Zynga’s Yaron Leyvand talks Take-Two, the games industry, and their secrets for success

We catch up with Zynga's executive vice president of mobile games, one year on from Take-Two’s acquisition

Zynga’s Yaron Leyvand talks Take-Two, the games industry, and their secrets for success

Zynga is one of the biggest mobile game makers of the planet, with a catalogue of international titles across multiple  genres and scoring hits from Words with Friends to Toon Blast. This success led to the company being acquired by Take-Two interactive in 2022.

Now, one year on from the acquisition, we spoke with Zynga’s executive vice president of mobile games Yaron Leyvand to find out what makes Zynga unique, and how the Take-Two acquisition has affected both company’s business strategies. Tell us about your history with Zynga

Yaron Leyvand: I moved to the Bay Area from Israel in 2012 with my family and I’ve been with Zynga for ten years. As Executive Vice President of our mobile studios, I oversee a global network of talented industry-leading teams. My remit spans the Zynga portfolio and includes original franchises such as Words With Friends and Zynga Poker, acquired hits such as Empires & Puzzles, Toon Blast, and Merge Dragons!, as well as new games with high-level global IP.

We're now a year on from Zynga’s acquisition by Take-Two. How have things changed?

The combination with Take-Two has proven to be mutually beneficial. Take-Two has largely encouraged us to keep our independence, autonomy, and culture, as it has done with its other labels. At the same time, the merger has allowed us to strengthen our approach for the future. We now have an even longer-term view on investment, enabling us to create new divisions and streamline all mobile studios under the Zynga label. This allows us to better foster an environment to accelerate and share learnings.

In 2016, Frank Gibeau joined Zynga as CEO, and we recognised that we needed to instil a more focused approach, playing to our core strength of operating a portfolio of live games at scale exceptionally well and  striking the right balance in taking fewer and better-calculated risks. We evolved our structure accordingly, to truly leverage our amazing talent, including successfully integrating new studios. This created positive momentum allowing us to invest more in our live services, build new games, and pursue even larger opportunities.

This strengthened the groundwork to continue our journey but now, with a complementary partner. The collaboration with Take-Two is the perfect fit to enable both companies to reach new heights.

A year into the combination I can firmly say that I am pleasantly surprised that both companies have more in common than I had imagined. Though integrations are never 100% smooth, ours has gone very well and we are ahead of schedule.

What are your goals right now?

In this new phase, we have the ability to expand our cross-platform strategy, build on each other’s’ expertise in mobile, console, PC, and emerging platforms, and leverage our shared services. In addition, we are in a better position to further scale advertising and UA and are poised to collaborate on top-tier internal IP. We have also delivered synergies and efficiencies that result in more value creation.

Making games is hard and can certainly be stressful at times, but we also recognise how fortunate we are to create entertainment for millions of people around the world. Having fun along the way is part of the magic of making great games, another core pillar we share with Take-Two.

Having fun along the way is part of the magic of making great games.
Yaron Leyvand

What is your approach to connecting new studios and integrating Take-Two’s existing mobile studios under the Zynga umbrella?

While Zynga and Take-Two are aligned around the same core values and tenets, including creativity and innovation, we encourage each game studio and group at Zynga to keep their individual identities and DNA that have made them so successful, while sharing best practices and know-how.

We want to nurture an environment that encourages, empowers, and incentivises teams to collaborate and share insights (not just wins, but even more so mistakes we can learn from) while fostering inspiration and ingenuity. Zynga’s founding mission of connecting the world through games is unwavering. We believe that games are inherently social and best served bringing people together.

We are also committed to creating opportunities for our world-class talent to develop and grow, at all levels and across all disciplines and divisions around the globe. Our diverse teams are what drive our ideas and creativity, and make us a combined leader in the interactive entertainment industry.

We believe that games are inherently social and best served bringing people together.
Yaron Leyvand

Tell us about your approach to maintaining live games and how they sit alongside new game launches?

I believe we are one of the top companies when it comes to operating live games. We have an incredibly high-quality bar and proven track record for executional excellence across one of the most diverse product portfolios in the industry. Live games require a deep understanding of our wide variety of players, who are at the heart of everything we do. When we create content, features, and events for them, we ask ourselves 'what will delight and excite them throughout their journey with the game'? We also have strong game teams who will quickly react to feedback and performance, doubling down on what worked and adjusting what didn’t. The feedback loop is fast, thanks to players with whom we stay closely connected, and our wide array of robust data.

New games are a different beast. New game development has always been tricky and has only become tougher over time. That is both part of the fun and the challenge of game-making. While there is no guaranteed industry formula, Zyngites have over 15 years of experience to inform what to do and what not to do. There are many phases in product development, and we have built a framework that allows for a lot of creativity and flexibility early on.

