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Role-Playing: Mark Pincus

In this month's special, our panel examines the predicament Zynga is in and what its CEO should do

To say that Zynga's had a rough couple of months is putting it lightly. The company's stock has tanked and numerous employees seem to be fleeing what some consider a sinking ship. That said, there's still hope left for the social giant. The firm is ultimately going to have to overhaul its strategy and approach to the marketplace in order to gain better traction with players (and payers).

With this in mind, GamesIndustry International put Zynga CEO Mark Pincus in the spotlight in this month's edition of Role-Playing. Our panel below shares its thoughts in response to the following:

"You're Mark Pincus. Your company is getting hammered. The stock can barely stay above $3.00, your COO just resigned, you're being accused of insider trading, you're being sued by your bitter rival EA for copyright infringement, and your dependence on Facebook is clearly a concern. How can you restore your company's image and bolster its fortunes? What do you do?"

Scott Steinberg, head of business consulting firm TechSavvy

Ideally, you start by retrenching, bolstering your team and crafting superior platform and product strategy - laser-focus on the bottom line and delivering results is currently vital. From an external-facing standpoint, next steps would include announcing key hires or promotions to assuage doubt, and promoting any successful corporate initiatives or areas of the business where heighted growth and performance have been exhibited to the public to generate positive impressions. But key to surviving these bumps in the road is going to be the creation and revelation of new premium first-rate games and services - as well as overall strategic expansion - and the underlying platforms, systems or initiatives that tie all together. Going on the offensive is crucial in order to galvanize momentum and influence public perception. But we're not talking about going on the attack: We're talking about addressing key pain points, reassuring investors and showing that the company has the goods to back it up.

"The savviest way to fight back against critics: Show that these issues are well in hand, and that change is coming"

Scott Steinberg

Zynga's not unawares of growing challenges, from the shift away from Facebook to platform-independent solutions to revenue declines, public relations concerns, and the pressing need to expand into new titles and markets. What it needs to do now is start showing what it's been cooking up behind the scenes, and how it plans to address these challenges through evolutions to its product line and portfolio strategy. Keep in mind: The company still enjoys tremendous capabilities, resources and access to capital - it clearly has the tools it needs to make a fighting stand. But what it doesn't want to do is get involved with needless mud-slinging, or remain static - rather, it needs to let its creations and actions speak for themselves. The savviest way to fight back against critics: Show that these issues are well in hand, and that change is coming. Whether or not it's been planned or forced is less important than making the world aware that strategic innovation is in the offing - and creating the impression that it's always been part of the master plan.

Wesley Yin-Poole, News Editor, Eurogamer.net

Zynga needs to play its way out of trouble with better games and expansion away from Facebook. There is no easy way to create better games, but it simply must be done. If it does, not only will all the bad press melt away, but user numbers should rise. As we say in the UK, do the talking on the pitch. Investors will respond to that.

Perhaps most important though is Zynga ends its reliance on Facebook. Zynga suffered because Facebook made it harder to find its games. The best way to counter this is to make them easier to find everywhere else.

Zynga needs to make it so we can play all its games in any browser at any time, and it needs to make a serious play for mobile devices. My wife loves Farmville, but often says she's sick of all the superfluous nonsense she gets from it playing it on Facebook. In short, Zynga needs to make all its major brands as pervasive as possible. All barriers should be erased.

Chris Grant, Editor-in-Chief, Polygon

How do I restore my company's image? Well, my first order of business as CEO of Zynga would be to challenge what people think of as a Zynga game. If Polytron's Phil Fish is to be believed, Zynga has already approached him to deliver indie darling Fez to the iOS platform; while Fish said no, who knows how many other indies Zynga approached with a similar offer. Here is where perception and strategy overlap. 

"For all we know, social games are a fad; however, people have been spending good money on well-made games for decades"

Chris Grant

For all we know, social games are a fad; however, people have been spending good money on well-made games for decades. If Zynga delivers "good" games to an audience that cares about quality, it will go a long way towards repairing its image problem. If it delivers those games on the booming mobile platforms, notably iOS and Android, it could fix its image while diversifying its Facebook-heavy portfolio. As those platforms evolve beyond their phone origins - see the iPad and the upcoming Ouya - there's an opportunity to be a major player on a still-contested digital battleground.

Zynga's Facebook games can - and most likely probably will - still make money, cloned or otherwise, but that pursuit doesn't have to be a solitary one. If I were running Zynga, I would say that increased focus on mobile and on quality should help cure what ails the company. 

Stephen Totilo, Editor-in-Chief, Kotaku

The first thing I need to do is make a game that people don't stop playing. Hmm. How to do that? The energy thing again? Maybe. But maybe try something new. Maybe I'll let people pay for full, unfettered access to my next 'Ville game. Yeah, I'll try that. 

But I've got this other problem: lots of people play my games on Facebook, but lots of people now go to Facebook on their cellphones. You can't play Zynga games on a Facebook cellphone app. What to do... how about offer Facebook to make a gaming-compatible version of their app? 

I'll try those two things and see how I'm doing. Oh, and make an entirely original game. Just so people can't accuse us of Samsunging other people's games. 

Dan "Shoe" Hsu, Editor-in-Chief, GamesBeat

Sure, we've made a big splash in social gaming, and we can throw some impressive numbers out there, but no one seems to give a crap. So it's time to rethink everything. Game design, corporate philosophy, Facebook partnership, mobile strategy, top to bottom, left to right...everything's fair game for reevaluation or the garbage chute. Do we reinvent what "social gaming" means? Do we make more traditional games that are less "spammy"? Do we invest in more creatives to bring more original ideas to our portfolio? Do we go all-in on mobile?

"We might've hit rock-bottom, so nothing is sacred now"

Dan Hsu

We might've hit rock-bottom, so nothing is sacred now. No matter what new direction we go in, we wouldn't truly be starting over anyways. We still have a huge brand, a massive following, and a small army of talent. So whatever we decide to do, we'd have the upper hand over a new, unproven company entering the same space. So let's not squander our assets (while they're still assets), and let's try something radically new.

Tim Edwards, creative director at Network-N and Editor-in-Chief of PCGamesN

Int: A conference room. Late night. Empty polystyrene cups are strewn across the table. At the foot of the table, we see Mark Pincus sobbing into a keyboard. He is composing an email to the Zynga board. It is not going well.

To: board@zynga.com

Subject: Project Zeus

Friends,

The next year will be critical to Zynga's continued success. I therefore present the following strategies to maximise shareholder growth.

1) Poker

Our biggest bet: that the US government will legalise online poker. We already own the most popular online poker app and game in the US in Zynga Poker. For some unknown reason, saps are paying us for fake chips, and letting us take them off them when they lose. Then we sell them even more chips. Ridiculous. Even I can't work that one out. It's like we've found a hole in their brain where money falls out. Just imagine what they'll pay when there's a chance to actually win a few cents.

We're going to turn Facebook into Vegas. Baby.

Pincus stands up. Clicks his knuckles. A fresh surge of confidence rolls through him.

2) New demographics

It's well documented that our growth in the last few years has come from bored American housewives. But there are other bored demographics, and some of them have cash. Think: pensioners - how can we monetise their retirement. Think students: can we turn Chatroulette into a Zynga branded cash machine? This will work. I think.

Pincus looks into a mirror. Oh god. I've got more. Have I?

3) Bitcoins!

We float our company in Bitcoins. Our employees and shareholders can enter the barter economy. That'll definitely work.

Pincus stands up. He walks across to the mirror. A single, solitary tear rolls down his cheek.

"I am a sad man now."

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James Brightman

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James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.

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