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"As it has grown in dominance in the game industry, Zynga has garnered a reputation for its predatory business and suspect marketing tactics," asserted a lawsuit filed in August against the company by rival developer Digital Chocolate over the trademark to the "Mafia Wars" name. (The suit claimed that Zynga was falsely trying to assert ownership of the name — the same as a 2004 title from Digital Chocolate — but did not allege that game-design elements had been copied.)
From a business standpoint, copying rivals' games makes some sense. With its marketing resources, brand recognition, and economies of scale, Zynga can quickly garner millions of additional users for apps that might have failed to go viral when managed by smaller shops. FarmVille currently has about 62 million users, according to AppData.com, while Farm Town, its virtual clone, has only 5 million. The revenue generated by this audience dwarfs the cash required to defray lawyers' fees and a settlement payment, even one that runs to millions of dollars.
Given Zynga's emphasis on user volume and revenue over product quality, efforts by its designers to create deeper, more artistic, or more original games were not always welcomed. A former high-level employee tells the story of Burning Realms, a sword-and-sorcery role-playing game that a group of Zynga designers "killed themselves to put together," only to have it placed on the back burner by Pincus, who was wary of a product outside the tried-and-true molds of apps like FarmVille, Mafia Wars, and Zynga Poker.
"It was just beautiful. It was innovation," the former employee says. "And it was like, his money is not going to go to innovating. For people who were creative and actually wanted to make something, it was really depressing."
One of the more common complaints among former Zynga employees is about Pincus' distaste for original game design and indifference to his company's products, beyond their ability to make money. "The biggest problem I had with him was that he didn't know or care about the games being good — the bottom line was the only concern," a former game designer says. "While I am all for games making money, I like to think there's some quality there."
Zynga's controversial CEO is a veteran of the first dot-com boom, having founded and sold his first company, Freeloader, for $38 million in 1995. (Other companies he created include SupportSoft and Tribe.net.) Pincus is alternately despised and admired by industry observers and his colleagues, but most people agree he is inseparable from the aggressive corporate culture that has driven Zynga — named after Pincus' late bulldog — to the top.
Critical tech bloggers had a field day with a talk Pincus gave to aspiring entrepreneurs at a UC Berkeley event last March, during which he claimed he "did every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues right away" when Zynga was founded. Yet in May, he was the subject of an admiring profile in Details magazine, which portrayed him as a plainspoken capitalist beset with sour-grapes complaints.
Pierre Wolff, who was Pincus' vice president of business development at Tribe.net, says, "Sometimes people don't understand the responsibilities that CEOs have, so sometimes they'll take that as, 'Why is he being such an asshole?'" Wolff did allow that Pincus sometimes uses language devoid of "soothing qualities," and could be challenging to work for, depending on how you adapted to his management style. "He's moving at 100 miles per hour. You've either got to get on the bus, or you're not on the bus," he says. "Most people have a buffer. ... Mark's not like that. He thinks it, and he says it."
Pincus' leadership was a subject of some concern among Zynga's early investors, according to a confidential memo obtained by SF Weekly. The document, produced by renowned Silicon Valley venture capitalist Bing Gordon for the investment group Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, recommended that the firm invest heavily in Zynga.
It also warned, "Mark needs strong lieutenants to keep him from micromanaging."
The memo suggested that Gordon himself and at least one other top-level executive play strong roles in the company to offset Pincus: "Bing to temper Mark, and bring onboard a billion-dollar game industry COO when Zynga gets to about $100M."
While Zynga has long since surpassed $100 million in revenue, it's worth noting that the company has added a few heavy hitters to its management team this year, including former Electronic Arts executive Steve Chiang, now Zynga's president of studios, and Dave Wehner, the former Allen & Company director who in July was hired as Zynga's chief financial officer.
Wehner's arrival, in particular, was interpreted as a sign that Zynga is preparing for an initial public offering in the near future.
But as the company gears up for an anticipated IPO, some question whether its best days have already come and gone — whether the business model pioneered by Pincus can sustain itself over time.
At present, Zynga's fate is largely tied to that of Facebook. (This was a concern cited in the Kleiner Perkins memo, which noted that Zynga's revenues are "overly concentrated on Facebook.") But the social-networking site has recently taken steps to tamp down the marketing ploys that helped drive Zynga's rise. Players are now restricted in how much they can spam those in their social networks with advertising messages, for example.