Disney Ups the Ante in Social Gaming With Playdom Purchase

Walt Disney (s dis) has made a major foray into the world of online “social” or casual games, with the acquisition of Playdom, a leading maker of games such as Mobsters for MySpace and Facebook. The media and entertainment giant is paying up to $763 million for the startup, with $200 million of that figure based on the future performance of the company. Fueled by cash infusions from VC capital funds, including a recent round of $33 million that closed last month (which reportedly included funding from Disney’s venture arm) Playdom has acquired a series of game-makers itself over the past year, and is now the fourth-largest gaming player on Facebook behind Zynga, Electronic Arts and CrowdStar.

The Playdom purchase is the latest in a number of moves that Disney has made into social games and online gaming, including the acquisition just a few weeks ago of Tapulous, a maker of popular mobile games for the iPhone such as Tap Tap Revenge. But the purchase of Playdom for three-quarters of a billion dollars is the biggest deal Disney has made in online gaming since it agreed in 2007 to pay $700 million for Club Penguin, a popular online social-gaming network for kids. Half of that price was an “earn-out” based on the site meeting profit targets; however, it did not make those benchmarks. The fact that Disney was willing to settle for a lower earn-out ratio on Playdom suggests that it sees that market as a better bet than a standalone portal like Club Penguin.

As the leader in the market, Zynga has been getting the lion’s share of investment and deals, including more than $350 million in financing from venture funds such as Japan’s Softbank and Russia’s Digital Sky Technologies, which is also a prominent investor in Facebook. But Disney’s acquisition of Playdom shows that there is interest in other players in the sector (game developer Electronic Arts also bought Playfish in November for as much as $400 million), and that entertainment giants such as the House of Mouse see potential for expanding their existing real-world brands into the online and social space.

Whether Disney properties can make the transition into social games remains to be seen, however – most of the games that are popular on Facebook and elsewhere have no existing brand associations. In the future, the entertainment giant may even decide to launch related social games at the same time as it premieres a new movie or other Disney property. The Playdom deal also suggests that the company was eager to make a substantial move into the social-gaming market, since it decided to acquire a developer rather than making its own games from scratch.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d): How the Next Zynga Could Reinvent Social Gaming