There are many international speakers at Nasscom GDC, but Mark Skaggs may be the most prominent of them all. Between 2008 and 2015, Skaggs was senior vice president of games at Zynga, where he led the creation of the products that drove one of the most startling ascents this industry has seen in decades. Skaggs left Zynga in November 2015, his reputation assured. FarmVille, CityVille, Empires & Allies; whatever one can say about Zynga's decline over the last few years, it's tough to argue with that CV.
And yet the most remarkable thing about Skaggs being in India is that he's here rather a lot. In February of 2016, he confirmed that his next step would be to join Moonfrog Labs, a Bangalore-based studio creating games for the nascent Indian market. I'll readily admit to my bafflement when I wrote the story of his appointment as Moonfrog's new director. Here was a guy with the kind of track record that could open any number of doors, and he chose India: a vibrant culture, to be sure, but one of the most challenging new markets in the games business - as even those who work within it will tell you.
"[Mobile] a lot about arbitrage, right? I get this player for $6, and they pay me $8 before a certain period of time"
"Some people recommended that I take a year off, but that's just not me," Skaggs says when we meet. There was no post-Zynga plan, exactly, but he knew that he couldn't stay idle for long, and he knew that what came next had to be restorative and new. "Something new - that's exactly it," he continues. "I'd been commuting between San Francisco and Texas at Zynga, and it was hard. I have a wife, four kids. My plan was just to chill out for a while and let that new thing come to me. Clear the space, y'know?"
The job offers started rolling in almost immediately, so Skaggs assembled the most intriguing into a kind of world tour. He visited companies in North America, Europe and Asia, with the intention of spending a quiet Christmas pondering a decision he pledged to make in the new year. It soon became clear, however, that the more stimulating prospects were further from home than San Francisco - much further.
"I knew I loved games, and I wanted to keep on doing that, but the US market, the western market for mobile games was pretty packed," he says. "It's a lot about arbitrage, right? I get this player for $6, and they pay me $8 before a certain period of time. That makes the math work out, so I can fund the team and the servers, then I make the next $6 acquisition.
"What I want to do is just entertain people. Of course, we have to pay the bills, the rent, to support your family, but the idea of [making games] just becoming a pure math equation - it doesn't really matter what you make, as long as you get X dollars more than what you paid for the player - that made me pause. I asked, 'Is this what I want to do?' And I didn't know, because when you're working really hard, full-time, it's hard to think about the future. It's hard to get that space."
"It was about staying involved, and being in a place where I could have an impact"
That he chose to focus on Moonfrog is remarkable, but it's also significant that he chose to focus at all. Given how successful Zynga was at its peak, full retirement may have been an option. He could also have taken the relatively well travelled road of sitting on the boards of half a dozen companies, making the odd investment here and there. Skaggs says that he never seriously entertained either possibility. In fact, the opposite was true.
"It's an excellent point, one that goes all the way back to my engineer training. When I was working at Texas Instruments I would see guys writing code, then suddenly they get promoted to manager and their coding skills dropped. What I've found is that every time I've stepped up to a level where I'm not actually making games - where I'm managing the game makers, and my world becomes budgets and headcounts and seating charts and networking - I become a lot less satisfied.
"One of the positions I was offered was very high level, and I talked to the company and said, 'Look, I've got to keep my hands on games.' I don't want to become disassociated, the executive who had his time ten years ago and now pontificates... It was about staying involved, and being in a place where I could have an impact."
Moonfrog wasn't much older than Zynga was when Skaggs first joined Mark Pincus' startup back in 2008, and it was also relatively similar in terms of headcount. In that respect it was a good fit, but the attraction ran deeper still. Moonfrog's founders are former employees of Zynga, all of whom Skaggs had met five years before while visiting the company's Bangalore studio. They had impressed him at that first meeting, and they did so again on his post-Zynga global tour. Skaggs offered his feedback on a presentation of Moonfrog's direction at that time, and the team reacted swiftly and positively.
"Then it was just execution - boom, boom, boom," he says. "I'm thinking, wow, these guys not only have skills, they just need a compass setting, a little nudge in a direction, and they deliver. That was impressive to me. It showed me that I could make some changes, the team would be receptive, and the bar raises for everybody."
Of course, the idea is to raise the bar for the Indian market as a whole. Moonfrog raised $15 million in funding at the start of 2015, an impressive amount given the difficulty Indian studios generally face when seeking investment. That kind of money buys a lot more runway in Bangalore than in San Francisco, and Skaggs is now leading the development of the company's new games and IP - all of which will be for mobile devices and squarely aimed at the Indian market.
"You've got to run a very, very tight business, even with lower overheads. Top ten in the App Store? It's nowhere near and nothing like elsewhere in the world"
If Skaggs is reluctant to speak too much about the details of those products at this stage, he's very open about one thing: the Indian market as it exists today is not the target. Moonfrog is playing the long game, trying and testing ideas as much for India's future as its present. "We're betting into the future, and learning all the lessons that we need to learn now," he says. "You've got to run a very, very tight business, even with lower overheads. Top ten in the App Store? It's nowhere near and nothing like elsewhere in the world. But it's an opportunity: to learn Indian tastes, to learn how things work, and to grow along with the market.
"The key to all of it is to make content that people like. Every user test we do I learn something, the team learns something. We put our best hypothesis forward, and if that doesn't work we decide what to do instead... It's exciting to learn the new culture. It's a new user-base, which thinks differently."
For Skaggs, though, adapting his thinking to that new audience involves leaving any assumptions on the plane when he makes his frequent trips to Bangalore. A recent user test, he tells me, exposed a lack of awareness and comfort around swiping as an input for gameplay. He mimics his own surprise at first seeing those results, and laughs. It was only a decade ago that people in the US and Europe were just as bemused at the concept of swiping, but time and experience has made it second nature. With careful planning and a healthy reserve of patience, he believes the same will happen with India.
"I was probably a little more bullish last year, when I didn't know as much as I do now. Now I look at it and it's a long term thing," he says. "Yeah, there's 4G in the country, but you really have this whiff of 3G still on your phone. There's a lot of cash and not many credit cards. There's still a lot of feature phones.
"The benefit that all of Moonfrog's founders have is that they saw the scope and scale that can happen at Zynga, and it's not a rush to get there. It's about putting the foundation in place now. It might take a few years, and that's okay. It'll be an overnight success that took a decade to happen.
"That stuff will be worked out. Amazon wants to solve this problem, Google wants to solve this problem, Facebook, Flipkart. Everybody's there, so they can go solve those - we'll be here making games."
GamesIndustry.biz is a media partner for Nasscom GDC. Our travel and accommodation costs were provided by the organiser.