Don Mattrick shows his poker hand for turning Zynga around in mobile (interview)

Clumsy Ninja doesn't talk, but he waves at you.

Above: Clumsy Ninja doesn’t talk, but he waves at you.

Image Credit: Natural Motion

GamesBeat: It almost seems more like an expansion than a doubling down.

Mattrick: It is an expansion of capabilities. When you see the things that NaturalMotion has shipped, here’s the word that most consumers usually share: “Wow.” They’ve been able to drive a tremendous amount of installs just through people seeing someone else use it. They haven’t had to spend a ton of money on cross-promotion or advertising to get a big consumer base.

Candidly, could they have built tighter game loops? Could they do a better job of retention and engagement and reward? Sure. They’re learning about the art of creating games. Torsten is a leader who’s committed to excellence and to always learning new skills. I saw how we could influence and accelerate what we were doing at Zynga and what was going on at NaturalMotion.

We went through a very thoughtful diligence process. Both Torsten and myself came away excited about the opportunities that putting our two businesses together meant. If anything, post-deal I’m even more excited about what the future holds.

GamesBeat: It’s almost like Nintendo buying Epic Games or something like that.

Mattrick: Yeah, that’s one way to think of it. Even more than how it manifests itself to me, what I really thought about was passion and a sustainable difference. It’ll be really hard for other companies to replicate what 40 people have been focused on for 12 years. Their core tools and tech group has been writing and rewriting that pipeline for a long time. That brings value unto itself.

GamesBeat: Do you feel like, in seven months, that some of your changes and your personal stamp on the company are becoming visible?

Mattrick: I do. We’ve got a stronger executive team. They’re closer to the details. There’s more focus, more rigor. It’s showing up in increases in consumer satisfaction, higher quality levels. People are being more disciplined about innovation. It’s starting to show up in our financial results. I was able to share, on our last earnings call, that we anticipate 2014 to be a year of growth, where we can continue to post better results over each quarter.

I’m really pleased with what the team’s accomplished. They’ve made more progress in the passage of seven months. That acceleration is energizing to be a part of.

GamesBeat: I looked at the YoVille decision, and that seemed to capture a lot of the difficulty of the business right now. You have an installed base of people who are used to games that are more historical.

Mattrick: We have a whole mix. The company started early inside of this category. We shipped lots of hits that people love. We appreciate our audience being engaged. We’re learning how to support and nurture different communities. At the same time, at a certain point in time, you have to move on to new products and new experiences. We’re trying to find the right balance with that.

I appreciate any consumer who gives their time and supports our products. We’re trying to always over-deliver value to them with everything we do.

Don Mattrick

Above: Former Xbox chief Dan Mattrick poses with the Xbox One.

Image Credit: Microsoft

GamesBeat: How do you look at the transition you’ve made, from running one game business at Microsoft to running a very different business here? You have virtual goods and advertising as part of the main business model now.

Mattrick: Here’s what’s consistent in the frame: consumers and competitors. I’m taking all the knowledge I learned about what things surprise and delight consumers, how to build teams that are world class — that can execute against those insights — and how to make sure that your work is better or unique relative to your competitors. That’s the journey that we’re embarking on, with an aspiration to the app-scale Western leader.

People are learning about the free-to-play category, whether it’s on the desktop or on mobile devices. People are opting in and validating that games are the number one use case scenario on that class of devices. Zynga and our teams are learning how to blend the art and science of what we do — and do it in a more effective way.

What I’ve seen in the past is that if you get core groups of people, if you empower them and nurture them and constructively challenge them, they’ll achieve more than they dreamed was possible. Our teams are going through that journey. It’s fun to see. I’ve personally enjoyed it, whether it was at Electronic Arts or Microsoft. … With any luck, we will eventually go through that journey and be the clear industry leader at some point in the future. That’s why I’m here.

The new Words With Friends

Above: The new Words With Friends.

Image Credit: Zynga

GamesBeat: I interviewed John Riccitiello at our GamesBeat conference. One of the things he suggested was that the console playbook may very well play out in this new space of mobile and social at some point. Brands are going to be very important. You’ll see something like Call of Duty, where it’ll be number one or number two every year. It’ll just be some other brand in the mobile space occupying the top spot year after year. Do you agree with that?

Mattrick: People who are selecting into our category are staying, playing, and paying more. That trend originally showed up in Asia. We saw the same thing in the console space. The second thing is, the top 20 hits are staying in those positions for longer. John is insightful to identify that those trends are occurring.

It’s a deliberate act, to have multiple hits and run an organization at scale. It takes a lot of time, a lot of discipline, and you have to be committed to learning new skills and innovating each and every day. That’s the culture we’re trying to build.

We’re blessed at Zynga, because we have five categories of products that live in the top 20. NaturalMotion brings two with Clumsy Ninja and CSR and then Zynga with FarmVille, Poker, social casino, and Words With Friends. We have more potential. We have a lot of work, but I’m excited about the progress that we’ve made to date. It’ll be fun to share at the event on Monday. We’re rolling those products out all at different times in the month of March in at least one geography around the world. I know it’ll be public soon. I’m proud and pleased with the work that our teams have done.

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Zynga Inc. is the world's largest social game developer with more than 232 million monthly active users playing their games which include CityVille, FarmVille, FrontierVille, Words With Friends, Mafia Wars, Zynga Poker, Cafe World, and... read more »

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