Zynga founder reclaims CEO role amid turnaround

Mark Pincus, chairman and chief executive officer of Zynga Inc., speaks during an event at Zynga Inc. headquarters in San Francisco, California, U.S.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Zynga's founder is back to run the farm.

Mark Pincus, who guided the online gaming company from its inception in 2007 through its high-profile IPO four years later and subsequent stock market crash, has been limited to the role of cheerleader since July 2013, when he stepped down as chief executive officer.

The San Francisco-based company said on Wednesday that Pincus, who remained on the board as non-executive chairman, is returning to the role of chief executive officer effective immediately. He's replacing his replacement—former Microsoft executive Don Mattrick, who was brought in to clean the company up after its failure to catch consumers' transition to mobile gaming.

Read MoreCan Zynga's bet on action games spark revival?

Mattrick has made dramatic changes, pushing Zynga into mobile action and puzzle games and reducing reliance on social titles like FarmVille. But investors have responded with a giant shrug. The stock trades just pennies above its price of $2.77 at the time of Mattrick's appointment.

"Don and I and the board believe that I'm the right person for what the company needs to do right now to get to the next chapter of growth," Pincus, who owns 10 percent of Zynga's stock and 64 percent of its voting shares, said in an interview. "It's really sometimes about what's the DNA of that leader, and how deep they're going to go in a particular area."

For Mattrick, that depth was in mobile production and game quality, and for Pincus the focus is more on user engagement and analytics. In Pincus's words, Mattrick has given the company the necessary mobile strength for the founder to do what he does best: make games social.

Zynga's current problem is that it can't crack the top of the charts. No Zynga title is currently among the top 25 grossing games on Apple devices, and none rank higher than 18th on Android, according to App Annie. Instead, games like Supercell's "Clash of Clans" and "Boom Beach" and's "Candy Crush Saga" are winning consumer eyeballs, and dollars.

Zynga founder steps back in as CEO
Zynga founder steps back in as CEO

That's a dramatic contrast from the 2009 to 2011 period, when Zynga's poker, farming and restaurant games dominated the top 10 on Facebook. It showed up in the numbers. Revenue in 2014 plunged to $690.4 million from $1.28 billion in 2012.

The next leg of the mobile strategy is just getting off the ground. Mattrick orchestrated last year's $500 million acquisition of NaturalMotion, and has primed the market for the first release, "Dawn of Titans," a mobile action game. Zynga has told investors to expect six to 10 new titles this year.

"As a company, Zynga is in a stronger position today to serve mobile consumers and take advantage of the unprecedented growth opportunity across our industry," Mattrick said in a statement.

The company also said that it's confident in its first-quarter forecast. Zynga said in February that revenue in the period would range from $155 million to $165 million.

Read MoreWhat's in Zynga's pipeline?

Whether Pincus can take Mattrick's strategy and use it to rejuvenate gamers and investors is very much an open question. When Pincus was replaced in 2013, he told employees that he "had the greatest impact working as an entrepreneur with product teams."

So why is he now ready to take the reins of a company with over 2,000 employees? He has voting control, so the desire alone is enough to get him the role.

But he also may be out to prove he can pull a Steve Jobs magic trick and turn a once promising tech industry leader into something bigger than anyone else can imagine.