King boss Tjodolf Sommestad on app store fees, the Microsoft takeover and new rival Royal Match


King invited selected press to its London office on Monday to talk about its 20th year in the games business.

The Candy Crush maker said it now has over 200m MAU, and the Candy Crush franchise has now generated over $20bn in its lifetime.

We also got some time with King boss Tjodolf Sommestad, who was crowned president in February 2022 after over a decade at the firm. Here’s the conversation in full, edited for clarity and readability.

It’s been years now since you launched a new game – what’s the strategy right now, is it really about optimising what you have, given that it’s increasingly tough to launch a new mobile game?
That’s where our focus is, that’s where most of our attention goes to. We’re still actively working on new game concepts as well but we are putting most of our attention towards specifically three games, Candy, Soda and Farm Heroes.

We’re seeing really good traction with that and we have over 200 million players on a monthly basis in our games so it makes sense for us to prioritise delivering more innovation and content in those games.

PvP kart battler Rebel Riders entered soft launch in July 2022. Its last beta was in June.

Do you have any update on Rebel Riders? It’s been in soft launch for a while and the game’s Discord has gone a little quiet since the last beta.
We’re testing games with players in different ways and Rebel Riders is a game we’ve tested more actively with a community. But we’re still in testing now and we’re considering what to do with that game going forward.

There’s an increasing number of mobile game developers pushing their players into web shops and into browser experiences as they look to skip the 30% Apple and Google tax, is that something you’re considering too?
No, we’re not going to shift back into prioritising web games. Of course, we’re also hearing that from the industry and we see what some others are doing. For us, it’s important to have low friction with our players, specifically with our games. These are games that you drop into and play for a short moment of time and that moment should be carefree and challenging in the way you want it to be challenging.

So right now we’re not looking at trying to add friction by taking them to an experience that’s not ideal for them by pushing payments outside. We are on top of what’s happening and seeing what others are doing and sort of monitoring what’s going on. And if there is a way in the future to distribute in a different way that still has low friction for players, that might be of interest to us.

From April: ‘Candy Crush boss Todd Green on live ops excellence, new games – and that Microsoft takeover

What about your super hardcore players, if you move them over to a webshop and you’re getting 30% more revenue from them doesn’t that work out pretty well for you?
It’s not something that we’re working on right now. And when I look at our player mix, our demographics and behaviour in our game it’s quite different. It’s a very broad base and very global, and we engage with our players in different ways. We really want to deliver a great experience to the hundreds of millions of players that we have and not customise things too much for that specific segment.

How much of a percentage of your revenue is made through ads now? And is that increasing year over year?
In 2017 we started adding ads back into the games and we really thought about how we wanted to do it. We wanted it to be more about players having a choice and introduce them in a way that is more player friendly and not necessarily what our competitors are doing.

We have slowly grown into that and it took the first year or two or three as a learning. But we also built up demand from advertisers and that has been growing nicely now for a while. We haven’t reported some of those numbers in our quarterly reports, but we are still growing and we’ll continue that investment and grow our engagement with players.

The revenue varies a bit quarter by quarter and depending on the demand from the advertising industry, but it is a meaningful percentage of the business.

From August: ‘Big marketing beats and AI-powered events are helping King hit record revenue

Will your investments in AI and the acquisition of Peltarion help you monetise those non-paying players that have been playing for a long time? Is that the idea – pushing those players into watching a few more ads or spending?
That’s not where I would say we’re directing our efforts. We’ve been working with AI technology for a long period of time and the acquisition of Peltarion really helped us accelerate that.

Where we’re applying AI is with bots to test our levels, make them better, and increase the quality of the work we’re doing for our players. I also think that it will help us remove some of the mundane tasks that we all have in working offices, including for creative game-makers, so we can spend more time coming up with ideas for players, so it’s not targeted towards the ads business as such.

Further reading: ‘Microsoft again insists the ActiBlizz deal is all about mobile (it’s not)

What’s the feeling internally around the Microsoft takeover among the leadership at Activision Blizzard? It must be quite an uncertain time.
We really have been focused and haven’t got involved in that – it’s not something that we can control. What we have heard Microsoft say publicly is that they are interested and they have a strategy of moving more into mobile or being more present in mobile. We’re a mobile native company – we have 200m plus monthly players – and the vast majority of them are on mobile. So I can see how King also could be a value add for Microsoft without having had any interactions with them.

From our perspective, we can also say that Microsoft has had a history of innovation over the years, they are strong in areas like AI so if we will get the possibility to work with them in the future that can accelerate our initiatives there.

So you haven’t had conversations with Phil Spencer or anyone at Microsoft?
No, we haven’t talked about what the world looks like after a potential deal.

Further reading: ‘Even Microsoft is concerned its Xbox app store could struggle to break mobile’s duopoly

Microsoft has said it wants to break the Apple and Google duopoly with its own app store. What are your thoughts on another entrant into the ecosystem?
There has been entrants into that ecosystem already and there are stores that are more specific to particular geographies…like Samsung, I think has their own store. There is a challenge to that duopoly and I think we – and players as well – should welcome competition and more choice for players. And that’s true for distribution as in other things as well.

If Microsoft starts building this new app store ecosystem and leveraging King’s games is there a danger you’ll disrupt and fragment your player base? Could it actually be quite damaging for your business?
Just like with what we’re seeing with what others are doing with ways to transact with players, we are very focused on our players and our players typically don’t like friction, no-one really does. As consumers more broadly we are quite sensitive towards friction. And that’s not something that is additive to the experience. We have built ways to interface with players, the features, be it features or ads or something else and it’s the low friction way that they enjoy.

If there is a way with some partner in the future to change in a way that’s low friction that would be interesting, but it has to be on the merits of if players enjoy it as well.

Royal Match was ahead of Candy Crush Saga again in August’s top grossing mobile games, according to Appmagic.

I’ve got to ask about Royal Match. According to Appmagic data it has overtaken Candy Crush Saga on monthly downloads and revenue. How has your team reacted to having a new contender on the scene?
I’ve been at King for 12 years and there’s been competition since day one. We’ve had periods where there’s new competition coming in and it keeps us on our toes. Competition is healthy and it is good for players to have competition. There’s more choice for players.

Whatever happens we’re always trying to up our game and do even better for the players that we have and can attract to our game. And we’re seeing that Royal Match is a good game as well but there are many, many other good games out there as well. So we keep an eye on what’s happening in the industry but it doesn’t really change the longer term story for us, we need to be on our toes and need to keep innovating for our players. And that’s what we’re gonna keep doing.

Are they taking players off you? Are people playing both games?
If you just look at the King portfolio of games there is an overlap, but there’s also not an overlap. I do think that when we’ve seen entrants in the past, when we grow we also expand the whole ecosystem of players who are playing these types of games, which I do welcome. We’re sure there is an overlap but we need to just keep delivering and making our games better and more fun for players.

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