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Is Zynga evil?

When Zynga paid $180 million for OMGPOP, the maker of the wonderfully creative Draw Something app, it was a great moment. Zynga was able to land a 30-person creative team that could help lift the company from an also-ran in mobile games to one of its clear leaders. OMGPOP was richly rewarded for its perseverance, having tried dozens of times to make a hit game before Draw Something finally took off and drew Zynga’s attention.

But one OMGPOP employee, Shay Pierce, decided to turn down the offer to be absorbed by Zynga as if it were the Borg from Star Trek. He wrote an editorial in Gamasutra, the online publication for game developers, saying Zynga’s “values are completely opposed to my own values, professionally and creatively.” He didn’t trust Zynga because of a recurring image problem — the widely held impression that the company was “evil.” It fit that definition because it acted in a way that was “destructive to the healthy functioning” of the gaming ecosystem, Pierce said.


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“An evil company is trying to get rich quick, and has no regard for the harm they’re doing along the way,” wrote Pierce (pictured above) in a piece that drew more than 100 comments.

“Clearly the industry desperately wanted or needed this voice — someone to publicly reject the idea that Zynga is obviously a good place to land whether by application or through acquisition,” said Ian Bogost, professor of digital media at the Georgia Institute of Technology and a frequent critic of Zynga’s games. “Overall though, any “good vs evil” claim is always oversimplified, caricatured. But it does seem to me that more and more of the games industry — and the world — are pure financial instruments, rather than creators of products and services.”

And just like that, the reputation Zynga has tried hard to craft was back in the doghouse. It seemed like Zynga had outgrown such criticism as it became more of a pioneer in social games and a publisher of original titles. Pierce’s commentary revived allegations hurled at Zynga in the past about cloning games of competitors, spamming users with notifications until Facebook had to shut the messaging down, viewing users as “weak-minded cash cows,” and “chasing the gold rush” rather than making great games. It was a pretty stinging and well-crafted argument.

Much of the negative view of Zynga comes from early articles such as “FarmVillains” and the fact that Zynga founder Mark Pincus was a game industry outsider who saw the value of analytics. He was not a game designer, and now he has become the game industry’s only multibillionaire through Zynga’s initial public offering. The thinking goes that many Zynga employees, including Pincus, are there just to get rich and will sell their stock and leave after their post-IPO lock-up ends.

Colleen McCreary (pictured), chief people officer at Zynga, says that internal surveys show that Zynga employees are happy. More than 80 percent of them agree with the overall mission of the company, according to McCreary’s surveys. She noted that the San Francisco Business Times named Zynga as a finalist as one of the best places to work in the region. Unfavorable attrition is under 4 percent, and the percentage of job offers accepted has been increasing, she said.

A few of Zynga’s best game designers have also come to the company’s defense. Zynga made them available to me to interview, and a number have commented on Pierce’s post. In the past, Zynga employees were frustrated, McCreary said, because the company was in its quiet period before the initial public offering and it had to muzzle everyone in the past. That enabled the company’s critics to define it in the press.

But now the company can talk back. Zynga has hired many seasoned game designers among its 3,000 or so employees. Those developers are hard at work not only doing derivative work but also creating some of the most original and popular games in the world, including such titles as FrontierVille, Empires & Allies, and CastleVille, the Zynga people say.

Mark Skaggs (pictured right) — whose credits include games such as FarmVille, CityVille, and Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 — is one of the oldest Zynga game design veterans. In an interview with VentureBeat, Skaggs said that Zynga has become a big target for everyone, much like Electronic Arts was when he worked there. When it began to disrupt the traditional game business, Zynga had lots of detractors. But in the end, rather than ruin the game business, Zynga has elevated its reach toward a billion users, many of whom would never have played traditional console games, Skaggs said.

Skaggs said the anti-Zynga attitude has hurt the company’s ability to recruit some of the best and brightest in the past. That was particularly true when Zynga was a younger company and it wasn’t so easy to show off its contributions to gaming.

“When we were 100 employees, it was much harder to convince game veterans to join us,” he said. “Trying to convince people to work for us when our best product was Mafia Wars — that was tough. Now we have more applications than we can deal with. The crux of it is that if you are in the industry being disrupted, it will be uncomfortable. Many companies have been disrupted. But the better measure of success is what do the players want? I love delivering games to as many people as possible, making the world a better place.”

He said that Zynga is improving its game quality and is constantly changing. As for cloning, Skaggs says that he has worked at places where he was a “craftsman,” as he is at Zynga, working to make fun games within constraints, and he has worked on his own as an “artiste.” He likes being a craftsman better because nobody played his artiste games. Creating the best version of a game within a genre is sometimes exactly what the market needs to bust open that genre to vast new audiences.

“You want to make games that people want to play, and you should not have preconceived notions of what people want to play,” he said.

