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Pincus: For new mobile devs, it's organic growth or bust

At Slush, Zynga founder Mark Pincus advised mobile startups to set a "high bar" for organic growth before investing in advertising and UA

The casual gaming market has changed since the early days of Zynga, but founder Mark Pincus would advise any new developer to aim for the same kind of organic growth that first started his company's meteoric rise.

When they first launched at the end of the last decade, games like Zynga Poker and Farmville reached millions of daily active users with almost no money spent on marketing. Today, the amounts invested in user acquisition are so high that most developers struggle to gain a foothold next to the vast spending power of the biggest mobile companies.

In a Q&A session at the Slush conference in Helsinki, Finland, Pincus told that, while the current market conditions are far tougher than those Zynga faced, if he started again today he would look for the same organic growth before committing resources to UA.

"If I can't get to organic, I'm not doing it"

"If I were starting a gaming app or company today I would hold myself to a high bar of, 'If I can't get to organic, I'm not doing it.' If I can't get something good enough that it spreads some other way than ads, then it's a B+."

Earlier in the same session, Pincus categorised a B+ as "the enemy" of both an A and an F, either of which would indicate the kind of innovation and risk-taking that the mobile games market now demands. It is easy to pursue an idea that is only "pretty good", he said, and to find "positive feedback loops" to justify pushing forward.

"It takes up space, and you have to be ready to kill that idea to make space," he said. "Sometimes there's a power in admitting, y'know what, I don't have any good ideas right now. We all feel this need to be pursuing something, but you get booked up doing that - that's on my mind a lot as a product maker.

"We fall in love with our own ideas, and it's really hard to have this third-person perspective and say, 'I thought this would be the coolest thing, but now I've built it and it's just not that great'."

For a smaller mobile game developer, UA can obfuscate the true worth of a product, and the audience gained through that method may quickly disappear when the money runs out. In Pincus' view, if a mobile game can't grow to a significant level organically, the market may now be too crowded and unforgiving to justify any other approach.

"The original vision that we had for social gaming, it doesn't feel like anyone - including us - has delivered on it"

However, Zynga's chairman also said that there is some blue ocean left for mobile game developers to explore; specifically in social gaming, which he believes is still ripe with potential.

"The original vision that we had for social gaming, it doesn't feel like anyone - including us - has delivered that much on it," he continued. "We thought that gaming could be this medium for people to be social, to express themselves, to be really found and seen. It offered so many more dimensions than you get on Facebook with a 'like' or just posting a photo.

"Games offer this chance to take on a different role; there's a chance to be altruistic or heroic. I feel that, other than in very hardcore games like World of Warcraft, I don't feel that is available and accessible to consumers.

"I feel that is wide open. Minecraft touched on it, but I feel that's still completely available."

With mobile as the obvious platform for a more meaningful form of social gaming, Pincus suggested that an impediment to achieving it lies in the way the ecosystem is dominated by a small handful of huge, increasingly lethargic platforms.

"Facebook and Myspace in 2007 were this amazing ecosystem that let us really move quickly, and not waste time in getting our audiences by building software," he said. "I feel like we need that today. It feels like we're kinda stuck in cement. It feels really slow and high friction to me.

"I want a way to have an idea and then, within a week or two, turn your idea into something that's in front of real people. Not in a year, not after rounds of venture financing. Somehow it feels like we've gone backwards on that."

"If we want to innovate, we have to go and build our own network, our own software...and that's a lot of fucking work"

According to Pincus, Zynga is now working a lot more on HTML games, which could help get around the escalating problems around acquiring audiences on mobile. It now has games on Facebook Messenger that get 100,000 organic installs a day, which is "back to where we were a long time ago." However, the platform is still owned and controlled by Facebook, which - like all owned platforms - limits the degree to which developers can pursue innovative ideas, and how far those innovative ideas can spread.

"I feel like the amount and the pace of innovation in social has come to a complete halt," he said. "In a similar way to how we were at one point with AOL. We were all waiting for AOL to do something and if they didn't do it then nothing was going to happen.

"I think it should be easier [to connect with people]... I have friends and people who might be around me, but if I'm waiting for Facebook to offer its nearby thing or something it doesn't happen. In a way, as a result, we're kinda back to being alone and less connected.

"There's a lot of effort we have to put in to connecting, and there's not a lot of intelligence in the system. If we want to innovate, we have to go and build our own network, our own software...and that's a lot of fucking work just to want to do this one thing."

Pincus expressed an interest in "open source" social platforms for mobile, which would allow everyone to "participate in the ecosystem" and create business plans that do not turn on the whims of a single company - an idea that Simogo touched upon this week when it announced it was giving up on mobile in favour of console. An open social platform for mobile, he said, would mean, "our efforts are having network effects, which are helping all of us with each new effort."

"I really want to see that, and once we have that it's going to be so much better for all of us... I want to see that moment on mobile, where we say Facebook is amazing, Snapchat and Google are amazing, but they're not the whole mobile ecosystem experience. We ought to have something that we all participate in, and that any of us can add an innovation to."

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Matthew Handrahan avatar
Matthew Handrahan: Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.
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