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Zynga founder Mark Pincus steps down as company poaches Xbox Live point-man
Zynga founder Mark Pincus steps down as company poaches Xbox Live point-man
April 23, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

Less than a year ago, an embattled Zynga named Don Mattrick as its CEO. Mattrick, an EA veteran, came from Microsoft, where he'd most recently headed up launch efforts for Xbox One.

Mattrick took over the Zynga role from company founder Mark Pincus, who'd been roundly criticized by investors, and soon announced a 90-day plan to reform the company. The 90 days may have elapsed, but those efforts are still ongoing.

Today, the company announced an even bigger change alongside its first quarter 2014 financial results: Pincus is stepping aside almost completely. He's abandoning his chief product officer role and moving away from day-to-day operations for the company, though he will remain chairman of the board.

Further from that, Mattrick has appointed Microsoft colleague Alex Garden president of Zynga Studios. Garden was general manager for Xbox Live and Xbox Music, Video and Reading. Garden will now oversee all of Zynga's game development studios. He's also the co-founder of Relic Entertainment, and also had a stint as CEO of the North American division of Nexon -- publishers of MMO MapleStory.

Mattrick hasn't stopped there. The company has also added two more C-level executives, it has announced: Hollywood veteran Henry LaBounta (Minority Report, Twister) joins as chief visual officer, and Jennifer Nuckles comes on as chief marketing officer. Nuckles, the release notes, has an e-commerce background and experience marketing directly to women.

Don't forget the numbers

Zynga is still in the midst of transformation, and its numbers for the quarter ended March 31 reflect that: Year-on-year, its daily active users are way down -- 28 million, as compared to 52 million in the quarter a year ago. Monthly active users shrank from 253 million to 123 million in the comparable period.

Revenues decreased accordingly: They were down 36 percent year-on-year to $168 million. Of note, its biggest games haven't changed: FarmVille 2, Zynga Poker, and FarmVille are the number one, two, and three earners, as they were a year ago.

This -- alongside a hefty restructuring charge of $30 million as the company reshapes the way it does business, including jettisoning some data centers -- led to a net loss of $61 million for the first quarter of 2014.

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Jeff Leigh
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Money, money, everywhere, but not a dollar to sink.

Strike that. Reverse.

Michael Joseph
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Henry LaBounta as Chief Visual Officer is an interesting choice. I'm assuming Chief Visual Officer is a brand new position within Zynga.

If you can imagine Zynga as having 3 options
a) keep making the same types of games and try to get better at it
b) diversify by mimic'ing competitors across more genres and platforms and doing what they do better
c) innovate in the social games space they've helped pioneer

Maybe the hiring of LaBounta signals that they are going for something more like option "c." (not to say that they won't do a little of "a" and "b" also). Since social games tend to have relatively small play areas, they can push graphic details for human avatars and environments to photoreal levels (eg. Heavy Rain++). The upside is Zynga can overcome the stigma or brand association they've developed for making cheap, third-rate games that ingratiate their way into the daily ruts of moms and grandmas. One challenge here would be getting moms to upgrade their hardware, but aggressive LOD can mitigate this.

When you look at general purpose VR apps and protocols like VRML/X3D or Second Life, they fail to reach a critical mass for the same reason the web failed to reach a critical mass for personal webpage hosting and why sites like Facebook and MySpace did.
- high barrier to entry, too difficult to setup and customize (need a hosting provider, too generic, too technical, too free?)
- no built in, standardized methods for communicating with others.

... all contributing to a fractured experience. Current VR worlds have fractured experiences too because they haven't reached a critical mass because not only are they too free and too generic (unfocussed), they're still too impersonal with everyone trying futilely to stand out amongst a sea of strangers who _ultimately_ care not about any of the other strangers around them.

Social sites at least have solved the issue with the fractured experience. Social sites are AN EXTENSION OF REALITY, not a pathetic attempt at an alternative. VR can do the same thing by dropping the wide open world and instead going for a series of interconnected Scenes (TM) :) with the goal of complimenting reality, not reimplementing it. Some Scenes will be owned and customized by individuals, others by businesses or organizations, and people can bring their avatars into these Scenes that their friends, family, classmates, study groups, co-workers, etc, invite them to.

Combine this with a dev API allowing users to setup store fronts, organize events, insert *farcasters into their Scenes connecting to private card game rooms, etc and you end up with a powerful "3d homepage." Advanced Unity3D/Sketchup like editing for some, a simpler Sims3 interface for others, in a addition to a host of templates/prefab Scenes for the majority of users who can't be bothered with anything more than changing their wallpaper. I dunno, the whole "3d hompeage" thing has been tried many many many times, but graphically I think the lure & anchor here must be stunning photoreal avatars. Throw in some photoreal puppies and kittens (dragons, bugbears, gru's) for virtual pets and your users are hooked... maybe.

Whatever you do, don't go down the path of those ridiculous looking toonish hipster caricatures you see on Xbox Avatar Creator or in the Sims 4 trailers. Photoreal/Idealized Photoreal or bust.

Pets can be bought, created, tweaked, modified. They can be stored away like pokemon and used in other related games. AI "familiars" can be like human "pets" (aka companions) that live in each user's Scene in the same way "pets" do. Really, the rest of the experience and design will just evolve from the core principle that scenes are not "levels" but rather small-ish, contained spaces. One user's space may resemble a dragon's lair and be as large as a parking garage, and another's a small studio apartment.

*yes, I recently finished the first two books in the Hyperion Cantos. highly recommend btw.