Inside Zynga

Inside Zynga
Michael French

By Michael French

July 16th 2012 at 12:15PM

Some despise it, everyone has an opinion on it. Develop investigates why most are wrong about Zynga

They are building a funfair when Develop visits 699 Townsend St on a crisp, sunny March morning.

The rides and games are filling out the cavernous foyer of the building, apparently once a shopping mall. The digital games firm that poetically took over occupancy, replacing a world of physical goods, fills out the floors above.

Elsewhere, developers’ dogs roam the halls, off their leashes.

The staff’s murmuring, generally upbeat hubbub rings through the air, with workers readying for lunch or making their way down to the on-site gym, yoga lounge or basement basketball court.

A huge celebratory neon 'PLAY’ sign hangs over the reception desk, itself adorned with tight security that is incredibly hi-tech – cameras, scanners, a digital screen reminding you of the NDA – but not intimidating.

This is Zynga HQ. And yes, Develop is just as surprised as you.

Isn’t Zynga supposed to be evil?

On the other side of downtown San Francisco, snatches of conversation at the W Hotel bar – the best hang-out during the Game Developers Conference – purport to tell you everything you should know about Zynga.

“They just clone what’s out there and milk it.”

“The backlash? We had that. And then a pro-Zynga backlash. But now we’re back on the backlash.”

“Fucking social games, man – they’re awful.”

ZYN CITY

You don’t have to do much digging to find the peculiar scepticism about Zynga and the social games boom it personifies.

Facebook games aren’t ‘real games’. They once spammed friend feeds on social networks and their ‘free’ elements just eat money. Then the deeper, vicious claims: Zynga clones games and makes the concepts it copied profitable.

One remark from Zynga CEO and founder Mark Pincus (“I did every horrible thing in the book to get revenues”) has been used by outsiders to define it time and again.
The other criticisms you will have heard already. Zynga games are worthless. They feed players the same content over and over. The company hates developers.

Zynga must be doing something right, though. It has 240m users on Facebook a month. After flotation on the New York Stock Exchange last year it has a market cap of $1bn. It has almost 3,000 employees – many of its top execs are staff drawn over from the ‘classic’ world of console and PC games, respected EA faces and famous designers. Each game it releases – or buys through acquisition – seems to top the next in terms of size and scope, with regular updates, huge cash generation, and free access. It has launched a platform, Zynga.com, specifically for third parities.

Zynga created something from nothing in just five years. And that’s why everyone has an opinion on its resultant notoriety.

So what does its staff have to say? We asked them. Their responses may annoy its doubters further, but all prove this is a company teaching every other developer a lesson.

UPWARDLY MOBILE

Sean Kelly, one of Zynga’s mobile masterminds on the smartphone revolution – and accusations of IP theft

“We’re not taking anyone’s art or source code or anything like that.”

Develop is half-way through the question and Sean Kelly, GM of mobile games at Zynga, is already offering a fairly robust defence of the biggest accusation industry haters have made against the firm: theft.

The topic is Dream Heights vs Tiny Tower.

The former is a Zynga mobile game, launched in January, which the developer of the latter (NimbleBit) said had clear similarities to its own award-winning tower-building game.

It was just one example out a handful where other companies have grumbled about Zynga’s games seeming too close to comfort to their own.

Zynga has never denied such similarities, but it does bristle at slurs.

When we ask Kelly about this attack of the clones, he’s clear about the company strategy.

“People may believe that we sit around talking about individual developers and their concepts – but we focus on a much more service and platform-oriented approach and want to really reach the broadest number of users with the most fun and the best products that we can.”

He adds: “Our mission is to be the best. And when we see a genre or game our players are clearly gravitating towards, we’ll examine it and figure out how to innovate, how to make sure that we’re producing the best quality, and that we’re focused on anything that we need to do that takes a concept or a genre to make it social.”

It’s shrewd, yes, but sound thinking. Copycat games are rife in social networking, anyway.

In fact, copycat games design is rife games in general, he points out.

“We spend a lot of time looking at what makes something the best quality game on the market and really analysing that continuously – which other games developers do as well, by the way.

“That’s constantly happening and things are constantly being reinvented and repurposed. We’re certainly respectful of IP. We’re not taking anyone’s art or source code or anything like that, and I think that kind of constant reinventing helps the whole industry. It basically moves the bar for everybody.”

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

Kelly points out that Zynga’s scale and the power of the brands it has created makes it an easy target when a rival developer wants to complain.

“We’re certainly a lot more noticeable and people pay attention to what we do because of our past success, and people are betting on us in the future. But they may ascribe to us more awareness of a specific game or specific market segment than we actually have.”

But Zynga is hugely aware of trends both tiny and gigantic – it wouldn’t be the fastest growing games developer on the planet otherwise.

