ATD Q&A: Zynga’s President of Games Steve Chiang

One of the keys to Zynga’s turnaround will be producing games that people want to play.

As most know, the San Francisco gaming company has struggled to find the right balance as consumer behavior has shifted from playing social games on Facebook to playing games on their phones.

Chiang headshot

In the third quarter, 60 million people played Zynga’s games on a daily basis, up 11 percent from the year-ago period. But those gains were only possible due to mobile offsetting declines on Facebook. The worry of Wall Street investors over the situation is apparent in the price of its stock, now at $2.66, which remains 72 percent below its initial public offering price at the end of 2011.

But Zynga management believes it knows how to turn things around, including expanding beyond its classic Ville-style titles, like FarmVille, to more genres that appeal to a wider audience, including casino and more hardcore titles.

In a story earlier today, I wrote about the three executives that CEO Mark Pincus has appointed to help turn things around. One of them is Steve Chiang, the company’s new president of games.

Here are some highlights from an interview I recently did with Chiang:

Tell me a little bit about your background.

Chiang: I got into computers early, when I was six or seven, and I was really into videogames and playing games on my computer. And then I got into programming. First, I got into the industry when I graduated from school as a programmer, by creating games for Super Nintendo. That’s when making a game included one programmer and two artists, or two programmers and five artists, so they were really small teams, so you really had to know all aspects of game development.

And then, in 1994, myself and some guys I went to high school with, and John Schappert, started Tiburon. We started making Super Nintendo games, and then we started working on Madden when the contract came up after the other company didn’t ship the game on time. It was the best-selling game on PlayStation that year, which led to the acquisition by [Electronic Arts].

I stopped programming in 1998 or 1999. When I left EA, I was overseeing all sports development for Peter Moore, who was heading up the sports label, and I headed up development across Vancouver and Orlando.

What was the attraction to Zynga?

Chiang: In 2009, when I was thinking of joining Zynga, we had FIFA Ultimate Team, which was a card-based microtransaction mode. It was a $10 mode you paid for, and then you had $1.50 card packs. We quickly saw the microtransaction part of it surpass the $10 for the mode. So you reduce the $10 to free to reduce the friction.

Microtransactions and free-to-play seemed like the future, for sure. The second aspect was time. Having an hour to sit down and play a game is not easy to come by when you have a family, so, as a person who loves games, the idea of playing games for five to 10 minutes with friends was really appealing. I saw myself reconnecting with people from high school, and I saw my parents playing with my kids. The only game my ex-wife will play is Words With Friends, except for SingStar, a karaoke game on PlayStation.

When you are creating a place where women, children and older parents are all playing, it’s an incredible feeling and experience. It’s like the first time I saw “Star Wars” in the movie theatre — that’s what we are creating for people. That’s what we are trying to create on a day-in and day-out basis.

I’ve spoken to people before about the initial draw of Zynga being that so many people end up playing your game, unlike a console title that has a limited audience.

Chiang: Absolutely, in entertainment, you want to make hits. When you are working on sports games year after year, it’s not super appealing. But the idea you get to work on a game played by millions of people? That’s great.

I mean, I always tell people, you spend the same amount of time on a game that gets canceled as one that is seen by millions of people.

Do you believe the definition of a social game is changing?

I do. It’s a moniker, like casual gaming. We label stuff, but essentially the business model is free-to-play, and gaming has always been social. I look at us as doing free-to-play games on multiplatform.

For a while, social equaled Facebook.

Yeah, that’s how I interpreted it, as well. But when you look at Words With Friends, that’s what a social game looks like, where you are interacting with a friend on a daily basis.

Zynga and Facebook just changed their contract language, which is less restrictive and will free you up to do more things, right?

Chiang: I think Facebook is a really valuable partner. We struck a new agreement, which enhances our partnership in some ways, and allows you to invest more in our platform and mobile.

Everyone talks about gaming as a hits-driven business. Is it possible to sustain that over the long term?

Chiang: I think we’ve seen companies like EA and Activision be able to sustain [that]. There’s aways peaks and valleys.

