Zynga Interview: Mark Pincus Part 2

Zynga's CEO talks about game advertising and why managing Zynga is like playing a game

Part two of our interview with the Chairman and CEO of Zynga, Mark Pincus, delved into the nature of social games, advertising, and the next great innovations. After interviewing many CEOs in the game industry, most are either a very business-focused person or a gamer at heart who also manages a business. Pincus is clearly a gamer at heart, even though he has his MBA from Harvard.

Disclosure: Pincus refers to Bing Gordon here, who is a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins and a Zynga board member. Bing is also the guy I used to work for at Electronic Arts back in the '80s. I let Mark Pincus know that at the beginning of the interview.

Before proceeding, please first read Part One here.

Q: What games are you playing now?

Mark Pincus: I'm in a competition now with Reid Hoffman in Scramble With Friends. It's not fun with Bing because he's off the charts in that game. You have to be well-matched in a skill-based game. What we learned with collaborative games like FarmVille that are a little more like Settlers of Catan, which has been such a great social game, is they really hide the PvP, and they have such a brilliant balance of luck and complexity. There's a complex social dynamic that keeps everyone in the game and you're able to bring new people in because - I just brought a friend into the game, and he didn't want to play, I think he ended up winning. It was basically because everyone would trade with him because nobody believed he had a chance of winning. It's almost like this self-regulating game that creates its own balance of power, and everyone thought I'd be the best so no one would trade with me, and I came in last.

I think that there's this balance that keeps the games fun and interesting. In skill and PvP you've gotta get the balance and the matching right. But we're interested in how we've been able to turn on games that are hobbies for people, and they're this escape but also have a little bit of click zen and a feeling of progressions without necessarily having to beat other people. People will still compete on levels, they make up their own ways, but they get to choose where and when they want it to be competitive versus collaborative.

Q: For different people there are different impulses; you or I may be more competitive, but your mom may just want to make something pretty. The best thing is when you have a game where you can choose you own victory conditions.

Mark Pincus: Yes! I've always said that a great social game is Shakespearean, because three different people can play and have totally different experiences, different paths, and get different things out of the same game. My nephews can play and it's just a fighting game, my mom or niece can play and it's a decorating game, and I can play and it's a strategy game. I think there's that potential - not always, because games can get diluted, but I think CityVille was a little bit like that.

My nephews were all about competing to have the most ubered up franchise, and they got mad at me when the franchise system didn't go deep enough, because they're real gamers. My mom just loved decorating and designing her city, and my nephews and my mom loved that they could actually share a game. What people forget - and I felt this growing up because I was a video gamer - you feel a little bit like this misunderstood minority. No one gets it and they think what you're doing is dorky, and you're like "No, no if you would just do this, it's so cool, you'd get into this!"

"A great social game is Shakespearean"

Mark Pincus

Q: Then you say see, here's this controller with 12 buttons, give it a try.

Mark Pincus: Right! With the Nintendo Wii, it was the first time I saw my family pick up video games and start playing; they were like "Wow, this is cool, I can do bowling and tennis!" and I'm like "I've been telling you this for years!" Even for someone who's a fairly core gamer I think that there's new fun when you can see that your real friends and family will participate in a game, and you'll even step backwards, maybe, and play a game you wouldn't have played, just because you finally got them in a game.

Q: You mentioned on stage about trying to build a network and trying to bring in games from other developers, and have as a platform. You also talked about transparency being important for you to confidently invest in a platform. Are you going to get to that point with, where you just lay the terms out there publicly like Apple does with the App Store, rather than negotiate one by one?

Mark Pincus: I think there's a lot of things we need for this industry to grow. I think we need reliable, persistent navigation that is totally controlled by users, like we have on mobile. I think we need valuable communications channels. I think we need rules for developers that are transparent and don't ever change, or if they do change it's for reasons that developers agree with and understand to help grow the market of social gaming. Zynga is a participant in that ecosystem.

I believe that, not just in gaming, but in consumer internet and consumer mobile, any large consumer service application has an opportunity to open up APIs and enable other third-parties to innovate on top of their audience and their infrastructure, and that's the path we're moving down. In order to bring those developers, and have the really good ones invest in your platform over time, you need to earn and maintain their trust by being open and transparent and consistent and reliable and they need to feel like it's a dial tone; it's something like a utility that won't ever change, or if it does it's because you believe you just made it a better dial tone.


