Zynga's mobile chief talks about acquisitions, the freemium model and more

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with Travis Boatman, senior vice president of mobile at Zynga

Travis Boatman

   Travis Boatman

Zynga is one of the top players in mobile gaming, with its "With Friends" and "-Ville" series regularly topping the list of most downloaded apps for the App Store and Google Play. The social gaming giant shows no signs of slowing down and has gobbled up a slew of companies, including OMGPOP for a reported $180 million earlier this year. At the head of Zynga's mobile business is Senior Vice President Travis Boatman, who joined the company last year shortly before Zynga's IPO. Boatman isn't new to the mobile scene, having previously worked with JAMDAT before it was acquired by Electronic Arts. He later served as vice president of worldwide studios for EA Mobile. Boatman talked with FierceMobileContent Associate Editor Sandhya Raman about Zynga's growing mobile presence, the company's recent acquisitions, and how the purchase of OMGPOP will impact the company.

FierceMobileContent: Zynga has typically sold games in the freemium space. Do you plan to expand into the paid apps market in the future or will you stick with the freemium model?

Boatman: I think we're really focused on the free model and for a couple reasons why. Obviously, the mission of Zynga is to develop games that are free, games that are accessible that you can play with your friends and family, and of course games that are social. And part of the reason that the free and accessible are important to our mission of social is that to have a really social game and to have lots of your friends playing with you; it helps to have it for free so everyone can play it.

The second thing is that games that are really accessible also help and create that sort of social density because if a game is hard to play or too complex you might not be able to have your mom or your cousin or your dad join in that game. So the free and accessible help us drive that social part which is so core to our company. I think we always really believe fundamentally in free.

That said,  if our consumers are willing to pay ... we can definitely offer that as well. We do offer paid in conjunction with our free games. For example, with a game like "Words with Friends" we have the free version... but we also offer different methods of payment and if a consumer would like to pay to remove advertising or pay for other features we definitely offer those.

FierceMobileContent: Currently Zynga offers mobile games for iOS and Android based handsets and tablets. Does Zynga have plans to expand to additional mobile platforms like BlackBerry, Windows Phone, etc?

Boatman: Absolutely. I think for us it kind of goes back to the company's singular vision.  The way we choose our platforms is whether we believe there's enough people playing on the platform to help with creating that social density.

Imagine if there's a really cool platform out there, but there's just not that many people playing on it. It's going to be hard for you to match with your friends and your family. First, we look at how many people have that platform, and are we able to create a great social experience. If the answer is yes, meaning people have a lot of these platforms on their devices, we really look at how we can create a great social experience. As we look forward, things like the iPad definitely have lots of people on it and people love to play with their friends. We approach products like the iPad with a lot of excitement, and we continue to look forward to these new platforms that have great social density on them.

FierceMobileContent: There's been a big push with the Lumia devices running Windows Phone. Would Zynga consider working with Windows Phone if the user base increases? 

Boatman: Absolutely. I'll give you another example, when the Kindle Fire first launched lots of people were getting that device and playing on it.  We felt it was important for us to be where our players were so we made some of our games available. I think that worked really well for us. So if lots of players start playing on the Lumia, we'll be there for sure.

After the interview, a Zynga spokesperson clarified: We are interested in being where our players are and would be open to exploring options with other devices and platforms, which could mean Blackberry, Windows Phone, etc. However, we do not have any plans/news to share at this time.

FierceMobileContent: Many of Zynga's titles are available for tablets and handsets. Is there a different strategy involved in designing a game for one vs. another?

Boatman: There really is. We consider them to be very different platforms and very different experiences. When people want to play on their iPad they choose to sit down and play games and consume content. And while people do that on their mobile phones, they also do it in a transient manner. Someone could quickly take out their phone for five minutes  and play a game. We design the games differently to take advantage of the iPad's destination play. And those games with the destination play experience generally do better on the iPad.

FierceMobileContent: Last month, Zynga acquired OMGPOP in its largest acquisition to date.  How will the addition of Draw Something, as well as the other games OMGPOP has produced for the web over the years, affect Zynga's presence in mobile looking forward?

Boatman: Dan [Porter, CEO of OMGPOP] and team is a great team, so I think one of the reasons we are so excited about them as a team is that they have a very similar vision to what our vision is--which is free games that are really accessible and that are social. And if you think about Draw, it's exactly in line with that. It's a free game that is accessible to everybody. Not only is it accessible about price entry point, [but] it's also a game anybody can play. You can be in any culture, speaking any language and understand and play this game. Children can play with their parents. Kids in high school can play with people who speak different languages in different countries. It's just one of the most accessible games out there. It's social, which just really lines really well with our company. It was just a perfect fit for us.

