Once The Cream Of The Crop, Zynga Zigzags To Adapt To Mobile

Apr 12, 2015
Originally published on April 12, 2015 10:01 am

Remember those days of tending rows of virtual soybeans and strawberries on your Facebook page with a game called Farmville? It was a moment, and Zynga, the company that makes the game, cashed in when it went public back in 2011.

Now, Zynga is losing money and its founder is back, to mixed reviews.

When Zynga launched Farmville in 2009, it surprised everyone with its success. It quickly became the most popular game on Facebook.

But people got bored with planting seeds on a desktop. The market had moved to mobile, and Zynga didn't keep up.

That's why founder Mark Pincus stepped down as CEO in July 2013, and Don Mattrick, former head of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment division, took the helm.

"Don was brought in to put them on the path of what they called 'mobile first,' — So let's build our games to be on mobile platforms before they're on Facebook," says Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities.

Pachter says Mattrick did get some great games in the works. In Empires & Allies, players save the world from a modern-day terrorist organization called the GRA — by dropping bombs, not seeds.

The game looks like a winner to Pachter. He's keen on Pincus, because he thinks he'll get it out faster.

"Pincus is a tech entrepreneur who's coming from an environment where decisions are made in a second," Pachter says. "A week is too long."

But, getting a company that's been losing tens of millions of dollars back on the road to success will require more than speed, says analyst P.J. McNeely. When Pincus left the company 18 months ago, it was a mess. With the announcement on Wednesday of his return, the stock tumbled.

McNeely says Pincus tried a lot of strategies in his previous incarnation as CEO.

"None of that has worked," he says. "So unless Pincus has some magic plan, it's back to Farmville."

Back to Farmville indeed. While Mattrick was running the company, he planted a lot of seeds: he did some restructuring and got new mobile games in the pipeline.

It's possible those games will grow and mature under Pincus, who will get the credit if they bear fruit.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Remember those days of tending rows of virtual soy beans and strawberries on your Facebook page with a game called Farmville? OK, me neither. Me neither, I can't even get it out. Me neither, but if you never got into it, you probably know someone who did. It was a moment. And Zynga, the company that makes the online game, cashed in when it went public back in 2011. Now Zynga is losing money. And as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, its founder is back at the helm to mixed reviews.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: When Zynga launched Farmville in 2009, it surprised everyone with its success. It quickly became the most popular game on Facebook. But people got bored of planting seeds on a desktop and the market moved to mobile. And Zynga didn't keep up. That's why founder Mark Pincus stepped down as CEO and Don Mattrick, former head of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment Division took the helm.

MICHAEL PACHTER: Don was brought in to put them on the path of what they called mobile first. So let's build our games to be on mobile platforms before they're on Facebook.

SYDELL: Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, says Mattrick did get some great games in the works.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DON MATTRICK: In Empires and Allies, your job is to save the world from this modern day terrorist organization called the GRA.

SYDELL: In Empire and Allies, you drop bombs, not seeds. And it looks like a winner to Pachter. He's keen on Pincus because he'll get it out faster.

PACHTER: Pincus is a tech entrepreneur who's coming from an environment where decisions are made in a second. A week is too long.

SYDELL: But getting a company that's been losing tens of millions of dollars back on the road to success will require more than speed, says analyst P.J. McNealy. When Pincus left the company 18 months ago, it was in a mess. And with the announcement of his return, the stock tumbled. McNealy says Pincus tried a lot of strategies in his previous incarnation as CEO.

P.J. MCNEALY: None of that has worked. So unless Pincus has some magic plan, it's back to Farmville.

SYDELL: Back to Farmville, indeed. While Mattrick was running the company, he planted a lot of seeds. He did some restructuring and got new mobile games in the pipeline. It's possible they will grow and mature under Pincus, who will get the credit if they bear fruit. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.