Q:Like Amazon Web Services.

Mark Pincus: Yeah, we can see examples like AWS that have just done it beautifully from a developer standpoint. They've become part of the tech stack of the Internet. They are providing a really incredible valuable service that's giving leverage to thousands of developers, and we hope to provide a piece of that tech stack as well, and do it in a way that developers and companies feel like they can form ten-year relationships with us, that they can invest in this, see where it's going, and see what we're building together. We've always been a company that's about partnering. As a developer, we've tried to be the best, most valuable partner to Facebook, to Apple, to Google, to the Android carriers, and we hope to be the most valuable, reliable partner for any other developers if they publish with us, if they use API'ed services from us.

Look, I'm in this for the rest of my career. The same way you have been, and Bing has been, except I'm in social gaming instead of traditional gaming, and it's only been five years, but I want to build something, and I want to build these relationships with players, with developers, something that stands the test of time and is really important and valuable. I'm inspired by the way that Jeff Bezos has made that kind of reliable, consistent investment with Amazon, you feel it. There's just something that's so rock-solid about Amazon, from 360 degrees it's rock-solid. It's become a permanent part of the landscape. I would bet it's going to be there in ten years.

Q:It's become someplace people turn to automatically; when you need web service support, you call AWS.

Mark Pincus: Whether it's AWS, or it's as our bookstore and our e-commerce place. You feel it's as permanent as Wal-Mart; in some ways maybe more permanent. That's what we want to be. That's what I want for social gaming, and I want for Zynga. If you look at the whole evolution and history of our company it's been about driving for long-term sustainability and scalability.

Q: Does that represent a big change for you? Now as a public company with investors asking for quarterly results, and you've been focused on a long-term vision. That's a big change in the way you have to look at things. Were you happier being a private company and then, damnit, the SEC rules forced you to become a public company?

"It's OK to be a little misunderstood; but what's not OK is to change your strategy or your execution because you're worried about what your industry or investors are going to think of you in the short term"

Mark Pincus

Mark Pincus: I never really questioned whether we would go public, I just questioned when. I think that if you want to be a large, important company with a lot of employee shareholders and a diverse investor base, it's just inevitable you're going to be public. You do all you can to keep pointing toward your North Star - for us it's social - and you keep trying to point to the macro opportunities. You try to say to investors, "Decide if you believe in that long-term opportunity and then decide if you think that our strategy and our execution against that is good or bad." I think that's all we can hope for.

I think companies in new industries can be misunderstood for long periods of time. It's OK to be a little misunderstood; but what's not OK is to change your strategy or your execution because you're worried about what your industry or investors are going to think of you in the short term. I'm always inspired by how smart investors really are. When I talk to investors, the questions I get are whether we're investing enough in platform, whether we're investing enough in mobile, in advertising, and in these growth areas, not "are we optimizing the current opportunity fully." I'm a believer that the market rewards smart long-term investors, and the smart ones find their ways to the best opportunities. We hope that we attract those smart investors that see what we see.

Q:So you're trying to create a good long-term climate and not worry about the daily weather.

Mark Pincus: Yeah, and when we get a daily report card, at least on our daily active users, and it's a public report card, it's a new thing. It's not just being public; we've had this long before we went public. It potentially can be a constant distraction but the flip side of it is when you launch great new games and great new mechanics, and you move those numbers in big step-function ways like we have, that's also exciting.


Q: It's keeping score, and you get a high score. Look! New high score!

Mark Pincus: That's right, it turns your day job into a video game. It has immediate - not always gratification, but immediate results of your decisions, and you're on a long-term arc. That's probably why I'm so addicted and obsessed with Zynga, because it meets all my criteria for a great game.

Q: It's compelling, there are strategy elements, decorative elements... Moving on, advertising seems like a big opportunity for Zynga. The advantage of having a huge audience that you've managed to attract is that it should be very compelling for advertisers. You've had some successes like with State Farm, integrating advertising into the game seems to have been very successful in terms of user engagement. Do you think there's a comparable opportunity to search engine advertising, or do you think advertising has to be integrated into the game to be really successful?