Skaggs said it is thrilling for game developers to move fast on a concept and take it into production and into the hands of millions of players and then see the feedback in real-time through highly instrumented analytics. By contrast, console game developers work for two years or more before they get consumer feedback.

Bob Bates (pictured left), chief creative officer for Zynga’s external studios, said in an interview that he is familiar with the “Zynga is evil” attitude. He had his own conflict about it when he left the indie life and joined Zynga in 2010. He was so concerned that he consulted for six months before he joined full-time.

“I understand it,” he said. “I agree it can be a barrier to people joining Zynga. But if you peel back and see people working at Zynga, we have one of the deepest designer bench strengths of any company I have seen. There are external perceptions of Zynga and it didn’t match internal reality.”

On a day-to-day basis, he said, Zynga’s people are not just sitting back waiting for the dollars to roll in. They’re among the hardest-working in the industry, he said. He noted that Zynga’s games consistently beat others that are in the same genre. There can be many reasons for that, such as cross-promotion. But making a better game is one reason that happens, Bates said.

And while a designer may not feel especially creative making some of these social games, the games can unleash creativity in the player.

“You create ways for people to have meaningful interactions,” he said.

The creative contributions of the game veterans do make differences in Zynga games, he added. Bates said he was happy to contribute a more refined storyline — where there’s a love triangle between three characters — in the FrontierVille game. He went on to help with Empires & Allies, a combat game that move beyond its natural hardcore gamer audience to tens of millions of mainstream users.

“We made that game more accessible to more people, starting from a hardcore combat game,” said Bates, who worked on games such as Unreal 2 and Spider-Man 3 and has been designing games since 1986.

Among the other lifelong game designers working at Zynga are Paul Neurath (who worked on titles such as Thief), Mark Turmell (Mortal Kombat), Henry Stern (Magic: The Gathering), Mike Verdu (Command & Conquer), Doug Kaufman (Alpha Centauri), Cara Ely (Dream Day), Brian Reynolds (Rise of Nations), Chris Trottier (Spore), Frank Lantz (Parking Wars), Paul Bettner (Words with Friends), Christy Marx (Conquests of Camelot), Bill Jackson (Age of Empires), Toby Ragaini (Asheron’s Call), Bruce Shelley (Age of Empires), and others. All told, Zynga has 150 game designers and 40 percent of the total employee count is engineering.

“These are heavyweight designers doing good and creative work at Zynga,” Bates said.

Why, Bates asks, would Zynga actively recruit and hire these designers if it had no interest in real game design?

Tim LeTourneau (pictured right), a former Electronic Arts veteran who worked for a decade on The Sims, said in an interview with VentureBeat, “I would never have come to work at a company I considered to be evil. I sit and play Zynga games at night with my wife. That was one of the reasons I came here. EA was accused of being a lot of things. Any company leading a space is bound to have a lot of detractors. The Sims reached more than 100 million players over 10 years. CityVille got to that many in a month. That was why I came.”

A 20-year veteran of EA, LeTourneau said, “There is a way to touch players here in a way we couldn’t in traditional games. On a daily basis, my wife plays Zynga games and she plays those with people around the world. I think that is an amazing thing that Zynga has done. She has friends in Australia and Thailand that she talks with on a daily basis.”

LeTourneau said he wanted to learn how to create games that could do that. The team he works with can make any kind of AAA console game, but they are all choosing to making social games. That focus on social is something new for the game industry and it requires a tremendous amount of creativity, LeTourneau said.

“I haven’t looked back,” he said. “My time here has been really exhilarating.”

Asked about Zynga’s copycat allegations, LeTorneau said, “All games are in some way influenced by things that came before them. Is every first-person shooter a copycat of Doom? I certainly don’t feel like a copycat. And games like FarmVille need to innovate to continue to entice players to come back on a continual cadence. That’s not unlike what I had to do with The Sims.”

All of these defenses of Zynga may seem like rationalizations for working at a company that behaves badly. And Zynga has been accused of copying another company’s game as recently as February. As a side note, some sources have hinted that Pierce wasn’t a team player, and Business Insider wrote a story about how he was going to be fired. McCreary said Zynga’s policy is not to comment on the records of employees. But the Business Insider piece clearly indicated that sources associated with OMGPOP are trying to discredit Pierce. But Pierce noted that Zynga extended a job offer to him, which would seem odd if he was about to be fired.

I corresponded with Pierce via email, and he said that no one at OMGPOP had ever told him he was going to be fired. He believes he was doing good work and never received any indication from his manager or company that he was performing poorly. He noted that he has never tried to take credit for OMGPOP’s Draw Something (CBS News erroneously reported that and an email suggesting that was taken out of context), and he has been clear in saying in his article that he never worked on it. Asked if any of the reaction prompted him to change his mind about anything, Pierce replied, “No.”

As for Zynga’s image as evil, Skaggs said, “I hope people get past it. I don’t focus on it. It comes from disruption. Are people still mad at Apple for creating the App Store? I focus on making games.”

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