And now part of its focus is on smartphone and mobile games, the only part of the games industry that anyone can claim to have grown faster than Zynga itself.

Kelly is vice-president of product development at Zynga Mobile, overseeing new games made at the San Francisco HQ and at its remote studios. The mobile division is moving at quite a pace – it launched nine games in 2011, and has already released a handful this year.

Kelly joined Zynga early, working at first on the less glamorous FishVille. But he was an entrepreneur himself prior, hailing from his own social start-ups and a stint at Microsoft.

He says “the fact that Zynga’s always thought of itself more as a service and a platform vision versus a singular product” attracted him to the company.

Aesthete developers might be rankled, but his description sums up how Zynga has made a business out of free games, connected together by promoting and encouraging Facebook friends to work together and grow their virtual farms, fish tanks or tower blocks.

It’s Kelly’s job to help see those same interactions take place on mobile – an increasingly important platform for Zynga.

“These things are cultural shifts. It’s a tidal wave of shifting emphasis on your connections and the devices are just getting better and better. Smartphone penetration is going to be a gigantic opportunity and I think any company that has a mission, like we do, to be social must go where people are – and that’s increasingly on mobile.”

ZYNGA, THE CONSOLE OF THE 21st Century

Why former Xbox and EA man John Schappert is right at home as one of Zynga’s top dogs

Once upon a time John Schappert was Mr Console.

He co-founded Tiburon, the studio that would go on to build the hugely successful Madden games.

He was subsequently one of the most committed EA execs, eventually looking after worldwide publishing, its online platform group and EA Interactive amongst others.

He even worked a tenure at Xbox as head of its Live online games division.

But last year he was Zynga’s biggest catch; the console pro poached to the world of free browser and mobile games, becoming COO of the most watched new firm in games.

These days, he tells Develop, “you don’t need anything” to be a gamer or in the games business.

The traditional part of the business “has always been limited by, ‘gotta buy the hardware’, ‘gotta buy the software’, ‘gotta go to retail’… there’s all of these barriers that the industry has been living in before.”

And as for the actual audience: “Every device you have is a gaming device and everyone is a gamer. And when you do that… a quarter of a billion people a month play your game.”

NEW INDUSTRY, NEW ROLES TO PLAY

What tempted him to make the jump to Zynga?

“It’s where I saw gaming going. When I was at Electronic Arts I worked very closely with the group that had casual, mobile and social, and you just saw the explosive growth that was happening in that. It’s going from a couple of hundred million gamers to everyone being a gamer, billions of people.

“I’ve been in the industry my entire career. I love games, but I look at my own habits: I have fewer and fewer times where I could dedicate 40 hours to a longer play time experience. But I find myself dedicating ten, 15 minutes here and there to these short-burst experiences.”

It’s this personal thinking that in-part seems to inform his overall view on the business. He says pain lies ahead for the parts of the traditional games business that is trying to ignore or write off the social games boom.

“People have to change. You have to think about things differently.

“You can’t think about $60 games and an installed base of a console.

“You’ve got to think ‘where are all the gamers today?’ They’re on that iPhone, they’re on Android devices, they’re on tablets, Macintosh, they’re on that PC, they are everywhere.”

He adds, with old colleagues, former employers and existing friends on his mind no doubt: “And by the way, they are still on consoles too.”

PLATFORM GAMES

Although responsible for all of Zynga’s day-to-day runnings, Schappert regularly points his conversation with Develop back to the firm’s new Zynga.com publishing platform for third-parties.

Cynics may snort, but the confidence of this move is reassuring.

Schappert pitches it as it is both an antidote to the things social games were once criticised for (and which Zynga exploited) and an answer to the problems they currently face (which Zynga arguably exacerbated).

It takes the pressure off of spamming a feed or nagging real world friends for virtual items or help via Facebook, instead asking players to run dedicated friends lists and play at Zynga’s owned site. And it provides a way for smaller studios to cut through the noise of social games by piggy-backing off of Zynga’s scale and strength as a source for social games.

“You don’t have to invite other players to your Facebook friend list so that they see what you did on the weekend or what your baby photos look like and other things you probably don’t want to share with the world, but you can still play games with them,” says Schappert.

“When we have people play together, they play longer. They enjoy their game more and they continue to come back more often. They stay engaged longer and they retain longer.

"It’s a better experience for everyone. The more we can connect people together and the more social we can make that game, the more of a win we get which is really why we’ve done Zynga.com.”

A number of third-party firms finding their way in social and not wanting to be left behind have signed up to put games on the service – from Konami to the UK’s own Rebellion.

“What we’ve realised is unlike the past space about becoming a publisher, right now the great thing is you don’t need to buy new hardware, you don’t need to have a disc distribution centre and anyone can make a game. But the irony is that there are more games out there than there are people to play them.”