Mark Pincus: I don't have one answer for you; I think there's multiple answers to this. I think we'll see a couple of trends continuing to play out in the next five years in social game advertising, which I think will be its own real business segment if it isn't already. One is the growth of the commodity ad business, getting more and more valuable, the display ads that are pay-per-click, I think just the sheer volume will continue to make that interesting, and I think game developers will always be some of the biggest buyers of those ads.

The second is higher value ads for brand advertisers, what we think of as engagement advertising. We think that has enormous potential to deliver great value to brands in ways that they haven't been able to unlock online before. The opportunity to let a brand like McDonald's or Best Buy or American Express start to integrate with your games and integrate with the game experience and sponsor part of the game experience, and even gamify parts of that experience, in ways that are repeatable and scalable, where you now have currencies and you can play with those currencies.

An example is putting a McDonald's in your city; it has greater payout than a regular burger joint, it has cooler looking art, and we can even give it more dimensions than that. It could connect you to everyone else who has a McDonald's in the game. It could become a social object. There are so many things that you could put in there that are scalable and repeatable but give the brand advertiser a way to drive measurable engagement. Not just engagement with their brand, but something that's actually measurable in a more meaningful way than just clicks, than just did I buy a search word and people clicked on 'burger joint' and McDonald's, what does it mean? They could actually get you to respond in more meaningful ways to their brand.

The third way that I'm really excited about is actually gamification of the ads themselves. I think, especially on mobile, the opportunity to make the ads fun and interactive and the chance to win things - it's just cool. From an end-user's standpoint, the same way that Google made ads interesting, I think we can do that by gamifying ads. Think about what you could do in Draw Something; imagine a Pepsi Challenge in the entire game today where everyone is drawing some Pepsi bottle, and they're going to announce winners, and we can take that Pepsi Draw Something Challenge across our whole network, not just Draw Something. So you could see a little Draw Something screen, and 'Take the Pepsi Challenge today' and draw a little bottle and it's like a scratch-off, you can immediately win something and enter this bigger contest. Or imagine Scramble as an ad; a Scramble ad interstitial anywhere on mobile, sponsored by AmEx or somebody, and they say 'Find these words.' I'm more intrigued by all of the low-hanging fruit that hasn't happened yet than what has happened.

"I'm really excited about gamification of the ads themselves"

Mark Pincus

Q: There's a lot of opportunity there.

Mark Pincus: The level of engagement is off the charts! Imagine the percent of people that will participate in an ad that's a game, when they're there to play games, versus an ad that is a click-through to whatever.

Q: I have to admit when I saw ChefVille I immediately thought, what if I could design my own restaurant as part of a chain, and see what kind of traffic I could get by changing the layout or the menu.

Mark Pincus: Yeah, I think what you're hitting on is what I'm excited about, these emergent ideas in uber-casual gaming, and the opportunity to let my mom play in a biz sim. The opportunity for my nephews or my mom to literally be running a virtual business - or a real business. My nephews told me if they could earn three dollars by playing a game, they would play it non-stop for two weeks. And they said, "Don't send me a check, send me an envelope with three cash dollars in the envelope." They were like, "That's the coolest thing we can imagine."


Q:Beats mowing lawns.

Mark Pincus: Right! They're already grinding away for nothing, so to actually get something out of it... It's like when my wife had her first blog, and she was so focused on having to publish every Sunday night, and finally I said "I'm just curious, what do you make on your blog?" and she said, "I get a check every month from Google for like three dollars."

Q:But it's a reward.

Mark Pincus: It was like a virtual game, it was like a biz sim. She went on to build One Kings Lane, which is making a lot more than three dollars, I should say.

Q: To me, the other big opportunity for Zynga is the percentage of your players who actually give you money is a very small percentage - that's the social game conundrum. The flip side of that is the opportunity that, even if you could make real small changes it could have a big impact on the bottom line. Is that something you see has good potential to change significantly?

