Zynga appears to have turned a new leaf. The oft-maligned casual game maker is known more for its skill as a master imitator than for its own games, many of which are ad-stuffed knock-offs of already successful franchises (Scrabble, anyone?).
Zynga announced Thursday that it would pay $527 million to acquire NaturalMotion, a company with a real gaming pedigree—and a harbinger of major change at Zynga, whose biggest innovation to date might be its dogged pursuit of virtual gambling in the U.S.
Along with news of the acquisition, Zynga announced further job cuts, saying it will trim its workforce by 15%—the latest in a series of layoffs and cost reductions that began under former CEO Mark Pincus. With Microsoft’s former head of its Xbox division now at the helm of Zynga, it’s no surprise that the company is looking to improve its gaming portfolio. New CEO Don Mattrick took over at Zynga just months after he personally unveiled the Xbox One at Microsoft’s Redmond, Wash., headquarters.
Zynga will get a serious boost to its gaming cred thanks to its new half billion dollar baby. NaturalMotion, helmed by motion animation whiz Torsten Reil, might not be an everyday name, but its intelligent graphics engine “Euphoria” has hummed under the hood of the last two Grand Theft Auto games and other hits from Red Dead Redemption to Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.
More recently, NaturalMotion has thrown its weight toward mobile with its iOS hit Clumsy Ninja, a charming physics-based game that lets the company’s dynamic graphics engine shine.
Natural Motion and Zynga couldn’t be more complementary—or more opposite. Zynga has honed the formula of casual, social gaming to disturbingly addictive perfection. Meanwhile, NaturalMotion creates games from the bottom up—building out its technology into games that serve as proofs of concept.
I recently spoke to Reil, and he made a great case for why mobile is the most compelling platform for the biomechanical and neuromechanical underpinnings of NaturalMotion’s technology, which I thought seemed more at home on the two powerful new consoles rather than 4” touchscreens.
At Zynga, NaturalMotion will have a big social platform for showing off its deep technology. With NaturalMotion, Zynga will bring true innovation on board—a first for the notorious copycat, and an interesting new shared direction for two companies that couldn’t have less in common.