I also think from a gameplay perspective it's one of these evergreen games; it's a game that I just think is going to be around forever. I think even right now it's getting a--what do you want to call it--a cultural phenomenon heat in the market. It was on Jimmy Kimmel recently and there's been a lot of social buzz about it...I think long-term for us, we're really excited not just about how it's resonating today, but its global appeal. We think that also has a lot of value in its sort of evergreen nature. This is a game that if people adopt devices in the future, this is a game they'd love to play.

FierceMobileContent: Farmville Express is currently Zynga's only HTML5-based mobile title available. Do you plan on expanding titles in the HTML5 realm in the future or will you be sticking with native applications?

Boatman: A couple things. We actually have a couple games and applications that are HTML5 that are out on the market today. We've got Farmville Express, Cityville Express, [and] we've got a game called Mafia War Shakedown, and we've got versions of Words with Friends and [Zynga] Poker and others. I think for us the way we look at HTML5 is not just through the lens of just how it helps our developers create content but also what value it brings to consumers. Looking through that lens it's very different to sort of see the capabilities of HTML5. For example, one of the great things about the Web is the speed. And so what HTML5 allows the team with Farmville Express to do is to react quickly and make very, very fast changes. That's one of the benefits of that technology, and that's a really strong consumer benefit. We do want to keep up with what their experience is on the PC, and technology helps bring that kind of value to consumers.

Note: At the time of the interview, the Zynga website only listed Farmville Express under this category.

FierceMobileContent: Obviously Zynga is a very successful company in the mobile and social gaming arena. Do in-app purchases or in-game ad sales make up a greater proportion of your revenue?

Boatman: Obviously I can't really speak to the breakdown of our revenues or something along those lines, but what I can tell you is that I think the company has done a great job about providing free accessible games to consumers and then to monetize and create a lot of choice for consumers. Advertising is a great way for folks to experience our games and not have to pay through in-app purchases, and then for folks who maybe want to pay for the app version or use in-app purchase and don't want to see ads, can do that that way. Essentially, what we are doing is providing a lot of choices to consumers, and we react to what our players are really looking for. We provide lots of options to our consumers and adjust accordingly.

FierceMobileContent: How does Zynga handle its ad inventory, more specifically do you work with Millennial Media, AdMob or a combination of vendors?

Boatman: I can't really speak to who our partners are or how those relationships work, but of course we are a relatively large global player in the market with lots of different methods by which we do ads globally. So we look for partners that help us provide the best experience for our consumers.

FierceMobileContent: Your two big platforms are mobile and Facebook, and in the past Zynga has stated it would like to move away from relying as heavily on Facebook as a source of revenue.  How is the split now, in terms of users and income between Facebook and your mobile ventures? 

Boatman: First, I would say that we think Facebook is an amazing partner, so I don't think we have any issues. While I can't really speak to the breakdown of which users are in which platforms, I can tell you that obviously we want to...make sure everything really aligns with this whole free accessible and social part. We really want to make sure that players who want to [can] find players through Facebook. We make that accessible to them so they can find their friends, but we also have games that use anonymous play. There are parts of the world where it's more difficult to access these social networks, so we want to make sure that with people whose phones don't even connect themselves online, they can still play our games.

FierceMobileContent: Some of your biggest games, the "with Friends" series and Draw Something, were the result of acquisitions. Would you say acquiring new talent is a big part of Zynga's expansion process?

Boatman:
Absolutely, I think we've got a great mix of titles, some internal, some external if you think about games like Zynga Poker, which is one of the top performing games of all time in mobile is obviously not an acquisition, it's an original title. But, we also have acquisitions that we brought in house because we think they were great fits for our team. That combination is really powerful.

FierceMobileContent: Looking forward, what are some goals Zynga has in 2012, in terms of new products or endeavors?

Boatman:  We're always keeping a very excited and watchful eye on what new devices and technologies our players are adopting and moving to. And I think whatever those things are we work really quickly to make sure we bring our products to where the players are and that relates to platforms and technologies and all those things. Which I think is very exciting for our teams internally. 

The second thing I will say is that globally as more players are adopting these types of devices, we have a very watchful eye globalizing Zynga on multiple platforms and I think that's something also really exciting that we're thinking about. 

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