If you are on Facebook, you know Zynga. Even if you never heard of them, you’ve probably felt their affect. FarmVille, FarmVille2, YoVille, Words With Friends, Indiana Jones Adventure World, CastleVille, CityVille, ChefVille, The Ville, Slingo, Vampire Wars, Mafia Wars, Hidden Chronicles, Bubble Safari…. all are current or past games that either you or at least some of your friends have played or are playing.
Founded by Mark Pincus in April 2007 (named after his beloved bulldog, hence the company’s logo), Zynga launched its first game in July 2007: Texas Hold’Em Poker (now Zynga Poker). Within 2 years the company was the #1 app developer on Facebook, with over 40 million active users. That’s serious participation. (Contrast that with World of Warcraft’s 12 million players in October 2010, their benchmark number. Yes, I know its apples and oranges in gaming, but it still puts the numbers in perspective a bit.)
Zynga expanded from their San Francisco headquarters (complete with weekly happy hours, free massages, gourmet food, and an indoor dog park) to additional facilities in Los Angeles, Austin, Dallas, New York, Seattle, Toronto, India, China, Germany, Japan and more, mostly due to acquisition of established studios. Since inception, they have seen revenue surpassing the market value of Electronic Arts. Zynga went public in December 2011 with a declared a market value of over $7 billion. All this without producing a single tactile product; everything is virtual, all is code.
How do they do this when playing the game is free? Through advertising revenue, and by enticing players to spend money in order to advance game play through either buying enhancements directly or through business partners (for example, if you apply for and are accepted for a Discover card through a link on a Zynga game, you get bonus virtual currency to use in that game). But players can choose to forego dropping a single dime into the Zynga bucket and still participate.
Sounds pretty great, doesn’t it? Well, if you think so, you haven’t played many Zynga games.
I have played numerous Zynga games and except for Words With Friends, I no longer play any of them. Two games – CastleVille and Vampire Wars – I played significantly, advancing to high levels before quitting, and I will admit to paying out cash to buy VWs currency a few times. (Zynga has since abandoned Vampire Wars).
Why did I become disenfranchised with the games? Big reason #1: complete and utter boredom. The games, enticing at first, would very quickly became mindless clicking without any skill, imagination or involvement on my part. In Vampire Wars, I would literally spam the Enter key and then sit back until the game caught up with my clicking. Then I would spam it again. And again. Not exactly a fun time. But I had to complete copious quests in order to level (with enhancement rewards) or to obtain randomly granted items that would allow me to do what kept me in the game: buy outfits for my vampire avatar. Even with the hours of time invested and personal achievements I racked up (and outfits acquired), eventually it became just was too mind numbing to continue.
Then there were the service errors. Games would not load, or quests would be broken or would cause your system to crash, and those problems would last for days, with no time frame for resolution and often without even acknowledgement of the problem, despite pages of forum posts pleading for updates. “Down for maintenance” screens would greet players at any given time without notice, and a “spinning orb of death” (the icon that indicated the game was “thinking” before moving on to the next action) would hang game play constantly. When these incidences happened – and they happened often – the silence on the part of Zynga was absolutely deafening.
But what broke the camel’s back for me was the pervasive sense that I, as a player, meant absolutely nothing to Zynga; I was merely profit fodder, unworthy of even a modicum of respect. Complaints were not addressed, questions were ignored. Games were labeled as being “beta” months after being released, yet Zynga still solicited money from players in those games. Excuse me, but you do NOT charge for beta. Period. Game play would start out fun then devolve into rote repetition of quests, actions and narrative, as if Zynga had gleaned as much as they could initially then would lose interest and move on to the next game release. Player loyalty meant nothing and longevity in the game was rewarded with diminishing returns.
Plus I often felt that I was being forced into doing Zynga’s marketing and recruitment for them because I could only advance in the game if I solicited a certain amount of players to be my “neighbors” or in my “army” or “clan”, who then could send me items or visit my realm or vote on my avatar’s appearance. Often these appeals could only be done through my Facebook feed. The moving target of privacy settings and the complexity of building specific groups made tailoring those appeals to “gamers only” daunting. And frequently the game would find a way around my settings to suddenly start broadcasting game announcements (purportedly to celebrate my achievements) that would be seen by all, which alienated many of my non-gaming friends. It felt like Zynga was expending more effort to figure out how to circumvent my privacy settings than it did to support my game issues. While it is possible that Zynga was not always the culprit in these broadcasting and Facebook interface issues, with no information flowing from them to the players, it made it awfully easy to assume so.
Then you hear about the incredible perks their employees get when you can’t get a dev to respond even once to an 24 page long thread that has been building for days in the forums and you wonder, if they can hire dog groomers, why can’t they hire someone to manage the forums or provide feedback?
That negative vibe goes deeper. Word is that Zynga blatantly copies other games; CEO Pincus reportedly told his employees, “I don’t f*cking want innovation. You’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.” Admissions of participation in scams and complaints about promotions that download malware, going after other companies that dared to put “-ville” in their game titles, forcing stock buybacks and executives selling stock right before negative reports are published – it just felt sleazy to be supporting the company in any way.
Bottom line, if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If you aren’t having fun playing, then stop. It didn’t and I wasn’t, so I did.
Karma’s a bitch, though. In 2012, Zynga stock nosedived and the company had dismal quarterly reports. Investors are abandoning ship, and CEO Pincus dropped from being a billionaire to having a personal net worth of only $425 (only!) million by 2013.
It’s not all bleak, though. Through Zynga.org, the philanthropic arm of the company, players have raised over $15 million that benefitted numerous nonprofits and causes, and raised awareness for projects such as clean water and alleviating hunger. That might not be money Zynga itself paid in, but someone has to spearhead the effort and raise the platform. Yet one has to wonder if this philanthropy is in place to merely make the company appear more community minded. With Zynga cutting regulatory ties with Facebook and aggressively moving into the online gambling arena, the question is, will this herald a positive new focus or give the company grounds to become even more mercenary?
Time will tell if Zynga becomes more player centric and broadens its blinders to something besides profit uber alleys. But I, for one, won’t be there to find out.