Is Zynga Finally for Real, Again?

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Zynga Inc. (NASDAQ: ZNGA) was one of Friday’s hot stocks — and there weren’t many — after announcing a sizable deal and a 15% cut in its workforce. The moves came as the freemium video game and social gaming maker pre-announced a narrower-than-expected loss for the fourth quarter and offered first-quarter guidance higher than the Street estimate.

The deal was a $529 million, cash-and-stock acquisition of British game maker NaturalMotion, which developed such titles as “Clumsy Ninja,” an iPhone app that lets players train their own dysfunctional assassin.

The key to NaturalMotion is that it is focused on mobile environments, which is what Zynga CEO Don Mattrick believes is the future for the struggling company. Mattrick warned in interviews Thursday that first-quarter results would be weak but promised sequential growth after that.

To get there will require good performances from its games and additional staff cuts than even the 314 layoffs announced Thursday and 520 jobs cut in 2013. There is a bit of hope-and-prayer in its guidance. But many analysts seemed to think Thursday and Friday that Mattrick may have started a turnaround.

The company projects first-quarter revenue at $155 million to $165 million and a profit of $0.01 to $0.03 a share for the year after $15 million in restructuring charges. Fourth-quarter revenue was $176.4 million, down 43% from a year earlier but 25% better than expected.

The company lost $25 million, or $0.03 a share, a penny better than the Street view. Zynga got its start building games such as Farmville for Facebook Inc. (NASDAQ: FB), but Zynga quickly found that growth in gaming was via mobile platforms, not computers. Wall Street no longer automatically puts Facebook and Zynga together, but there used to be a high degree of interdependence between the two companies.

Zynga went public at $10 in December 2011. After peaking at above $14 in early 2012, it crashed to as low as $2.09 in November 2012. It has more than doubled since and is up 50% since Mattrick joined the company in July 2013 from Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT). It is no secret that Microsoft has had issues of its own getting a replacement for Steve Ballmer, and now maybe for Bill Gates too.

The shares were up 60 cents, or nearly 17%, to $4.16 after briefly reaching as high as $4.50. What really stands out here is that a whopping 95 million shares had traded hands, even slightly before noon on a Friday.