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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

September 12, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Big Fish lands huge financing round, acquisitions next

Seattle’s Big Fish Games today is announcing a huge $83.3 million financing round that the fast-growing company will use partly for acquisitions and international expansion.

It’s the state’s biggest venture financing deal of the year, so far, and raises the question of whether Big Fish should still be called a “casual” game company.

Although Big Fish is profitable and growing steadily, the cash puts it in a better position as consolidation comes to the $2 billion industry producing mainstream PC games.

The deal isn’t a normal venture round. Three investment companies, led by London-based Balderton Capital, are acquiring $83 million worth of common stock in the company.

Those investment companies are buying shares from a handful of angel investors who contributed $8.7 million to help launch the company, plus new shares that are being issued.

From that perspective, the company’s evolving from its roots as an angel-funded startup to a more mature business.

“We are in the early innings and this is a generational move,” said Chief Executive Jeremy Lewis, a Goldman Sachs veteran who took over last fall when founder Paul Thelen became chief strategy officer.

Big Fish didn’t need the money to keep growing. It’s profitable and growing 100 percent a year, reaching sales of $50 million last year.

The company claims to distribute more video games worldwide than any other online gaming site. It also releases a game a day, including titles produced by its own studios such as “Azada” and “Mystery Case Files.”

Most of the company’s business is games played or downloaded online, but its boxed PC games have a big presence in major retail stores including Wal-Mart, Target and Best Buy. It’s also begun developing games for Nintendo platforms.

Thelen started the company in 2002 after leaving RealNetworks, which has since built a casual games business that it’s considering spinning off as a public company.

Big Fish could be in a position to also go public within a few years if its growth continues.

In the meantime, the company’s considering expansion in Europe and recently opened a small development office in Vancouver, B.C.

In Seattle, the company last month moved into new offices shared with F5 along Elliott Avenue where it employs 310 and has room for 450.

There are plenty of smaller fish in the casual games business in Seattle and elsewhere that could be acquisition targets, but Lewis declined to get specific.

“This gives us more of a base from which we can fund potential acquisitions,” he said.

Balderton’s general partner, Mark Evans, is joining the Big Fish board.

“Big Fish Games has a remarkably deep and talented management team and the company is uniquely positioned to capitalize on the worldwide growth of online interactive entertainment,” he said in the release.

Other firms involved are General Catalyst Partners of Cambridge, Mass., and New York-based Salmon River Capital.

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