Zynga OfficeReuters

Zynga turns to old games for a new push into mobile

See Zynga, hat in hand, standing outside the rusted remains of the once-glorious Facebook Empire, looking longingly at the as-yet-unblemished gates guarded by its mobile brethren. “I could do that,” Zynga thinks.

Soon Zynga will release three new-ish games on mobile platforms, as part of its grand exodus from the salted lands of Facebook apps: FarmVille 2: Country Escape, New Zynga Poker, and New Words with Friends.

FarmVille 2: Country Escape is a new game in the once-mighty FarmVille franchise, with a coastal setting and—wait for it—an offline mode. Yes, for the first time ever you can play FarmVille without an Internet connection.

New Words with Friends and New Zynga Poker look to be basically the same games as always. Zynga Poker will apparently “get you to the fun faster,” and Words with Friends—which began its life as a smash hit on iOS before Zynga got its mitts on the word game—adds a dictionary. The bottom line: there aren’t huge new features here.

And therein lies Zynga’s problem.

“These new mobile games are for you, by you. We listened closely to all of your feedback over the years and leveraged your insights to create new experiences that honor the games you’ve come to love, yet deliver the fresh unique features and gameplay you’ve been asking for,” Zynga COO Clive Downie wrote in a note to fans Monday.

Innovation (of a type) made Zynga a success. I’m not a fan of Zynga’s approach to gaming, but I’m not above acknowledging that FarmVille brought a number of concepts to the mainstream consumer—energy bars with real-time counters, easy-to-learn mechanics, bite-size play sessions, and social features.

FarmVille 2

The “new” FarmVille still looks like the old FarmVille.

Are all of these “good” features? Not in my book. But they were new to most people at the time, and certainly struck a chord with a certain type of casual gamer.

Monday’s announcement basically says that for its big push into mobile gaming spurred by last year's arrival of former Xbox guru Don Mattrick as the company’s new CEO, Zynga plans to rely on versions of three games that are more than half a decade old. Sure they’re big games—games that still have large player counts and are well-liked. But philosophically, this announcement reiterates something that’s seemed clear about Zynga for a while now: despite an incredibly talented roster of developers, the company has a hard time hatching new hits, making it over-reliant on recreating past successes.

Mobile is all about new. New experiences, new zeitgeists, new overnight successes. A game that lasts more than a month in the cultural meta-mind is a “craze.” A game that lasts more than a year goes into the hall of fame. Just tacking the word “new” in front of a title doesn’t make it true.

Words with Friends, FarmVille, and Zynga Poker are safe bets. But safe bets won’t turn around Zynga fortunes. Not in the long term, anyway.

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