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Zynga’s darkest moments

By Jeremy Wilson

It is with some relief that once ubiquitous “games” created by social gaming giant Zynga – such as FarmVille and Mafia Wars – have faded somewhat from our national discourse.

The games studio mastered the art of hitting the pleasure and reward sweet spot in our brains with its own unique blend of challenge-free “games” designed solely to extract revenue from the user, and for a few years polluted our Facebook timelines. Thankfully, Zynga’s tumultuous decline from tech titan to laughing stock is occurring in full view of the braying public. We like to think of them as the Rob Ford of the start-up world.

Let’s look back at their darkest moments.

Scam

Startup founders have a difficult choice: take less capital and monetise quicker or take more capital and monetise for the long haul. Zynga co-founder and former CEO Mark Pincus went for option C: “scam” the customers for no reason in particular.

In his own words:

“So I funded [Zynga] myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this Zwinky toolbar which was like, I don’t know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it. *laughs* We did anything possible just to just get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business.

“In a nutshell, the offers that monetize the best are the ones that scam/trick users. Sure we had Netflix ads show up, and clearly those do convert to some degree, but I’m pretty sure most of the money ended up getting our users hooked into auto-recurring SMS subscriptions for horoscopes and stuff.”

“Borrowing” other games

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Zynga’s entire modus operandi for creating new games is to Xerox the design of other games. And if you don’t believe it, check out this helpful graphic by the creator of the 2011 game Tiny Tower, pitting screenshots of his game against Zynga’s 2012 game Dream Heights.

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Some claim that Zynga’s original hit, Farmville, was ripped off from a Chinese game called Happy Farm – itself heavily influenced by the Japanese video game series Harvest Moon.

Cow Clicker

Perhaps the ultimate damnation of the Zynga empire was the creation of Cow Clicker by Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost. The idea was to make a game that distilled “the social game genre down to its essence” – the cynical exploitation of human psychology.

In the words of its creator:

“You get a cow. You can click on it. In six hours, you can click it again. Clicking earns you clicks. You can buy custom “premium” cows through micropayments (the Cow Clicker currency is called “mooney”), and you can buy your way out of the time delay by spending it.”

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The damning part? It’s better than anything made by Zynga.

The dumbest business decision imaginable

Start-ups are supposed to take risks and make mistakes. But the blunder made by Zynga is so unbelievably stupid, it takes some time to get your head around it – the company relied almost entirely on Facebook for distribution.

It put its entire future in the hands of another booming new tech company, sat back and twiddled its thumbs as the app economy sailed by.

Stock price

How badly has Zynga messed up? This bad.

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Firing staff

What happens when you raise a staggering amount of money, hire thousands of new employees, splash hundreds of millions buying a fancy office and then find out no-one wants to use your service anymore? There’s no shame in having to let staff go in order to keep a business afloat, but Zynga’s constant culling of staff has been staggering. At the last staff massacre earlier this year, more than 520 employees were cardboard boxed.

Firing a fifth of your staff two years after the nice men at the NASDAQ gave you $1 billion probably means you didn’t make the best strategic judgements.

Credit card

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There have been several moments throughout Zynga’s history when it has appeared to swallow its own bullshit and start to believe that its in-game credits are actually worth something, such as its crackpot scheme in 2010 to sell pre-paid game cards in 12,800 stores.

Picking up $25 of nothing along with the weekly shop never caught on. But the most terrifying manifestation of virtual Zynga currency is the still-available Zynga Rewards American Express credit card. Why collect air-miles when you could skip a task on your non-existent farm?

Platinum Purchase Program

So Zynga’s games are a bit addictive. Some people wile away the occasional hour of their life playing them, and some even hand over their cash. What’s the harm in that?

The problem with creating a product that hooks into the addictive tendencies of humans is that some people are particularly susceptible. Or at least, that might be a problem if you had a conscience.

A small hardcore group of Zynga users are responsible for a large part of its income – they are known as “whales” and Zynga likes to harvest them.

In 2010 it was reported that Zynga was running a “Platinum Purchase Program” that gave gaming addicts who bought more than $500 of its in-game currency at a time favourable rates on payments made by wire transfer.

At least drug dealers deliver pleasure.


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