Why Zynga ticks off the games industry

The young company has scored big with Farmville and other Facebook hits. Gaming pros, though, see lots they don't like, and they're not afraid to say so.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
9 min read
Zynga has had success with games like Farmville and Mafia Wars that no one could have predicted two or three years ago. But within the games industry, there are some who have serious gripes about the company and its practices.

Being the 800-pound gorilla in the social games room, it's no surprise that there are a lot of gripes about Farmville publisher Zynga.

Usually, people inside an industry with strong feelings about a specific company keep those sentiments to themselves because they don't want to burn bridges. So what might surprise some is how easy it is to find games industry professionals with an ax to grind about Zynga. Those tend to have to do with issues ranging from the company's propensity to imitate others' game concepts to a perception that it is both insensitive to the indie game development community and committed to profit above design principles. And, some designers charge that Zynga's games, frequently built around users repeating a few rote tasks again and again in search of reward, are watering down the idea of what games are.

It's hard to pin Zynga down, mainly because it is so young. The company, which was founded in 2007 by former Tribe.net head Mark Pincus, is the undisputed champion of the Facebook games wars. Farmville alone is said to have about 83 million monthly active users, and all told, Zynga's Facebook applications have more than twice as many users as those from any other developer, including Facebook. Of the top 15 most popular Facebook apps, six are from Zynga. The next closest is Facebook itself, with just three on that leader board.

Clearly, then, the public at large is responding to what Zynga is doing in a very big way and doesn't care if there are those in the game development community who take issue with the company's philosophies or practices. That's all inside baseball stuff, after all. Along with Zynga's success has come substantial cash--in 2009, the company had more than $200 million in revenue and is expected to bring in at least 50 percent more in 2010, according to Justin Smith, the founder of industry analyst Inside Social Games. Zynga recently bought social games pioneer Serious Business and all told has raised at least $219 million in venture funding.

"They have done a good job of using their early lead to create a powerful distribution channel to promote their new games, which gives them a competitive advantage over smaller players," said Smith. "And that's one of the most valuable things they've been able to do, promote their new games and properties to their existing players without having to do much external marketing."

Still, the unease with Zynga is palpable, say some in the industry, even if much of it is based on a few stories in the media that have perhaps been blown out of proportion or misunderstood.

"I have a lot of people I know who work there who are good people," said Mike Sellers, the CEO of independent games studio Online Alchemy. "But [Zynga] really seems, at the very least, to have a very bad image problem that they have not helped themselves with...The way Zynga comes off [to some] is that they are aggressive and predatory and that they will sue you as soon as look at you, but they will also steal your ideas as soon as look at you."

Controversial acceptance speech
At the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco last month, the industry's biggest gathering of designers, social games were clearly the buzz. Just about everywhere you looked, there was a panel or a keynote related to the genre, and at the Game Developers Choice Awards midway through the confab, Zynga's Farmville was named the winner of the inaugural best new social/online game.

But what might have been a triumphant moment for the company quickly turned sour when Bill Mooney, the general manager for Farmville, took the stage to accept the award, a speech that some in the indie game development community felt was condescending. In it, according to a transcript posted online, Mooney said, among other things:

One thing I really want to call out to folks here, especially you indie game developers, is you may not think of us (social games) as the kind of place you'd want to be involved in...You should try it (developing social games). Especially you indie folks: come show us (developers of social games) what you can do....There's something like 200 openings at Zynga, and many more opportunities across other places--seriously, think of Facebook and the social games space as the last big realm for indies. If you're interested in making your own mark, please come join us.

Mooney's comments did not go over well in the room. According to a blog post by Raph Koster, the former chief creative officer for Sony Online Entertainment and now the founder of Facebook games developer Metaplace, "he was not only booed, but someone shouted out, 'But you don't make games!'"

"Apparently (Mooney) has no...idea what the indie community is all about, i.e., precisely the opposite of commercialized...time- and money-sinks driven by business and user metrics instead of love of the art," blogged Josh Sutphin, the lead game designer at LightBox Interactive, in a post-GDC wrap-up. "It was frankly insulting to the half of the room that had just concluded an hour-long awards show celebrating its prolific creative output. And then, just to make things even more awkward, [Mooney] started pitching Zynga as a great place to work, going so far as to directly ask for people to send in their resumes. Hey, [Mooney]: There's a time and a place for that, and your acceptance speech at the Game Developers Choice Awards is neither. Learn some f---ing tact."

To Ian Bogost, a professor at Georgia Tech and a founding partner of the Persuasive Games studio, it's not surprising that people like Sutphin are willing to publicly articulate their frustrations about Zynga or worry about burning bridges with the company. "There's no perception of any bridges at all," Bogost said. "Some might see that they're perceived as total outsiders, even interlopers, that have swooped down like aliens to destroy us, but no matter what your opinion is, [some people] don't see any commonality."

Bogost said he feels that the booing at Mooney at the GDC awards event was inappropriate behavior. But he speculated that those who had such strong reactions to Mooney's speech were responding to a sense that Zynga has different priorities than others in the game developer community. "Maybe it's [a] lack of humility," Bogost said. People in the community "don't seem to have a sense that [Zynga is] concerned about the kind of attitudes that people have about their games."

