Zynga Hopes to Breathe New Life into Flat Games Characters

Zynga is switching strategy with animation technology that makes characters move more naturally.

The future of troubled gaming company Zynga may owe more to a charming, if clumsy, ninja than to the pixelated cows of the company’s breakout hit FarmVille.

Smooth moves: NaturalMotion provides software that lets games designers create characters that move in a realistic way.

By acquiring U.K. game developer NaturalMotion for $527 million, Zynga will get novel simulation technology that gives characters very natural-looking movements, including the ability to respond to physical events in their virtual world such as being shoved much the way a person would. It’s notable that Apple chose to demonstrate NaturalMotion’s Clumsy Ninja game as part of the iPhone 5 announcement last year.

In a statement about the deal, Zynga CEO Don Mattrick, who previously led Microsoft’s gaming division, said that NaturalMotion’s technology would help Zynga improve its mobile games. He didn’t offer details, but NaturalMotion CEO and cofounder Torsten Reil was more forthcoming when he spoke with MIT Technology Review two weeks before he joined Zynga. He argued that new simulation technology and the processing power of today’s mobile devices make it possible to offer a new flavor of gaming with richer experiences and more engaging characters than the cartoon-style 2-D games that Zynga is known for.

“Our characters can react differently every time, and even display emergent behaviors,” says Reil.

The code controlling a NaturalMotion character generates responses to things based on gravity and the character’s physique, Reil says, rather than just playing back a preprogrammed motion. For example, the character might stumble and fall when failing to land a punch throws it off balance. “This technology creates a really rich, believable experience,” says Reil. He claims that will make his mobile games’ characters to be as physically and emotionally convincing as those seen in Pixar movies.

Zynga certainly seems to need a new approach. The company, which has seen its growth halted by the shift to mobile devices, announced plans to cut 15 percent of its workforce on the same day it announced its acquisition of NaturalMotion. And although it raised $1 billion in its 2011 IPO, in 2013 it made significant layoffs and changed CEOs after many users deserted its titles and profits fell.

NaturalMotion’s technology has its roots in Reil’s PhD thesis in the biology department of Oxford University. As part of research into biomechanics, Reil developed software that uses simulated genetics to allow characters to “evolve” the ability to walk and balance. He started a company when he realized that the end results often looked more natural than what professional animators came up with, and could potentially be generated with much less work.

The technology was first used commercially by TV and film companies, and it helped power the special effects in the Lord of the Rings movies. A version was later developed for studios making console and PC games. One customer is Rockstar, which used NaturalMotion technology for its blockbuster titles Grand Theft Auto IV and V. NaturalMotion still offers software to movie and game companies but switched to a focus on building its own mobile games in 2009. The company has 260 employees. 

Reil wouldn’t reveal specific plans for future games, even when pressed. But he predicted that improvements to simulation technology and mobile devices would allow wider use of his approach, including for interaction between multiple characters. “There’s always going to be room for 2-D games that people want to play, but more and more mobile games are going to be based on rich 3-D experiences,” he says.

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