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As Pincus Returns, Zynga's Big Challenge Is Still Making Mobile Work

A lot can change in two years.

Effie Y. / Flickr

Zynga founder Mark Pincus is CEO once more, following the departure of his erstwhile successor, Don Mattrick.

Critics of Mattrick had questioned whether he had the right prior experience to lead Zynga into the future, coming from the console-first world of EA and Xbox to Zynga as it was beginning a transition to mobile games. But in the short two years after he stepped aside, Pincus is returning to a different company than the one whose Facebook-fueled heyday he oversaw.

“Now that we are a mobile first company, it’s time to renew our focus on our founding mission to connect the world through games and our vision to make play and social games a mass market activity,” Pincus wrote in a memo to his staff.

So what mobile games does Zynga have under its belt? What does Pincus have to work with?

Its first big mobile title, Zynga Poker, was frequently one of Apple’s top 10 grossing apps in 2011 and 2012. An attempted revival of the brand last year bombed, as legacy players revolted against changes to the game’s design. To placate them, Zynga reintroduced the version of the game those players preferred in October as Zynga Poker Classic. Currently, the new Poker hovers in and out of the top 50 grossing iPhone apps in the U.S., according to App Annie, and the Classic version has failed to do anything noteworthy.

Also recently re-released is the Scrabble-like game Words With Friends, which had a successful relaunch in October but has steadily dipped in downloads in recent months. Zynga has made a point of not monetizing Words too aggressively through in-app purchases, gunning instead for a big social network-esque user base to be served display ads.

Other entries in the casual With Friends series couldn’t reach their forebear’s prominence, and Zynga has, in recent years, often found itself playing catch-up to competitors in other genres. It found some success with an entry in the social casino genre, Hit It Rich, which has sustained healthy monetization but still lags behind earlier entrants like Big Fish Casino and DoubleDown Casino.

With the games Running With Friends and Looney Tunes Dash, the company has also tried its hand at the endless runner genre (think Temple Run) and took a stab at the lucrative world of fantasy football with NFL Showdown. To date, neither effort has made very large waves.

However, in a quarterly earnings report, Zynga announced some progress — at long last, most of its sales were coming from mobile platforms. It also announced it would be expanding its portfolio to compete in even more “hot” mobile genres: Match-three (think Candy Crush Saga) and action-strategy (think Clash of Clans).

The reason for all these disparate efforts: Making a hit game can be like catching lightning in a bottle, and Zynga hasn’t yet made it to a place where it can bump shoulders on mobile with Candy Crush maker King or Clash of Clans maker Supercell. Its biggest hope right now, observers say, might be from NaturalMotion, a studio it acquired in 2014 for $527 million.

NaturalMotion already had several successful casual mobile games, including CSR Racing and Clumsy Ninja, but since before the acquisition, it has been working on a more serious title: Dawn of Titans, which is currently soft-launched in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

In a recent interview with Re/code, NaturalMotion boss Torsten Reil said he hopes to make a big, dazzling splash, likening the game to a console title.

“It’s an idea that will wow people, something players haven’t seen before,” Reil said. “There could be literally up to 10,000 characters on the screen — those are your units that you control.”

In other words: To chart a way forward on mobile, the FarmVille company may have to look to a totally new audience. A lot can change in two years.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.