What are Zynga's plans for 2014? We go to the source

Gamasutra interviews Clive Downie, the company's newly-installed COO, to find out what the NaturalMotion acquisition means and how the company hopes to find broad mobile success.
Yesterday, Zynga laid out its strategy for the coming year. It plans to establish dominance in important genres, finally leave Facebook behind and pursue a mobile-first strategy for the lion's share of its upcoming games, and -- most significantly -- it has acquired developer NaturalMotion, and its suite of technology and catalogue of games. To find out more, Gamasutra spoke to chief operating officer Clive Downie, who came to the company three months ago following a three-year stint at DeNA and, prior to that, EA.

NaturalMotion, and the Drive To Go Mobile

The NaturalMotion purchase isn't just for its games -- "two wonderful hits," says Downie -- or its middleware tech. It's for both. Moreover, says Downie, "the two are linked." "The best product -- the product that really is sustained over time, and makes the splash to start with and then sustains -- are those games that have a core of creativity and the desire from the game-maker to do something new, and bring a new level of experience to their consumers," he explains. "But that desire from game-makers has been transposed almost impeccably to the end product because of the technology." The appeal of NaturalMotion does not stop there. The studio is a mobile-first developer, and that shows in its two big hits: CSR Racing and Clumsy Ninja. That is the kind of developer Zynga desperately needs to become. "They have a very strong set of principles that they govern their production process by. It's a very flat org, people are empowered to make decisions," says Downie. "They're seeing development times that are very competitive in the space." "My sense is that the reason why they can do that boils down to that simple word, 'maturity,'" Downie says. This means maturity of technology, pipeline, systems and an experience in hit-making -- which leads to the "ability to make pretty great things." CSR Racing has "been made for the moment in the day that people who want to have a visceral racing game can give while being on their mobile devices," says Downie, who praised its balance for five-to-eight minute sessions. But the game is also able to "transcend the mobile screen you are playing it on. It looks like a console product in the palm of your hand." Where Zynga comes in is its ability to make games socially engaging -- a double-digit percentage of Words With Friends players are still playing a year after starting, Downie notes. NaturalMotion's games are underdeveloped in this regard, he says. "Social is so important for us. The core of our philosophy at our company is that activities are better with other human beings," he says. This "elevates the experience, which elevates the enjoyment, which thereby elevates the engagement." And the current Zynga chases engagement, not money, Downie says -- because "if you don't have people who are happy, then the business won't follow." Downie says that Zynga has put aside short-term thinking: "You have to be thinking about how you will retain, engage and delight your consumers for months, months, months," says Downie. Zynga can take care of the technology required to scale game audiences, but operating at scale "also means at the scale of updates, or the scale of live features that you progressively are putting in to retain your consumer base," Downie says. "Those consumers can leave at any time. Every single day, ideally, provides something new to surprise and delight them, hopefully with social at the core."

Attack on Genre

In the call, Zynga's execs were keen to point out the company's dominance in three genres -- casino, word, and farming -- with NaturalMotion bringing in racing and what Zynga is calling "people simulation." The company will not stop there. "Our sense is that are more beyond that; we know there are more beyond that. We have early plays behind the scenes in other categories that will launch and announce soon," says Downie. The "genre domination" strategy, if you want to call it that, comes from a very practical place: "We want to make the number one games in large-scale consumer categories -- that's our aspiration. Because we know if we do that, what we can do is drive multiple games into the top 20 all-format grossing chart in mobile and web. And if we do that, we can make products that are making $150-200 million a year." But how do you do it? "I don't think consumers generally think about genre, large amounts of consumers anyway," says Downie, who sees that more as a hardcore gamer behavior. Consequently, he doesn't want the company to think about genres that way either. Regular players think in terms such as "I like to drive fast" or "I like cars," says Downie. FarmVille players like to build and nurture. "We're very customer-focused, so it starts with understanding, what are the categories that consumers want to participate in globally?" It's also important to consider "broader terms than just genre, terms that transcend genre, and also transcend theme as well," says Downie. "The intersection of genre and theme is really where the magic happens, and you can identify a major opportunity to target." The goal, says Downie, is to do it with "jaw dropping visuals and instant appeal in broad categories -- but yet this spark of innovation in how the gameplay works." At the same time, he recognizes that you can't always make a hit on your first go. "Within all of those categories, you need multiple shots on goal, so we'll be making adjacent products that deliver different kinds of interactive experiences in each of them." The company will be "building out from the center of these categories with different product types" with a "view to making number one games in each." That's why the company is launching different kind of slot machine games in its casino category, right now, he says -- with different aesthetic themes, but also different play-progression styles.

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