Zynga made the announcement today, after Gibeau served for seven months on its board of directors. Mark Pincus, the founder and prior CEO, now becomes the executive chairman and stay on board at the company working closely with Gibeau, the two men said in an exclusive interview with GamesBeat. The move is a sign that Zynga is more urgently focused on competing at the highest levels of mobile gaming, which has become a $34.8 billion industry (as research firm Newzoo predicts).
The change comes at a critical time for Zynga, which is trying to make mobile games in a more profitable way. The company has been producing breakeven results for a couple of years, but it can’t seem to produce the breakaway hits that have kept smaller companies at the top of the top-grossing mobile games charts. Zynga has 10 games lined up for launch this year, and Gibeau said he is psyched about “engineering their success.”
“When I joined the board in August, I was supposed to do one day a week,” Gibeau said. “I couldn’t help myself. I was two days, three days, and now four days a week. I was having a lot of fun. I have always been a competitor. I was blown away by the things I saw in my last seven months. There’s a lot of talent here blending the art of game development with a great collection of brands and financial resources.
“When Mark asked me to be CEO, it was a no-brainer. I see all the ingredients of a successful turnaround here.”
Gibeau is one of the most seasoned executives in the game industry, and in his final post at EA during a 25-year career there, he was an executive vice president running EA Mobile, a direct competitor to Zynga.
When I talked to Gibeau and Pincus, I joked that this kind of change would be easier if EA and Zynga would just merge. A bizarre love-hate relationship exists between EA and Zynga, as they have exchanged talent and executives so often. Don Mattrick, the former head of EA’s game studios, was CEO of Zynga until early 2015, when Pincus came back to the top job. Other former EA execs who did stints on Zynga’s executive team include Clive Downie, Jeff Karl, Steve Chiang, John Schappert, and Colleen McCreary. All have since moved on.
One former EA game creator, Tim Letourneau, left EA to work at Zynga. He then went to Storm8 and recently returned to Zynga as a senior vice president for games. Pincus said it felt good have people returning to Zynga.
Bing Gordon, a former chief creative officer at EA, has been a close adviser to Pincus and served on Zynga’s board since 2008. Gordon has introduced Pincus to many of the people that Zynga later recruited. In this case, Pincus personally recruited Gibeau.
“I have been CEO for almost a year and I came back because I thought we needed to get back to our vision of social gaming,” Pincus said. “I still believe it, how social gaming will evolve on mobile in a way that is different from the web. But it is still a promise that we in the industry are not yet delivering on.”
While Zynga hasn’t had the best earnings reports, it is proving that it can be a world-class provider of operations and service, and that it can grow its users in core franchises like slots, Zynga Poker, and Words With Friends, Pincus said. He said he believes Zynga has returned to its roots at what made it great in the first place.
“Frank has been a very active board member, even more than Bing was,” Pincus said. “He shared our view on this opportunity for social gaming and his passion for mobile. We found we could partner and work well, and he has worked with a lot of the teams across the company. And he went through a major turnaround at EA Mobile. He has seen the other side of the tunnel.”
That tunnel has been pretty long and deep for Zynga, and it’s not out of it yet. The company has slimmed down from 3,500 employees at its peak a couple of years ago to about 1,669 as of December 31. As a consequence of that, Zynga is putting its headquarters up for sale, so it can sell it, lease it back, and keep its financial options open. The stock market took that as one in series of negatives about the company’s future, and Zynga is trading at around $2 billion, far below its initial public offering price of $9 billion in December 2011. And Mark Skaggs, co-creator of FarmVille and many other Zynga hits, left recently and later joined an Indian game startup.
Gibeau said he has dealt with the humility of having to do long turnarounds.
“I have been a hero, a zero, and a hero again at EA,” he said. “I have insights on how to navigate these waters.”
It’s always interesting when former competitors become part of the same team. Pincus competed with Gibeau on the PopCap deal, when EA came out on top and acquired the maker of popular games like Bejeweled, Plants vs. Zombies, and Peggle for more than $750 million.
Pincus will remain involved in day-to-day operations, but with “more in my value zone of ‘entrepreneuring.'”
After Mattrick joined Zynga during some of its toughest days, a wholesale turnover of the executive team followed. When Mattrick’s team didn’t work out, Pincus came back and made a few more changes. So the executive team hasn’t been stable at Zynga.
“You always want stability,” Pincus said. “The first place we want that to happen is at the team level, and we have had good stability there. We have brought some people back who have created our greatest hits. It’s nice to see Tim Letourneau back in the building. I don’t think we have the same level of change happening.”
“I have a good handle on what is strong and what we need to improve. I spent seven months getting to know the organization,” Gibeau said. “We’ll make some changes. I am very excited. When you think about the turnaround, it comes down to the 10 products we have talked about that are coming. It’s a new release slate. We want to engineer hits, and make sure all aspects of a product’s team can make it a hit product. The question is how do we nail these 10 releases. There is nothing more rewarding than pulling off a successful turnaround.”