New game development has always been tricky and has only become tougher over time.
Yaron Leyvand

How do new games take shape within Zynga?

At the concept phase, we largely rely on past experience and gut feel. This is the phase where art outweighs science. This is when teams are quickly ideating on ideas they want to initiate and test so that they can start generating real data to reach equilibrium in the art-science balance. Our approach to making new games is to keep teams small and nimble, allowing them the freedom to “find the fun” early on, and only validate their assumptions and assess the marketability of the idea once they think they have captured something special. As part of this project lifecycle framework, we check in with teams at each phase to provide input and assess if they are ready to move on to the next meaningful milestone. The process exercises more rigour as game production advances and ramps up, and as the investment becomes larger and the stakes rise.

What is your strategy for establishing a presence in new categories compared to growing your footprint with existing genres?

With respect to entering new categories, our teams work to fully understand the genre and to hone in on what really drives player motivation. So, for example, if we decide to commit to entering a new category, we will likely have to make a few attempts and learn along the way. Of course, we will leverage the tools, technology, and know-how we’ve developed from our prior experience in other categories. We know we might need a couple of shots on goal to make it right, but we encourage our teams to experiment, learn, and take calculated risks.

Expanding our footprint in existing categories poses a different set of challenges. I strongly believe that to be successful long-term in an established genre, we need to bring a fresh offering and new experience to players, from what currently exists. This means that teams need to be crystal clear about what differentiates their new product from the rest in the genre, as well as how this new offering will benefit our entire portfolio of games in that category.

I strongly believe that to be successful long-term in an established genre, we need to bring a fresh offering and new experience to players, from what currently exists.
Yaron Leyvand

You began your career in the games industry in Israel. How does the Israeli market compare to others?

The vast majority of Israeli B2C tech companies are focused on customers around the world, so I would say the main difference lies in the culture of these companies relative to other locations. Israeli companies have a tendency to move fast, which is a great advantage for early-stage companies, while North American companies excel at operating organisations at scale. Communication and operating styles are also much more direct than in US corporate environments, which took me some time to adapt to, and maybe I still have a ways to go! But I do still think it stimulates more efficiency and transparency which is valuable across the globe.

Now that I work with studios around the world, I can say that the Israeli approach has a lot in common with our studio philosophies in Turkey, Serbia, and Finland, which was not obvious to me before. Of course, every studio has its own unique ethos and brings something different to the table, which we acknowledge and embrace, as these diverse perspectives are what make our whole greater than the sum of our parts.

What issues have you faced in bringing Zynga’s games to global audiences? Do different markets respond differently to the same strategies?

In my view, how a game does in any given market starts with player expectations and desires. While every type of player segment can be found in every geography, the key question is whether there is critical mass. For example, the offering and experience we would want to create for a game whose primary audience is in Japan will be different than for an audience primarily based in the US. This means that regardless of the marketing strategy we would employ, it all starts with the player’s experience in the game.

Localisation is necessary in the top languages spoken by our players, but this is not where the heavy lifting is. To be successful in a specific territory with a mass audience, the game needs to be culturalised as well, which is much more involved. Different markets will also require different publishing approaches. Even when putting aside distinct government regulations and technical mandates in certain markets, publishing a game in China is very different than publishing the same game in Europe. We are seeing that a more custom and local approach yields better results. Can we take this approach in all markets? No. But we aspire to do so where it is most effective.

What can other game makers learn from Zynga’s success?

From the standpoint of a game that is already live, it’s paramount to put ourselves in the shoes of our most engaged players and ask ourselves, 'what would make them excited to play every day'? So not just today or tomorrow, but a month from now, and a year from now. If a game maker can achieve this for different player segments, they should be successful for years to come.

When it comes to a new game, I would advise making sure that any novel idea has some sort of special sauce before moving it from concept to production. I would urge game-makers to find the fun first, and only then layer on deeper content and meta systems. Teams that put the cart before the horse are likely to have a rough road ahead.

What can we expect next from Zynga?

Zynga is entering an exciting new chapter and I couldn’t be more thrilled. In the next several years, we are well equipped with a strong financial foundation, a rich and unique catalogue of products across multiple genres, and outstanding global gaming talent. The interactive entertainment industry as a whole, and the mobile gaming space specifically, are incredibly dynamic and ever-evolving. As such, we should remain flexible in order to continue to unlock value. We are well positioned to grow our live services, create new forever franchises, and further scale, as well as continue to invest in new categories, markets, technologies, and platforms.

We’re very proud of what we do and the people we do it with, and we can and will continue to dream big. 

Staff Writer

Lewis Rees is a journalist, author, and escape room enthusiast based in South Wales. He got his degree in Film and Video from the University of Glamorgan. He's been a gamer all his life.