For its part, Zynga has "the utmost respect for independent developers and their talents," said company spokesperson Shernaz Daver.

Games as behaviorist experiments
One of the biggest complaints aimed at Zynga from within the industry is that the company is building a giant, highly profitable business by taking others' designs and putting out their own versions.

For example, wrote Nick Saint in Business Insider, many of Zynga's games appear, on the surface at least, to be imitations of others' work. Farmville, Saint wrote, was preceded by FarmTown; Zynga's Mafia Wars came after Mob Wars; FishVille followed Fish World and so on. "One reason people love to hate Zynga is the approach Zynga has taken to becoming so successful: The Microsoft approach," Saint wrote. "Specifically: Copy a competitor's product, then crush the competitor."

Daver responded by saying that "Unlike a hits-driven business like video games, social games have persistence and are designed and developed in that manner. The mechanics of game design and the way one thinks of developing a social game to reach and retain users is different. In a social game, there is a constant process of iteration and innovation after the game is released, unlike console games. We continuously iterate on all our games and our users see new features from seasonal items to new cities every week."

But as Koster reported from the awards ceremony, some people charge that Zynga doesn't even make games. That's a tough argument to prove, of course, and one Koster himself disputes--"Yes, Farmville is a game," Koster wrote. "It just requires fairly little skill compared to games for 'advanced' gamers. But by any reasonable definition of a game, it fits perfectly." Still, whether Farmville or Mafia Wars are actually games may not be the real concern. For someone like Bogost, it's the sense that Zynga's approach to game design is a little bit frightening.

"I have a liberal sense of what a game is," Bogost said. "I do think, though, that the kind of experiences that they're creating are more like [Skinner] boxes, like behaviorist experiments with rats. They're relying on creating these compulsions so people will want to come back and click on the bar. And so, in that respect, I fear those kinds of products."

And that sentiment may well dovetail with another lingering and favorite complaint about Zynga--that it will do anything for money. That's something the company has had to contend with since CEO Pincus gave a talk to aspiring UC Berkeley entrepreneurs in the spring of 2009 in which, talking about the founding of Zynga, he said (see video below), "I knew that I wanted to control my destiny, so I knew I needed some revenues. Right...now. Like, I needed revenues now. So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away."

That statement was taken out of context, Zynga's Daver said.

"The choice of words may not have been ideal, but the point conveyed was, and we have paid for this error in the media over the last few months," Daver said. "Only a snippet of his remarks was widely spread on the Internet and if the whole segment had been played, audiences would have seen his explanation in a wider context."

Daver is right, however: Pincus' statement about doing "every horrible thing in the book" has resonated through the industry. "That seems to be the ethos that they project," said Online Alchemy's Sellers. "Whether it's true or not, I don't know."

Scam offers
The belief that Zynga will do anything to make money has made it easier for some to also buy the idea that the company hasn't always cared much about the well-being of its customers, at least when it comes to the ubiquitous "offers" that Facebook app users get.

Most famously, TechCrunch's Michael Arrington penned a screed last fall excoriating Zynga and its big social-gaming competitors for their participation in an ecosystem that often confuses users and costs them substantial amounts of money.

"Most of these offers are bad for consumers," Arrington wrote, "because it confusingly gets them to pay far more for in-game currency than if they just paid cash (there are notable exceptions, but the scammy stuff tends to crowd out the legitimate offers). And it's also bad for legitimate advertisers."

For its part, Offerpal, one of the main offenders, fired its then-CEO Anu Shukla and seems intent on excising scam offers from its playbook. Zynga, too, has worked to separate itself from the controversy.

"When the offers issue came to light," said Daver, "we were the first company to take aggressive action and pulled down all--100 percent--of the offers. We gave up on revenue because [Pincus] wanted the user experience to be paramount for our audience. We only brought back offers after we made sure we had the right technology and teams in place to check the quality of any offer we display."

Koster said that he thinks that Zynga, as the biggest social games company, may have taken the brunt of the criticism during the offers scandal because it was the most visible target. "Some [critics] are singling Zynga out," Koster said, "for what are in fact widespread industry practices. Offers are used by just about every social game company."

But to Sellers, Zynga's problems, whether with offers, or with perceptions about how it makes its games or about how it earns money, can be taken as a sign of its overall corporate culture. And over time, he said, he thinks that users--who for now are responding by the tens of millions to Zynga's games--will be the worse off for it.

"I think it will [eventually] percolate down through the corporate atmosphere, and...down to how the users feel about" Zynga, Sellers said. "I believe in the long term that ethical behavior wins out. Again, maybe it really is that Zynga isn't operating unethically. But [in the industry] they have a really bad image problem."

To Koster, though, that image problem may have much more to do with industry worries that the kinds of games Zynga is putting out--and the money it's making doing so--prove that the company doesn't share long-held philosophies about what games are. And he seemed to suggest that many in the profession need to understand that change doesn't have to be bad, and that it's coming.

"The real question is more about whether Zynga is in the games culture, I suspect," Koster said. "And I think that one of the--overall, good--things about the games industry reaching broader success is that its definition of gamer, game and game culture all have to expand."

Correction, 1:55 p.m. PDT: This story originally misstated revenue numbers for Zynga. .