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Next to such immersing products, Zynga's games look cretinous. Gameplay in FarmVille, FishVille, or Café World is based almost exclusively on what social-game designers call a "compulsion loop." Players perform basic tasks — clicking on crops to harvest them, clicking on stoves in restaurants, clicking on fish to feed them — earn fake money, enhance their farm or restaurant or aquarium, and repeat. In Zynga's hands, the art of snaring users with such gimmickry has become, quite literally, a science: Pincus told Time magazine last year that Zynga employs a behavioral psychologist.
As players advance, they are often given chances to act as unpaid advertising agents. The games repeatedly prompt users to post messages about their progress on Facebook, where friends are deluged with unwanted gifts or requests for neighborly "help." Oddly enough, these "social" games have no real social aspects beyond asking friends for virtual goods or spamming them with images of fish and eggplants.
The ham-handed marketing tactics and lack of artistry on display in Zynga's games have made the company a target for criticism from longtime game fans and designers. "We've never before seen this kind of deliberate unconcern for the aesthetics of the experience," says Ian Bogost, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner of Persuasive Games. He says Zynga's market-driven approach to the development of simple but addictive applications is "like strip-mining. They don't really care about the longevity of the form or the experience. ... That sort of attitude is the sort of thing you usually hear about from oil companies or pharmaceuticals. You don't really hear about it in arts and entertainment."
Others are impatient with the old guard's complaints. Despite their lack of sophistication, social games like FarmVille have attracted entirely new demographic sets of players, such as older women. "A lot of these users don't even consider themselves gamers," says Jason Oberfest, vice president of applications at the San Francisco–based iPhone game developer Ngmoco. "Older people consider these games as an alternate means of even e-mail." He says the pat dismissal of social games as simplistic reveals "an elitist point of view." Pincus likewise defended the new genre of social applications in his Time interview, summing up the difference between console games and Zynga games: "They're making movies. What we're doing is more like weekly TV programming."
It's tough to argue with success. Zynga's Facebook applications now boast an average of 233 million monthly users, making it far and away the social network's most popular gaming company, according to the application-tracking site AppData. The second-place developer, Electronic Arts, had 55 million average monthly users.
Zynga also has that rarest of commodities in the hothouse of Silicon Valley startups: a proven business model. Cash infusions from the small but dedicated subset of players who purchase virtual goods with real money comprise the bulk of its revenues. These players, known as "whales" for the large sums they toss away online, pony up $20 or more per month.
An investors' brief compiled for financial-research sites Track.com and Second Shares estimated Zynga's revenues would be nearly $530 million this year, up from $300 million in 2009. (The company is privately held, so its true income and worth are unknown.)
"It's nothing short of remarkable," says Paul Martino, an early investor in Zynga who cofounded the failed social-networking site Tribe.net with Pincus. "Zero to $500 million, $600 million a year. I mean, how many companies have done that in human history?"
Many successful companies have their original sins — corners cut, bridges burned, allies trampled. In Zynga's case, former employees say, its towering commercial edifice was built on a particularly shaky ethical foundation: copying the products of competitors. And while in the games industry, as in the fashion industry, some degree of design similarity is expected, Zynga has earned itself a reputation as a particularly rapacious predator of ideas.
In June 2009, Zynga came out with the app that would make it a household name among social-network users. While the company had already enjoyed some success with its earlier offerings, FarmVille was a blockbuster hit. But for those with eyes to see, it bore remarkable similarities to a precursor.
That precursor, Farm Town, was developed by a little-known Florida company called Slashkey. It featured a number of clever gameplay mechanics, chief among them real-time crop growth that requires players to regularly return to the game to tend their farms. Zynga's version, launched months after Slashkey's, would likely be indistinguishable to most players.
In both games, tiny avatars with big heads plant square plots of soil with different crops, harvest them to earn virtual coins after a time, and acquire Facebook friends as "neighbors" to help out on the farm and exchange goods. The mechanics of the games — down to screen commands and layout — are more or less identical.
Officials at Slashkey did not respond to requests for comment. But some familiar with the games are incredulous that Zynga didn't get sued over FarmVille, so strong was its resemblance to Farm Town.