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Can an epic strategy game make Zynga relevant again?

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Times are hard for Zynga. The company exploded with the sudden rise of Facebook gaming, but has struggled to adapt as the industry has moved to mobile, and once-massive franchises like FarmVille have been left to wither. In a bid to stay relevant, Zynga spent 2011 and 2012 snapping up the studios behind smartphone sensations like Words With Friends and Draw Something, and even hired former Xbox chief Don Mattrick as its CEO. Despite the changes, things haven't exactly gone according to plan: Zynga lost $226 million in 2014, and a year ago was forced to cut 15 percent of its workforce. "It has taken us some time to transform our business," Mattrick admitted during a recent investors call.

But the answer to Zynga's problems might lie in one of those acquisitions. In early 2014 the company purchased NaturalMotion, the studio behind mobile hits like the charming Clumsy Ninja and CSR Racing, a game that at one point was making an estimated $12 million per month. The developer has been quiet since then, but recently unveiled its first post-Zynga project: Dawn of Titans, a strategy game that aims to turn massive fantasy battles into an experience you can play when you have a minute to kill.

It’s a game that could prove hugely important for the new, mobile-focused Zynga, but for NaturalMotion CEO Torsten Reil, it started simply as a technical challenge. "We asked ourselves, ‘Can you create these big battle scenes, with thousands of people, all in real time, all controlled with a swipe of your finger?’"

Dawn of Titans takes place in a far flung fantasy world, where towering titans lead armies of thousands into battle against one another. It essentially takes those huge, impressive battle scenes from The Lord of the Rings movies and turns them into a game. Players build up a kingdom by winning in battle, giving them a bigger army and more powerful titans to work with. There are single-player elements, but one of the key hooks is that you’ll battle against other players online. Like most new mobile games, Dawn of Titans will be free to download but offer plenty of in-app purchases.

"Your game session can't be too long."

Despite its sense of scale, it’s far removed from the complicated strategy games you’ll find on PC. Dawn of Titans has been streamlined so that it passes what Reil calls the Starbucks line test — a game that you can play while waiting for your coffee. The first trailer shows you commanding huge groups of soldiers using only quick swipes of your finger, and once the battle begins they act largely autonomously. Making a game like that means following a number of rules.

"Your game session can't be too long," he explains. "It can't be 10 minutes, because that's not how people play on mobile. Most of the time they play in short chunks. The other part is, the game mustn't require you to look at the screen, uninterrupted, for a long period of time. So if you have to look at the screen for 10 seconds in a row, maybe 15 seconds, without being able to look away and pay for your coffee, you tend to have a problem."

These kinds of fantasy, war-themed strategy games have become big business on mobile. Clash of Clans is regularly the top-grossing app in both Google and Apple's app stores, while competitor Game of War is raking in a reported $1 million per day. Both games are so huge that they had celebrity-led ads featured during the last Super Bowl, and last year Clash of Clans developer Supercell was valued at $3 billion. But Dawn of Titans is looking to separate itself from the pack with a focus on production values.

NaturalMotion started life as a technology company, originally licensing character animation tech featured in movies like The Lord of the Rings and games like Grand Theft Auto IV. And when the company made the shift to making games, it utilized that expertise to stand out. One of NaturalMotion's first games was My Horse, a surprisingly realistic mobile horse simulator, and in 2012 Apple used Clumsy Ninja to demonstrate the power of its newest iPod Touch. Dawn of Titans’s appeal lies in its incredible sense of scale, where battles feature thousands of units, all rendered in 3D, and all running on a smartphone.

Dawn of Titans

"Most of our games have a particular technical challenge at the beginning," says Reil. He sees an incoming shift on mobile — where simpler 2D games will give way to more advanced graphics — one similar to the world of animation, where CG has completely taken over traditional 2D art. Few mobile studios have the same focus on technology as NaturalMotion, especially in the free-to-play space, but Reil thinks that will change, just like it did in animation. "Pixar is, in many ways, a technology company," he explains. "And they're using it for one purpose, and that's to create something amazing for the audience. And I think that's the important thing."

Whether it will be enough to convince players to flock back to Zynga is unclear. NaturalMotion had great success on its own with games like CSR Racing, but Reil says that Zynga's help will give it an advantage when it comes to the infrastructure and expertise needed to run a live game at a big scale. According to Mattrick, while 2014 was an "investment year" for Zynga, 2015 will be all about growing in the mobile space, which will include launching at least six new games. "I am excited by the boldness of our 2015 product aspirations," he said in February.

Dawn of Titans could be just the first big step in the long road to recovery.

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