The SF Weekly, one of two of San Francisco’s free weekly papers, has published a scathing tell-all article about how Zynga operates, based on numerous interviews with investors, lawyers, and anonymous ex-employees (who are nameless for fear of being sued).
According to the article “FarmVillians” (great headline), Zynga management has actively executed a business strategy to copy successful social games, eschew innovation, and focus entirely on making money. Per the quote as attributed to Zynga CEO Mark Pincus by an ex-employee, the strategy has been to “steal somebody else’s game, throw millions of dollars at it, and then, if it doesn’t have it already, add virtual coins.”
You can read the full article for all the juicy details (or check out Games.com analysis of the article). Be forewarned: both articles include inappropriate (or “saucy” as I like to call it) language. My favorite tidbit: The inside office joke at Zynga is that Zynga’s tagline is “Be evil,” a play on Google’s “Don’t do evil” mantra.
For anyone who covers and plays social games as much as we do here at Gamezebo, there is actually not much new in this article. It’s quite obvious there is a lot of “borrowing” going on. FarmVille is highly derivative of Farm Town, Cafe World is influenced by Restaurant City, and Mafia Wars is such a copy of Mob Wars, Zynga was sued by its developer and had to settle.
What is new is that this is the first time the Zynga story has been researched and written about in the same way the meat packing industry of the early 20th century or a political scandal like Whitewater is investigated. Yes, in same spirit of Upton Sinclair and The Jungle, Zynga has its very own muckraker!
What should be concerning to Zynga is that it actually has two local muckrakers who have targeted their company. A few weeks ago, SF Weekly’s competitor, The Examiner, exposed that the city of San Francisco was investigating whether Zynga broke any laws through its aggressive “glue fake money on streets” marketing campaign for Mafia Wars. If it turns out that investigating and writing about Zynga pushes the circulation of local papers, what we may have in the making is the start of a good old fashioned newspaper tit-for-tat reporting rumble, where Zynga is the target.
Even more concerning for Zynga is if any of the major national press publications (e.g,. Time) catches wind of these negative stories. As Zynga continues to plan for an IPO, such local stories can take on a national character (just as Yelp or Craigslist).
In the end, the SF Weekly story does not expose anything new about Zynga that we did not know about. Zynga likes to copy successful games and formulas and focuses on making money. And, truth be told, FrontierVille does show a good level of innovation and game design sophistication. They are moving in the right direction.
The question is what other skeletons does Zynga in the closet that have not yet been reported on. With two negative stories already floating in cyberspace and that are attracting buzz and tweet backs, there is blood in the water for any would-be muckraker who wants to get some attention.