Backflip Studios has now had nearly 50 million downloads and a daily active user base of two million. In fact, its first four iPhone releases, including Paper Toss, Graffiti Ball, Strike Knight and NinJump, were all downloaded over four million times and ranked in the Top 5 in Apple’s overall app store lists. Most importantly, Backflip is generating solid revenue through in-app advertising (iAd and AdMob) and cross promoting its paid games via its free games. Considering that research firm Flurry estimates the average revenue generated per online active daily user is $1.22, Backflip brings an interesting revenue base as well as its track record of making popular games.

Free App A Day: Free App A Day is a website, app and community platform for the promotion of paid games on iPhone and Android that are free for a limited period. Apple’s App Store is now loaded with more than 240,000 apps, making discovery one of the biggest challenges facing publishers.  The company has over a million active daily users and is now a King Maker for pushing games and apps into the top 10. Developers and publishers give away their apps for free for a limited time. Once these revert to paid status, the promotional effects from the daily push notifications offset the lost publisher revenue. Free App A Day then keeps a share of publisher paid app revenue for a fixed period.

Smule: No one is cranking out hit iPhone music applications like Smule. Having raised $13.5 million and achieved success with iPhone apps like “I am T-Pain”, “Ocarina”, “Glee Karaoke” and “Leaf Trombone”, the developers are now creating iPad versions. Given that 91% of iPad owners have downloaded an application and two thirds paid for these, it is no surprise that Smule already has its first iPad success story- “Magic Piano”. According to Smule, users played one of the songs, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” more than 750,000 times. In fact, world-renowned pianist Lang Lang performed “Flight of the Bumblebee” on Magic Piano at the San Francisco Orchestra. This kind of engagement has many wondering if Smule will be the next Slide, which was acquired by Google in August for $182 million.

Flurry: Although virtual goods are the dominant form of monetization for online social games, until mobile application research firm Flurry released a report earlier this month, few knew that same trend has already come to mobile. Measuring its network of more than 50,000 developers across iPhone and Android, Flurry identified 80% of in-app revenue from micro-transactions, with the rest coming from ads. Despite a highly publicized spat with Steve Jobs earlier this year, as an analytics provider Flurry could be attractive to the likes of Nielsen, Comscore and NPD. Hedging its bets, Flurry has created its own set of tools for helping the developer community integrate virtual currency into their activities.

Levi Shapiro is a Partner at TMT Strategic Advisors, a global research and strategy firm focusing on the technology, media and telecom sectors.