"The next great startup is going to be because they invented a new reason for 4 percent of players to want to spend money"

Mark Pincus

Mark Pincus: Yes, and that's also why competition, and many more smart companies innovating against this is just so crucial to the growth of our industry. I really believe that the next great startup is going to be defined more because they invented a new reason for 4 percent of players to want to spend money in your game - and some of them to want to spend a hundred or two hundred dollars - than because they iterated on the bubble mechanic. We're working at that all the time. I feel like we've just scratched the surface.

I always like this focus group of one, and I use myself and I use other people who are life-long never-play gamers, non-gamers, and Michael Arrington from TechCrunch was a great one for me, because he was kind of skeptical of the industry for a while. Then CityVille brought him in, and he got it. Then in Empires & Allies he was really into it, and he told me he spent $550 on the game and he really got it. When you think about that - taking somebody who was skeptical about games in their life and all of a sudden they're in this place where they're spending not $2, but $550 dollars - that, to me, shows the power. Because there were some game mechanics, both social and game, that converted him, that hit a vein.

As an industry, as we get better at honing in on what those veins are that scratches his itch, I believe that behind him there's just millions of other people who could just as easily be playing Words With Friends for free as spending real money on things that they see value in an Empires & Allies game. That's why even though I know the future's uncertain - it always is - I'm optimistic about it, because we've connected the dots before.

Q:Because mobile and social games have such a short history, you can't predict what will happen. FarmVille's been going for three years now; who would have predicted that at the start?

Mark Pincus: Or our Poker game; our very first game is still the largest game on Facebook by DAUs. I think it's been frustrating for industry analysts and investors all along that there's levels of uncertainty in the market, but I feel like my job has been to continue to go after it in a big way despite the uncertainty and to be right - more often than I'm wrong!

Q: That's the opportunity; there's so much uncertainty, you can exploit it.

Mark Pincus: Every chapter in the last five years, lots of people have pointed out all of the uncertainty and all the reasons why it might not work. But I always like to challenge my teams to say, "What would it look like if everything went right?" Because we all spend so much time thinking about what wrong might look like, and we don't spend an equal amount of time or greater thinking about what right looks like.

Q: When I launched my publishing company long ago we spent lots of time thinking about all the negative scenarios, and we didn't think at all about what would happen if things went well. Then when we introduced our game and it was a hit, we had no idea of what to do.

Mark Pincus: Right! It really is true that most of us under-invest in the strategy around "what if everything goes right?" It's a constant mental battle to do it for all of us. You see all kinds of negative signals in the economy and everywhere around us that could lead you always to that place, but that's why I've always thought that the optimists are usually the most successful people, because someone's got to bet on the future.

The future's always uncertain, but you can pretty much know that something bigger is going to happen. Especially when these markets develop. I think we've proven that people want to play. I don't think we have to question anymore whether or not Michael Arrington, if there's a game for him, or my mom. That's why I'm optimistic, because I just think, OK, it's not easy to figure what the next game is that brings him in, but I know it's possible.

"I always like to challenge my teams to say, 'What would it look like if everything went right?'"

Mark Pincus

Q: Now you know you can scratch an ordinary person and find a gamer.

Mark Pincus: Yeah, and isn't that amazing? You guys, as the pioneers of this, might have always thought that was possible, but we're actually living that today. It must be amazing for you and Bing to see this as mainstream as TV now.

Q: It is; it's very different. At EA in the early days we wondered how we could get everybody buying our games, and now to some people it's "Oh my god, now everybody's buying our games! We didn't think about the consequences!" I think there is, among traditional gamers, some level of "These mobile and social games, they're terrible, I hate them!" "Why do you hate them, they're games?" "They're not the kind of games I like to play." Well, lots of other people are enjoying them.

Mark Pincus: I'll remind you, my last parting comment, that people were frustrated about the web too. They were frustrated at how bad the experience was compared to AOL and the desktop. But it lowered the barriers so everybody could do it, and it got better. It kept getting better. Today it's maybe still not quite as good as a desktop but it's so good and interactive that no one complains anymore.

Q:Nobody wants to go back to AOL's walled garden.

Mark Pincus: Right!

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Latest comments (15)

Thomas Dolby Project Manager / Lead Programmer, Ai Solve5 years ago
This felt more like PR than an interview to read through (I guess if there were going to be challenging questions he wouldn't have given the interview), but it does offer an interesting insight into what he thinks and where Zynga is going.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd5 years ago
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, this was another very easy ride.

