The Zynga interview: How the troubled company is striving to be a leader again

COO Clive Downie discusses the firm's problems and the road ahead in mobile
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Last month during GDC, Develop travelled to Zynga’s enormous HQ in San Francisco for a chat with company COO Clive Downie.

The former EA and DeNA exec, who has been in the game industry for 24 years, joined the company in late 2013, hired by Don Mattrick. He joined a company struggling to turn a profit following the collapse of its Facebook games business, and one that was slowly having to retool the firm as it switched to a mobile-first strategy.

Downie said the challenges Zynga faced – and is still facing – was actually one of the major attractions to joining the company, to be part of a journey at a firm that’s ultimate goal is to reach as many people as possible through its games. And it’s an ambition Downie still thinks Zynga can achieve.

He states the company still has a number of strong franchises, including FarmVille, and is able to harness its userbase to market the new games it has in the pipeline – it aims to announce six to ten titles this year.

On top of that, Downie believes the company has a high calibre of staff across various disciplines, and claims: “I can honestly say that the aggregate level of skill and capability here is higher than any other company I have experienced”.

And of course one of the most important things Zynga still has in its locker from those early days of rampant success – money, and lots of it. However it’s fast running out; in 2014 losses reached $226m.

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Zynga's owns its enormous San Francisco office, and leases portions of it out for other businesses to use

A bullish Downie says it’s Zynga’s aspiration to be the at-scale leader in mobile, but admits it takes time to get there – hence, perhaps, its poor performances financially in recent times.

“Our target is to be the at-scale leader,” he states. “That means the largest number of No.1 products in the largest number of categories. That translates to engagement with the largest number of people.

“To do that, you need to invest over a sustained period of time. You need to invest in the R&D, invest in the marketing, invest when appropriate in acquisitions, and it takes time. And time unfortunately correlates to money spent, especially when you have 2,200 people and that cost structure, which again is a strategy of ours to maintain that scale. Because when we’re talking about the categories we want to participate in, you can only do that with a large number of people.

“We can’t be a narrow-band and be experts in one or two categories and have 150 people; we’d like to be experts in over seven categories, seven to ten.”

Planning for the road ahead

It’s been a rocky road so far though. Downie admits Zynga’s initial troubles stemmed from its over-reliance on web and Facebook, and says the firm was “slow to realise that consumers were moving their time over to mobile”.

“So whilst the company, prior to my time here, were making mobile games, the strategy around why those games were chosen, versus using the resource on other things, or the level of adhering to the proven mechanisms in the mobile space wasn’t maybe as rigorous as our rigour on the web,” he says.

“So therefore consumers moved over, and we were slow to follow. What we did follow with wasn’t competitive in the market and we therefore lost ground, and that’s where the friction came from.

“We’ve realised that, and we’ve spent the better half of a year-and-a-half retooling the company into a mobile-first company through a set of very specific phases and steps that are building toward being the at-scale leader in free-to-play entertainment, as personified by being the leading mobile gaming company.”

Consumers moved over, and we were slow to follow. What we did follow with wasn’t competitive in the market and we therefore lost ground, and that’s where the friction came from.

Clive Downie, Zynga

That year-and-a-half under Don Mattrick’s reign has not worked out as planned, however. Since this interview, Mattrick has left the Zynga and Mark Pincus has returned as CEO.

In an official statement, Pincus said it was time to “renew our focus on our vision to make play and social games a mass market activity”. It’s not clear how this new vision is entirely different, mind, though in an interview with the New York Times the returning CEO suggested he will double-down on an analytics-centric approach to development. But the company has been making the shift toward mobile for some time, and its upcoming titles – including Dawn of Titans, Empires & Allies; two titles in the action strategy genre specifically called out in Pincus’ letter to employees – aand FarmVille: Harvest Swap, all suggested on using a mass-market strategy anyway.

In fact, as Downie told Develop even a month ago, Zynga’s strategy is to be a leader in mobile across numerous categories, and it wants to reach as many people as possible. It’s arguably the same today.

Downie explains the recent timeline of Zynga’s shift to mobile. He describes Mattrick coming on board as an admission by Pincus that it “needed to reinvigorate the company from a leadership perspective with someone who could talk a new language and strategise a new plan around mobile”.

From there, the company has had to make organisational shifts toward being mobile-first, which included hiring the right staff – which also included some notable layoffs within the company – and making acquisitions to fill in the skills gaps, such as NaturalMotion. The UK firm, which also has offices in the US, provided it with mobile expertise, game development tech such as Morpheme, and leading titles like CSR Racing for Zynga to get a foothold in new genres.

“Then we launched FarmVille 2: Country Escape in April of 2014,” he explains. According to intelligence company ThinkGaming, the title is reportedly making around $23,000 a day and is currently the 81st top grossing App Store game in the US.

“That was the first new mobile product of this new world order I’m talking about. And we made that game in a relatively short time using an existing technology base of ours, with two purposes. One was, we wanted to give consumers a FarmVille experience on mobile.

“But it was also, let's get a proof point that a team in Zynga can make a mobile-first product that ships day and date on Android and iOS, that is in 16 languages that has a go to market campaign around it, that can utilise cross-promo from web to mobile. So this just proved we could do it, and we did it, so that was a prove point.

“And then we’ve been sequentially launching games that build off that bar and raise the bar higher in all of those areas.”

He adds: “All of them have taught, purposefully, the organisation new things. And now we’re at Dawn of Titans, and that’s the next step on the journey. Then we’ll be at FarmVille: Harvest Swap, which is our match three product, and that enters us into a new category with all of the learnings that will come.”

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Time on Zynga’s side?

One criticism aimed at Zynga is perhaps this change has been slow. Nearly two years later after Mattrick’s appointment, the company is still leaking money. Again in his letter, Pincus was keen to specify he had returned as CEO in order to “accelerate innovation” in the most popular categories such as action strategy, as well as strengthen the company’s focus on “invest and express”.

Downie was keen to state that Zynga’s progress has not been purposefully slow, even if the firm does have time on its side thanks to the billion dollar reserves it has in cash and marketable securities.

He says the company aims to tackle its issues quickly, and that it’s learning from past mistakes.

“It’s important for people to know we run at challenges fast,” he says. “We expect all of our employees to have an every moment matters attitude. We like to hire people and recruit people who feel that they want to push the edge on all of their decisions with that every moment matters attitude.

“We run the company at pace, but we are thorough. And whilst we make mistakes, we learn form them, and make sure we don’t make it again.

“Yes we have time no our side, but I don’t think we’re wasting time.”

It’s important to remember that Zynga does have time on its side, but that will run out eventually. It remains to be seen whether the foundations it has laid over the past couple of years will have a positive impact on its future, or if Pincus plans to reboot the company once again as it chases its lost leadership position.

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