A BILLION PLAYERS

Zynga, he says, genuinely wants to help others cut through. It won’t help all of them, of course – and it’s here that you realise exactly why a former EA and Microsoft exec was targeted to help run Zynga – but it does genuinely want to offer something back to select partners at least.

“One day we’d like to have a billion people play on our platform,” he says. Zynga is currently at 240m a month. That’s just 25 per cent of the way to the target. “We’d like to get a billion people to play, but we realise we can’t do it all. We don’t have to develop them all but we can work with independent developers to take their games and bring them out to the masses.”

BOB THE BUILDER

Famed designer Bob Bates explains why building games for social networks isn’t evil

So if John Schappert shows Zynga can attract console/publisher talent, and Sean Kelly reflects Zynga's upstart web hero legacy, then Bob Bates is the smart answer to what the firm's detractors claim.

He's the first to bring up the accusations made against Zynga, but is no paid PR voice.

Now chief creative officer for external studios, he started out by essentially vetting the company while a consultant. His job now also demands he bring a level of game design class, that Zynga's top brass likely realise their games need to become more sophisticated. And more legit.

Bates calls himself a “roving game designer” at Zynga. Formally, he oversees the traditional concept greenlight to pre-production and so on cycle. Informally that means regular chats with design teams across the Zynga business. He is, in essence, Zynga's Miyamoto.

The designer has been active in the industry for 25 years, having overseen over 40 titles of varying types, and having written some well-known tomes on making games, and most recently working as a freelance consultant designer.

Of course, this esteemed career many will see as the antithesis of what they think Zynga is – an unstoppable force of creative freedom meeting the immovable object of data-driven games creation.

But you can marry strong design ethics with
the analytics that helped social games get so big, Bates insists.

“Yes, Zynga is a really metrics driven company,” he confirms. “But we use those metrics in interesting ways.”

NUMBERS GAME

He points out how The Pioneer Trail (formerly called FrontierVille), Zynga's social game set on the cusp of the American culture's geographic expansion across the Old West, grew creatively thanks to player data. Fittingly, the game pushed Zynga beyond the point of understanding that players love stories, not just clicking virtual items. The game launched in 2010, and its users soon became hooked on reading letters that they received from NPCs.

“Zynga called me up and said 'We need more of this story and narrative stuff as it turns out players just really like it.' That's what got me in as a consultant here.

“That's a great example of metrics driving design, rather than ruling it with an iron thumb.

“The impression people have of Zynga is that we have little dials and every time someone does something significant we twiddle them and change things to manipulate them. But it's really not like that.”

BETTER BY DESIGN

Bates says he had heard all the bad claims about the company before signing his employment contract.

“I was apprehensive – that's the best word. Like I say, I consulted with Zynga for the last six months of 2010, because of that apprehension. You hear a lot of stuff about Zynga, and if you want to learn about a company like that from the inside, a consultancy gig is perfect.

“But I very much liked what I saw, obviously.”

He even dissected one of the firm's defining early games, Mafia Wars, as part of his research.

“I started playing it in November 2009 because a European client was interested in that space. I was determined not to spend money on that game. Every time I wanted to spend money I would stop and ask why that was. So I slowly dissected that game, I ripped it apart until I was over level 2,000. That's a lot of Mafia Wars time, I can tell you.

“When you look at a game that closely you learn things to take advantage of – where the balance was off slightly and where I could earn more XP than I was supposed to. But two weeks later that loophole would be closed. [Presumably by the dev team.] And that happened pretty damn often.”

This helped open his designers eyes to the power of free, social games.

He explains: “People don't really understand that a large part of what Zynga does is sell entertainment.

“The real trick in social is to get lots of people playing, and have them be happy for a long period of time.

“There are different kinds of players, people who play with different things in mind. We make money from the group of people that like to decorate and customise a space of their own. We make money from people who want to show off how good they are through special items. We make money from the competitive people, who want to be higher in the leaderboard so we sell them power-ups.

“But a percentage – and I mean millions of people – will be happy to play for free. If you design in a broad enough way to keep that mass of free people happy, you will have those other groups emerge, develop, and spend.”

Zynga is easily described as a bully. Its critics say it exploits the little guy, whether a developer it has 'taken' an idea from, or an individual buying virtual goods. But Bates flips that on its head. In his terms, every player is valued for contributing to the scale of an audience, and that's more important than what they are worth.

“People can be viral and social and play our games en masse and grow the audience. Or they can give us money to get farther quicker. We don't really care which.

They don't have to spend money – they might feel the urge to spend money to advance, but they don't have to, they can wait or be social.

“It's just that in a Zynga game you can go as far in every direction as you want.”