Not a lot about how they're going to attract developers to their platform and nothing about cloning or the OMGPOP acquisition. But Zynga just invented advergaming, apparently.
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Didnt really feel like the other interviews. Guess its the nature of the advergaming company and product, it was never really going to break new gaming ground...

Maybe because it was hard to obtain a exclusive interview, but maybe all of it could be amalgamated into one part?
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Steve Nicholls Programmer 5 years ago
Very shoddy "interview" very pr. Each answer just ended up promoting something Zynga.

I want him to answer this.. Why is it acceptable for his company to basically clone other games almost pixel perfectly. He should be ashamed.
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Steve Peterson Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
If you expect a CEO to give you answers that don't put their company in a good light, you are bound to be disappointed by reading interviews. I think it's useful to see how the questions are answered, providing insight into the CEO's thinking. As for asking about "cloning other games almost pixel perfectly" I don't have any examples of that. Copying game designs and genres is certainly one of the areas I'd like to get to with my next interview, but that's also something that is universal among large publishers depending on how you define it. Every FPS is, in broad outline, the same game design as every other FPS. Where they differ is in the details. Social and mobile games have been seeing the issue more acutely because games can be built more swiftly, but on the other hand with free games the existence of a very similar game does not necessarily deny you a sale. It's a complex issue that I'd like to explore with Pincus, along with many other things I didn't get to.

My purpose in approaching the interview was not to promote or denigrate Zynga. I wanted to find out more about Pincus and Zynga and how they are approaching key issues, like the question of "peak Facebook" or the fact that such a small number of customers actually pays them anything, and what are they planning to do about that? Certainly any of these issues (and many others) could be explored in more depth, and I hope to get access to do just that in the near future.
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Thiago Vignoli Creative Director, Fan Studios5 years ago
A good interview Mark really have so much to talk. Is good see this point of view, good work Steve Peterson.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd5 years ago
If you expect a CEO to give you answers that don't put their company in a good light, you are bound to be disappointed by reading interviews.
How can we know if you don't ask the questions?
As for asking about "cloning other games almost pixel perfectly" I don't have any examples of that.
Then you're not looking hard enough: Cafe World, Dream Heights, The Ville. Hell, even FarmVille didn't exactly fall far from it's 'inspiration'.
Copying game designs and genres is certainly one of the areas I'd like to get to with my next interview, but that's also something that is universal among large publishers depending on how you define it.
A line of reasoning taken directly from a Zynga PR cribsheet.
Every FPS is, in broad outline, the same game design as every other FPS.
Then by all means show me two FPS as closely alike in every facet as Dream Heights and Tiny Tower. This is a completely absurd argument.
Social and mobile games have been seeing the issue more acutely because games can be built more swiftly, but on the other hand with free games the existence of a very similar game does not necessarily deny you a sale.
If only the market was a completely fair level playing field. There are many examples of large companies cloning the games of smaller rivals and marketing them heavily to attempt to stymie the growth of the original. Restaurant City/Cafe World. Radical Fishing/Ninja Fishing. Triple Town/Yeti Town.
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Steve Peterson Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
Those designs you cited, Robin, are far from "pixel-perfect" which was the point that had been made. As far as FPS games being alike, at E3 David Perry showed a screen with 18 different FPS still screens displayed on it, and noted that he couldn't tell which was which. Truly innovative games are hard to find. Zynga could certainly explain more about their views, but they've already been questioned on that and responded; I was looking for answers to things that hadn't been addressed, like the fact that Facebook appears to have peaked, Zynga's stock has been dropping, and why doesn't Zynga make more from advertising or convert more players to payers?
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation Ltd5 years ago
Those designs you cited, Robin, are far from "pixel-perfect" which was the point that had been made.
Fair enough, some hyperbole has crept in there. But they exist far over the line of simply "existing in the same genre". Cafe World (and most early Zynga games) had art, UI layout and even small details designed to directly mimic a specific original game from elsewhere (Restaurant City). Dream Heights is essentially identical in design to Tiny Tower, down to exact items and numbers.
As far as FPS games being alike, at E3 David Perry showed a screen with 18 different FPS still screens displayed on it, and noted that he couldn't tell which was which.
You've missed the point. FPS games used to be casually labelled 'Doom clones'. To 'clone' Doom to the degree that (for example) Dream Heights clones Tiny Tower, you would have to have identical level layouts, the same weapons with the same gameplay effects and enemies with the same amounts of health. You can't throw your hands up and say "well, innovation is hard!" when discussing conscious decisions to duplicate something that already exists.

