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Once The Cream Of The Crop, Zynga Zigzags To Adapt To Mobile

Zynga CEO Mark Pincus gives a presentation in 2011.
Jeff Chiu
Zynga CEO Mark Pincus gives a presentation in 2011.

Remember those days of tending rows of virtual soybeans and strawberries on your Facebook page with a game called Farmville? It was a moment, and Zynga, the company that makes the game, cashed in when it went public back in 2011.

Now, Zynga is losing money and its founder is back, to mixed reviews.

When Zynga launched Farmville in 2009, it surprised everyone with its success. It quickly became the most popular game on Facebook.

But people got bored with planting seeds on a desktop. The market had moved to mobile, and Zynga didn't keep up.

That's why founder Mark Pincus stepped down as CEO in July 2013, and Don Mattrick, former head of Microsoft's Interactive Entertainment division, took the helm.

"Don was brought in to put them on the path of what they called 'mobile first,' — So let's build our games to be on mobile platforms before they're on Facebook," says Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Securities.

Pachter says Mattrick did get some great games in the works. In Empires & Allies, players save the world from a modern-day terrorist organization called the GRA — by dropping bombs, not seeds.

The game looks like a winner to Pachter. He's keen on Pincus, because he thinks he'll get it out faster.

"Pincus is a tech entrepreneur who's coming from an environment where decisions are made in a second," Pachter says. "A week is too long."

But, getting a company that's been losing tens of millions of dollars back on the road to success will require more than speed, says analyst P.J. McNeely. When Pincus left the company 18 months ago, it was a mess. With the announcement on Wednesday of his return, the stock tumbled.

McNeely says Pincus tried a lot of strategies in his previous incarnation as CEO.

"None of that has worked," he says. "So unless Pincus has some magic plan, it's back to Farmville."

Back to Farmville indeed. While Mattrick was running the company, he planted a lot of seeds: he did some restructuring and got new mobile games in the pipeline.

It's possible those games will grow and mature under Pincus, who will get the credit if they bear fruit.

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Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and