Don Mattrick just made a smart play buying the company that owns the middleware behind GTA & Red Dead Redemption, says Matt Martin.
Zynga bought developer and publisher NaturalMotion last night for a cool $527 million dollars, acquiring well-respected talent, some killer mobile franchises and, perhaps more importantly, the technology used in some of your favourite console games.
“Zynga’s NaturalMotion deal helps it jump onto consoles without having to do any of that pesky games development”
Sure, NaturalMotion’s output in the free-to-play tablet and mobile markets has boomed over the past two years. CSR Racing is perhaps its best known and coolest property, a 30-second drag strip racer that looks beautiful, is easy to play and doesn’t gouge the player for cash. But it was released 18 months ago and is beginning to run low on fuel. It also owns My Horse – which is in no way cool – but has found a dedicated market amongst sorely neglected young female players. And then there’s the recently released Clumsy Ninja, an as-yet unproven but cute timewaster that Apple liked so much it used it to demo the fifth generation iPod Touch.
But the most interesting part of the deal is that it now owns NaturalMotion’s middleware technology, the Morpheme and Eurphoria engines that have been used in some of the biggest console hits of recent years. You’ll find it powering the character animation in Take-Two and Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption, Max Payne 3, and Grand Theft Auto IV and V. You will have also seen it in Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the Metal Gear Solid games, Tekken 5 and fan-favourite Enslaved. The tech is already fully optimised to run on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC. It’s not the central part of NaturalMotion’s business but it’s a nice money spinner that brings in a solid chunk of cash from licensees.
While NaturalMotion’s mobile business has boomed, the trend for mobile acquisitions has been a bit of a shambles. Disney’s acquisition of Playdom, EA’s buyout of Playfish and Zynga’s own deal with OMGPOP all shined brightly only to burn out quickly. Zynga has a terrible track record of buying studios only to close them down or see the talent flee as soon as contractual obligations are met. And the games that come with those deals often suffer a similar fate once numbers drop. That’s something the employees and fans of NaturalMotion games should be very wary of.
But Zynga’s future doesn’t lie in the dwindling Facebook games scene. It has famously been too slow to jump on the mobile and tablet boom, being preoccupied with a shot at real-world gambling that, frankly, fell on its arse. This NaturalMotion deal brings it some franchises for the mobile market, but mobile still has an uncertain future. It will consolidate further as publishers buy their games to the top of the charts with marketing money and user acquisition. Maybe it’s too late for Zynga to get involved in that when the likes of GungHo, SuperCell, Kabam and friends are already making such big land grabs.
So one of the safest bets for the future is the console and triple-A business (and that’s not something I thought I’d write two years ago). As Xbox One and PlayStation 4 have sold north of 7 million units already, Zynga’s NaturalMotion deal helps it jump onto consoles without having to do any of that pesky games development.
“It may be another case of Zynga jumping on a bandwagon, but regardless, it has a slice of the console pie that it didn’t have yesterday”
Don Mattrick, who now leads Zynga as CEO, is one smart cookie. He always looked robotic on stage for Microsoft, but behind the awkward social persona this is a man who turned around the entertainment and devices division. During his six years at Microsoft he grew Xbox 360, Kinect and Xbox Live into generation-leading businesses. Before that he spent 15 years at Electronic Arts overseeing all studios and research and development. He knows the console business inside and out.
So Zynga has a rocky track record. It buys, it binges, it purges. Games and staff are thrown to the gutter with alarming efficiency. But Mattick is trying to reinvent the business. Mobile development and publishing is growing rapidly but it’s still the Wild West. The console business is expensive but for Zynga it could offer security through technology sales if it can scale up to match others in the middleware business, like Epic’s dominance with the Unreal Engine. It may be another case of Zynga jumping on a bandwagon, but regardless, it now has a slice of the console pie it didn’t have yesterday.
While many considered Zynga to be over – and it still has a lot to prove – it now enters another new brand new business with incredibly strong technology. Don Mattrick’s back, and Zynga is just getting started in console games.