Pointing out lots of modern FPS "look similar from screenshots" (meaning, have a real-world rifle in the bottom right corner of the screen) is like trying to argue that The Sex Pistols are a clone of The Beatles because they're both a bunch of English guys with guitars.

There's a vast difference between trying to directly copy something to divert the original creators' market and using established concepts as a jumping off point for original creative work. Obviously practitioners of the former have a vested interest in muddying the waters between the two.
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David Phan Producer, Relic Entertainment5 years ago
Though there isn't too much in the way of details, Mark Pincus was recently interviewed at a Fortune Brainstorm Tech Conference where they put him on the hot spot regarding all time low for Zynga stock price, impact on employee morale and the purchase of OMGPOP.

[link url=""][/link]
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
So much negativity.

Zynga have changed the game industry for the better, for ever.
You either respect their business innovations and learn from them or you are history.
They put the customer and the customer's experience at the centre of their business like nobody has done before. And they have reaped the rewards.
They have taken social gaming from an obscure backwater to centre stage.
They have taken game mechanics and polished them to perfection.

Obviously the people who can't or didn't do this don't like it. But the very simple facts are that the customers vote with their wallets. And the customers are always right.
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Matt Allmer Designer, Producer, Artist, Justastic Interactive5 years ago
I couldn't finish this article. If not for the name labels, I couldn't tell who who was the interviewer and who was the interviewee. This isn't journalism, it's carefully crafted bureaucracy. I grant you an interview, you make me look good. Your page views turns into ad revenue, my fabricated message appeals to the skeptics. For crying out loud, at least fabricate thoughtful answers to some challenging questions. This article re-enforces the bad reputation that games journalism has.

Pincus isn't the problem. He's a man who saw an opportunity and seized it. Demonizing business practices is fleeting and wasteful. The focus should be on how we now utilize such a vast audience. It's a freaking land grab and we as developers can do more now than we ever have before.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Matt Allmer on 19th July 2012 7:47am

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Terence Gage Freelance writer 5 years ago
Bruce: "Zynga have changed the game industry for the better, for ever."

You still after that job with them, huh?
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Gary LaRochelle Digital Artist / UI/UX Designer / Game Designer, Flea Ranch Games5 years ago
Sorry Bruce, I have to point out a few things...

"customers vote with their wallets"... less than 2% of Zynga game players spend money on Zynga games. Which means more than 98% of Zynga's customers don't think Zynga's games are worth paying for. Think of the money Zynga could make if they put out a game that all (or a large amount) of the people on Facebook actually thought was worth paying for.

Social gaming used to be called multi-player gaming (MMOs). It's nothing new. Zynga did take full advantage of micro-payments when that feature first became available. I'll give them that.

(personal opinion) What McDonald's did to dining and what reality TV has done to TV programing is what Zynga has done to gaming. Dumbed it down to the lowest common denominator. It makes money (and could make a lot more) but there is no quality.

Anyone interested in seeing how Zynga got started needs to read this article...

An interesting item in the first part of the article: Pincus praises TV shows like Breaking Bad and Lost. Why does he like them? Because they are innovative. But he runs his company in the completely opposite way: no innovation. Just "fast follow"/copy/clone other games that are doing well.
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Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 5 years ago
@Gary LaRochelle

Utter tosh. We will have to agree to disagree.
Zynga have innovated massively, which is why they are where they are.
There is far more to innovation in the business of gaming than being the next Minecraft.
Social gaming as we now know it and MMOs are different beasts with different business models.
You might find this article useful in understanding the FTP business model:
As for copying other games. Every game is derivative in some way. The sequels that dominate the console charts are far more fast follow"/copy/clone other games that are doing well than what Zynga do.
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