Zynga's hope for salvation doesn't lie with Pincus
A founder who's "bored with games" won't turn around a company in a creative crisis. Can Don Mattrick step up to the plate?
Mark Pincus' statement this week that he's "bored with all games" has attracted plenty of derision from across the industry - and quite rightly so. The Zynga founder's off the cuff comment seems to confirm what many have always suspected - that Pincus has no personal affection for games, seeing them only as a useful and flexible platform for the marketing-focused strategies which were his real passion. Pincus' confirmation that he's "bored" of games - easily extrapolated to presume that he was never all that into them in the first place - has been read as a microcosm of the malaise that afflicts all of Zynga, a company whose growth and decline trajectories might look rather less dramatic, its future prospects somewhat less bleak, if it had been more in love with the creative process from the outset.
"The executive who told the press that he doesn't have game consoles in his house is the same executive who ended up looking bewildered at the weak sales of his company's eviscerated franchises a few years later"
There's nothing wrong, per se, with being a marketing-focused mind, and there's nothing wrong with being an entrepreneur (although there's little more tedious and exemplary of the wasteful rot of what passes for modern capitalism than the plague of serial failed entrepreneurs whose ability to schmooze millions out of investors is matched only by their ability to spew self-satisfied business advice from a position of complete mediocrity and even outright failure). There is, however, something deeply questionable about launching a business in a sector for which you have no passion or interest - especially when that sector is a creative industry whose primary appeal to consumers lies entirely in the realms of passion and interest.
I don't buy into the thesis that Pincus' public disregard for games is the root cause of Zynga's problems, but equally I don't think we can discount just how important genuine affection for games is to a games executive. Remarkably few of the consumer brand veterans who have been parachuted in to lead game companies over the years have ever performed particularly well - those who have are usually those who rapidly developed a genuine appreciation for games as a creative medium and entertainment form, and stopped treating them like a stack 'em high consumer product. There are exceptions, chief among them being Activision's Robert Kotick, but by and large, over the past decade or so, the executive who slightly amusedly told the press that he doesn't have game consoles in his house is the same executive who ended up looking bewildered and disappointed at the weak sales of his company's eviscerated franchises a few years later.
The thing is, we don't need to look to Pincus' disregard for games in order to explain Zynga's crisis. We may nod sagely at his statement and say "hmm, yes, obviously", but the fact is that Zynga messed up in a much more obvious and quantifiable way than ignoring the quality of its software output. For all of Pincus' claimed strengths as a marketer and entrepreneurial genius, Zynga completely failed to predict and then to react to the rapid transition away from browser games and towards mobile apps; and it has failed to develop its clunky, awkward free-to-play strategies from the early days of Facebook games to match the slick, clever and player-friendly systems being used by more successful companies today. Bluntly, I don't think Pincus' biggest problem is that he's not a gamer - I think his biggest problem is that Zynga was the product of more luck than brilliance, a company that had one trick up its sleeve (aggressive viral marketing over Facebook, in the days before Facebook wisely blocked aggressive viral marketing) and now that the world has changed around it, doesn't really know how to do anything else.
That isn't to say that Zynga can't change, adapt and learn. Don Mattrick's presence at the company still makes it an interesting firm to watch - for all that his slightly chilling Stepford Wife performance as Xbox boss may have left gamers nonplussed, his credentials within the games industry are unquestionable, and you can sense his hand in the absolutely vital decision to drop Zynga's application for a Nevada gambling license, which would have turned it into an online gambling operator in the United States. Withdrawing from real-money gambling is the wisest thing Zynga could do. It may face big challenges in the world of free-to-play games, but those can be overcome with good leadership and attention both to the firm's creativity and its business models. In the world of gambling, however, Zynga is a tender minnow among hardened sharks; its tentative first steps in the gambling world in the UK are already openly ridiculed by insiders at established online casinos, who know that this is a mature market with extremely well positioned incumbents who aren't losing any sleep over the marker of Farmville and Words with Friends.
"The firm's failure to engage properly with mobile has let much more innovative, up-to-date and intelligent companies take centre stage"
Right now, though, all we know is what Mattrick isn't going to do - he isn't going to compound the errors of the past few years of Zynga's management by turning it into a failed gambling enterprise. We don't know what he's actually going to do instead. What would be genuinely interesting and positive would be for Zynga to knuckle down and focus on its games, its user experience, its mobile strategy and - crucially - the actual free-to-play models which underpin its entire business and are desperately in need of modernisation. Free-to-play has moved on in leaps and bounds since Farmville (just look at Supercell's masterful Hay Day to see how newly minted F2P principles can transform a very similar game into something much more likeable and, I suspect, profitable). Once, I feared that the negativity of Zynga's outdated approach to the business model would damage its appeal by turning off new gamers - the firm's failure to engage properly with mobile, however, has let much more innovative, up-to-date and intelligent companies take centre stage. Zynga's still the big ape in the room, but unless it can learn some new tricks, it's stuck in an evolutionary dead end.
Don Mattrick had better be the right man to teach those tricks. Whether Pincus ever had any real affection for games or not is a moot point - it's fairly clear that right now, Mark Pincus is not a man with a credible plan to turn around the company he created. Perhaps its decline is the inevitable result of the cynicism of his initial approach; perhaps it's not. That's as much a subjective judgment as anything else, and this is not a moral or ethical question - it's a question of whether Zynga can make the changes required to survive. I think this simple statement confirms that under Pincus, Zynga had no hope of turning around. Mattrick has made a good first step. For all the ill will directed at Zynga, let's remember that this is a major industry player employing a great many developers and other staff; for the sake of everyone concerned, I hope the next steps are equally good.