First Major Acquisition Gets Big Fish Games Into Mobile, Social, Location — And The Bay Area

Big Fish Games is having some significant firsts this year, a decade after Paul Thelen founded the casual game developer and publisher. One is its largest acquisition to date: Oakland-based Social Concepts, the parent company of mobile social casino game developer Self Aware Games. Another is strong revenue growth — up 30 percent over 2011, to above $180 million, he tells me today.

Now, with Social Concepts, Big Fish will also be able to crack some areas that it has mostly stayed out of so far.

It is the new owner of Card Ace: Casino, a top grossing app (not just game) on the iPad. This property includes a variety of casino games, like video poker. But it’s based around a social “lobby” where players connect to play and compete for prestige, as investor Bill Lee describes it to me. Big Fish is going to bring this people-oriented design to Facebook. Already written in HTML5, the game should be an easy port — the main difference is going to be the addition of Facebook’s social hooks.

Big Fish, whose strength has historically been in downloadable casual titles, has tried to get on the world’s largest social platform before. It brought iterations of its casual hits over in 2010, but struggled to find users. Now, Card Ace: Casino will give it a large install base and a fine-tuned social game experience, that it can point to a market that has already proven to love social casino games, from Zynga Poker to DoubleDown Casino to many other smaller titles.

Note that these games are not gambling, at least at present, in that users put money in to buy poker chips or other virtual goods, but can’t extract winnings. However, shifts in the U.S. legal climate appear to give developers new leeway to make that happen. “We’re not focused on gambling right now,” Thelen tells me, but “obviously that’s something you could do with a big casino install base.”

Beyond the introduction of new casino games on the mobile app, the planned social expansion, and the option to one day get into the real-money casino business, Big Fish is also getting into another new space via the purchase: location.

Social Concepts has been busy building up Fleck Touch, a game that lets you create a virtual zombie-fighting garden and go on zombie-slaying quests with friends across North America, using your iPad’s GPS feature. The title is currently available for iPad, but Lee and Thelen say that the iPhone version is coming within the next few weeks.

Beyond these titles, Big Fish gets the development and analytics teams that have made the acquiree successful. And, the closely-held company will also get some well-known Silicon Valley investors on board. Lee is an accomplished investor and entrepreneur, and he had already brought in some friends from around here to fund Social Concepts, including eBay founder Jeff Skoll, PayPal co-founder and Tesla-plus-SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, and early PayPal backer and Bridgescale Partners co-founder Matthew Cowan. They’re now all Big Fish stockholders.

So, in case you thought that mobile and social gaming wasn’t intense enough around here already, the Seattle-based casual company is looking like a serious new competitor. It has 600 employees who know how to build great titles — mostly at its headquarters, but also including 100 in Ireland, with other studios in Vancouver and Luxembourg. Social Concepts will be its newest studio, and its first in the Bay Area.