With social, it’s more about gaming as a service — it’s a TV model, if you will. We continue to put out new content every week, and on Facebook every single day. That keeps our players engaged. There’s games like Poker that have been around forever. There are certainly franchises. It’s not that different from a Call of Duty or a Madden Football, which has been going on for 15 years now. We have some of the same characteristics in Poker and Words With Friends.

Tell me about the story arc for Zynga’s Villes. How come some are not as successful as the ones in the past?

What we’ve seen is a few different things. We are seeing consumer tastes changing, and there’s a player movement toward mobile gaming. If you look at just a single platform, you’ll see a peak or a leveling-off of gaming on Facebook. But we are seeing growth on mobile. As we go multiplatform, we may have peaks and valleys on a single platform, but we’ll see overall growth.

That seems to be a platform issue, but is there something about Villes in particular that is no longer popular?

Chiang: When I look at FarmVille 2, it’s reengaging a lot of players, and is off to a great start. There’s an aspect of something new, and so players are saying, “Let’s try that.”

A game like Pokemon peaked at a $1 billion business, but over time, it’s still a big business and it has sustained. Traditionally, you’ll see a massive pop and then it will sustain. It’s a great business, and when we put out great content like FarmVille 2, our players respond and they engage.

Let’s go back to the cross-platform approach. Zynga is going after both Facebook and mobile, and has restructured its leadership team around that. How has your job changed?

Chiang: I took over all of the games business, so I have every game on mobile and Web, and just recently I reorganized around our players and genres.

We have some great leaders, and some of the most experienced in social gaming in the western world. We are going to run our “Invest and Express,” which are our Ville games. We have a new group in PVP (player versus player), which is focused on men 18 to 34.

Then we have our casino group, which is poker and male-skewing, and we have slots and bingo, which is focused on women. And then we have our mobile casual group, which is focused around some of our big franchises, like Draw Something and Words With Friends.

Some critics say that Zynga’s games are not fun. What do you say to that?

Chiang: I think when you look at a game like FarmVille 2 or Elite Slots, we are driving new innovation, and we are continuing to push innovation. At the same time, if we change too much, players complain. We saw it in sports games, and you see it in social gaming, you want a consistent feel and familiarity. You don’t want to redo everything.

Zynga is such a data-driven company, I’m curious what metrics do you look at every day, and which ones are most important?

Chiang: We look at the net promoter score, where we ask players to rate the game from one to 10. A nine to 10 is a promoter, and below a six is a detractor. We certainly look at overall how many people are playing and what our retention is, especially after launch, to check out retention after seven days to see which way it’s headed.

Why didn’t The Ville do well? Zynga announced it was cutting back on it as soon as it went live.

Chiang: I think with The Ville, the team made a great effort. But we did not deliver.

Our players didn’t respond to it as we would have expected. We hit a high DAU (daily active user), but they did not retain as well as some of our other games. We looked at all of that, and applied that to our future games. When you are going for hits, we’ll also have some failures.

Do you have a mantra, or a way to rally the troops right now that makes everyone believe you can create another hit? Something to inspire them? How do you manage the turnaround process?

For us, it’s about focus and getting back to basics. Our team across the board has delivered hits. We’ve had a number of great game makers who have been tied up with games, and now they are focused on new projects. We are reducing the number of games we are making, and focusing on a fewer with the highest potential in Invest and Express, player versus player and casino.

With many departures over the past few months, does Zynga still have the talent to make good games?

Chiang: Absolutely. We had a lot of people joining before the IPO, and some of those folks have opted out, but the bench is still really deep. We are also still attracting a lot of folks. Social is not for everyone, so some people came here to try something, but the future is really bright. We have a strong network of players on Facebook and mobile, and a number of great games in the pipeline that should be — and we’ll see how they do — but are going to be really fun and social.

Is there a message that you’d like to get out to people on Zynga’s game creation? Do you think there is an impression people have that you’d like to correct?

Chiang: I never thought about that. I firmly believe that we have a huge bright future and have the best position for talent, and in terms of our network and in terms of mobile and Facebook players to drive the biggest and best entertainment in the world. We are well-positioned that way, and hopefully you’ll see things in the future that will surprise and delight a lot of people.

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