Zynga’s new senior vice president of mobile Travis Boatman has seen the mobile gaming industry go through one seismic shift after another. He saw JAMDAT through its landmark $680 million acquisition to Electronic Arts back in 2005, then built up EA’s mobile business and oversaw its studios worldwide. Raised in Silicon Valley where he grew up on games like Bard’s Tale, he switched to gaming from earlier career ambitions in sports medicine.
And just recently, he made another leap — from EA to Zynga a few months shy of the company’s initial public offering in December when it raised $1 billion. Now he works under Zynga’s David Ko, who recently leveled his own title up to chief mobile officer — underscoring the company’s push to diversify off Facebook where it earns 93 percent of its revenue.
“Zynga just has a different business model,” he said. “When you ship packaged goods, which is what I’ve spent much of my career doing, you’re making a finite commitment to what you’re delivering to a title. What’s elegant about free games is that there’s no cost to consumers for trying them. When you provide free games, I think you’re held to a much higher standard because the switching costs are so low.”
He said conversations with Mark Pincus helped convince him to cross over from EA, as many senior executives like Barry Cottle and chief operating officer John Schappert have in the last year. Pincus, as he often does, drilled into the mantra that games must be social.
“Games started as something social,” Boatman said. “Everyone has played tag or kick the can. But there was this period of time where the industry swung toward technical achievement. There were amazing advancements in software and technical capabilities. But for the most part you played alone and I don’t think that’s as compelling or fun.”
Right now under Zynga, there are three main lines of mobile games. The “With Friends” brand grew out of Newtoy’s smash hit Words With Friends and then expanded to include Scramble With Friends and Hanging With Friends. “These are usually asynchronous and directly social,” he said. Then there is a cohort of games that are more or less extensions of Zynga’s core Facebook franchises like Cityville Hometown.
Lastly, there’s the “Dream” line-up, which is new given the recent debuts of Dream Zoo and Dream PetHouse. Boatman says the “Dream” brand is more aspirational. “We like to say they’re about ‘vest’ and ‘express.’ They’re about growing and customizing, which is in line with our core tenants. All of these games have a similar look and feel.”
Like Pincus, Boatman brushed off recent criticism that Zynga’s titles are too similar to ones existing in the market. NimbleBit recently blasted Zynga for an unreleased title called Dream Heights because it was too similar to its app Tiny Tower, which won Apple’s game of the year. Dream Zoo and Dream PetHouse also seem reminiscent of Pocket Gems’ Tap Zoo and Tap Pet Hotel.
“These games are free and our players have the choice to play what they want to play,” he said. “If games were too similar to consumers and there was no clear value add, why would a consumer play it?”
Boatman says the company evaluates opportunities and game genres by market size, then distribution opportunities then the quality of user experience.
“First, we look at where most the consumers are. We look at device sales and accessibility — where are our players? That’s really important,” he said. “Then we look at whether you can digitally talk to consumers? The third thing is the experience and the kinds of entertainment we could offer.”
If Zynga can’t buy its way in because of pricing, it will probably build to get there. The company is eyeing even more genres for 2012.
“We’re excited bout the physics category,” he said, pointing to titles like Angry Birds. Zynga actually already has one physics game, Zombie Smash, through the acquisition of GameDoctors.
Compared to Facebook, Android and iOS’ top charts support a wider variety of games with indie hits like Temple Run to console-quality ones like Epic’s Infinity Blade. Likewise, Zynga expects to widen the breadth of coverage. There are genres that Zynga looks like it won’t touch, however.
“We want to do broad, mass-market social games,” Boatman said. “There might be games that perform well on the charts, but if they don’t have enough reach, we’ll forgo them for games that are more mass market.” That seems to hint that Zynga still isn’t interested in more mid- or hardcore games.
The company has done eight mobile deals so far. Most are in line with Zynga’s history of making smaller, talent-oriented acquisitions. The biggest one the company has disclosed to date is the $53.3 million in cash and stock for Words With Friends-maker Newtoy. Though never publicly confirmed, Zynga also pursued PopCap Games before it was acquired by EA for up to $1.3 billion and was said to have been in talks with Angry Birds-maker Rovio Mobile.
A deal of such a scale is still a possibility — especially considering the $1 billion Zynga raised in its IPO.
“All options are on the table,” Boatman said. “It’s our mission to make the most social games and we want to have access to wherever our players are.”
Boatman said he couldn’t share any details about how diversified Zynga wants to be by the end of the year. In December, the company said it had 13 million daily active users on mobile — or about one-fourth of the company’s total DAU in the third quarter of last year. Other companies like Gameloft have said they earned upwards of $25 million in smartphone revenue in the holiday quarter. But Boatman couldn’t say whether Zynga’s earnings were in the same range.
“I’m not sure what our CFO is going to disclose,” he said. “I can’t comment on the secret sauce.”