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Zynga on Reddit: Unfiltered answers from employees

Two Zynga Mobile designers answered some hard questions

Zynga has been pounded in the past by critics for copying games, mistreating employees on stock options, and lately for their falling stock price. Responses were muted in the period before Zynga's IPO last year, because the SEC strictly regulates what a company can say in the time before it goes public. Now, however, that restriction is gone, and some of Zynga's employees are tired of taking flak without being able to fire back. Today two of Zynga Mobile's designer's took to social news site Reddit for an AMA - Ask Me Anything.

Here's how the talk began: "Andrew [YAYitsAndrew on Reddit] and I [Seth, ycoseth on Reddit] are current Zynga Mobile designers, here to answer your questions! There's never been an AMA from current Zynga employees, we pay close attention to what's being said about Zynga, and as redditors, gamers, and designers we really wanted to make ourselves available to answer any questions about our experiences here! So ask us anything!"

The format is wide open, and it's not one where a company can control the message. Zynga took some risks in allowing these designers to chat freely about working at Zynga, but few restrictions were placed on the chat according to Andrew: "We went to the company with the idea and asked for their permission to do it. For full disclosure we told them about AMA's and how they're different from regular interviews because redditors demand authenticity, and they thought it was a great idea! We have some basic parameters like we can't talk about revenues or unannounced titles, and for some reason I'm not allowed to tell you about the gigantic planet-sized space station we're building in earth's orbit."

"Pretty much everyone with their head on straight at Zynga acknowledges the Zynga hate"

Highlights of the talk follow. Another apparent Zynga employee, zynga_throw1, jumped in as well to answer questions.

Fallschirmjager asked:In all serious[ness], do you acknowledge the hatred towards Zynga? Do you agree/disagree/ignore it? Do you think it's completely blown out of proportion?

zynga_throw1 I'm a Zynga employee, not one of the OPs (i don't even know them, it's a big company) but since they appear to be mute for now I'll answer some of the less troll-baity ones.

Yes, pretty much everyone with their head on straight at Zynga acknowledges the Zynga hate. many of us including myself are hardcore gamers, and we see all the feedback ranging from the bandwagoners to the grounded criticisms.

Some people ignore it, but most of the execs and well-adjusted people don't ignore it. trust me, there's no hypnotic Kool-aid that Mark Pincus hands out that makes us all believe in some crazy thing.

Here's my take on it: yes, Zynga definitely did some really shady shit in its earlier days. the really bad stuff has stopped since probably 1.5-2 years ago. the worst thing we do is (imo) let some of the smaller studios do straight ripoffs of other games. you have to understand that there are a LOT of teams inside zynga, some ranging from 100+ employees (Farmville, Cityville, some other big ones) to some very very small teams of like 10 people (a lot of mobile game teams fall into this category). depending on the producers or people in charge of the team, they might feel the need to just do straight up ripoffs instead of taking risks.

BUT, most importantly, the unrest among Zynga employees about the blatant ripoffs and rushed release of buggy games is at an all-time high, and this includes our execs. there's an earnest effort being made by lots of people to fix our existing games and make better new ones.

YAYitsAndrew: I'm definitely aware of the perceptions, and that's why I wanted to do this AMA. What people think of us is not the same as the Zynga I go to every day and I think that by talking to me you can get a glimpse of what it's really like to work here.

ycoseth: We certainly know about it, I read Kotaku every day so you can't miss it, how much you believe it varies from person to person. Personally, I've been playing F2P games since long before I played a Zynga game or worked here, so I don't have a problem with the business model. I prefer F2P games pretty much across the board to box model games.

Stated above, I disagree with it. I don't agree with the Zynga execs on every single little issue, but who at any job is 100% in lockstep with all of their boss's boss's boss? Overall though I think critics of Zynga are generally reacting to a changing industry. Gaming is changing by two major forces: F2P and 'Casual' gaming, Zynga is the biggest company that happens to have its foot in both revolutions so it's an easy target for people who don't want to accept it as 'legitimate'.

Z employee: As game designers, how are you guys not bored out of your minds at a company like Zynga?

YAYitsAndrew: What's interesting and non-intuitive is that some of the biggest and most interesting design problems are here at Zynga. Socials games are totally uncharted territory and we're the original cartographers. How do you create a game that is interesting for more than a year and can be played by people at all different levels of commitment and engagement? How do you make multiplayer mechanics that are asynchronous and can ask for your attention at any point in the day but the player is still excited when they get a notification that it's their turn? I wrestle with problems like that as my full time job. It's a dream.

"I think critics of Zynga are generally reacting to a changing industry"


ycoseth noted: The idea that all the ideas come from the top down is a misconception. Zynga Boston pitched Adventure World themselves, and got to make it. Zynga LA was a strategy game studio so they wanted to make (and did!) Empires and Allies, our first game with combat. Zynga with Friends in Texas is entirely their own IP, working on up to 5 ideas at a time and then focusing on whatever their studio is excited about the most.

We recently started Pitch Nights, where anyone can pitch ideas. Andrew and I pitched a game together at the first night and won the Audience Award, and those pitches are going through a greenlight process as we speak. Mobile has its own Pitch Nights for mobile ideas, and the winner of the last one is getting their idea made too.

Fallschirmjager asked: How do you feel about the design principles with F2P/microtransaction games that specifically target people with gambling addictions? (i.e. "it's only another 99 cents" logic, profiting off impatience, etc.) Is any work being done trying to come up with a less 'evil' way of making money, or is the proven success too much of a succubus to pass up?

ycoseth: This question pre-supposes that F2P is inherently bad, let me provide a counter argument: When I download a F2P game, I get to, if nothing else, try out that game for some period of time to see if I like the core mechanics. Cheaper than renting a game, and less of a commitment than something like GameFly. It's because of F2P games I was able to find an FPS I liked (Super MNC), how many $60 games would I have to buy before I found one that clicked with me?

I know I've bought $60 games, played them for a little bit and then it's done. I've been, as a kid, in positions where my friends all bought a box game I was too poor to afford it, thus leaving me out while my friends played the new hotness. That simply doesn't happen when my little brother and his friends play LoL [League of Legends]: the kid who wants to spend a ton of money can, the guy who doesn't want to doesn't, and it's very egalitarian.

Also, the gaming media tends to look at F2P through the lens of an upper-middle class person with a fair amount of disposable income. Some of Zynga's bigger markets are in places that are relatively low income (Middle East, South Asia, etc) where gaming is hard to access in the first place, and expensive if you can find it. Zynga (and other F2P games) are offering AAA gaming to these markets on the model that whales will subsidize free players and that's great.

The notion that F2P is 'evil' is silly, especially given how many other markets work like this. When you want to be an artist, do you go to Michael's and ask for the Artist Special? It's $200, includes a spread of paints, brushes, canvases, markers, oils, etc. Oh, you don't? You mean you just go and buy piece-by-piece the stuff you want or need when you want or need it? That's F2P gaming.

"The notion that F2P is 'evil' is silly, especially given how many other markets work like this"


Jisbee76 asked: What kind of game designer culture are you trying to build at Zynga? What can the world expect from you?

ycoseth: Actually, that was my biggest surprise when arriving here was how tight-knit the designer community is, I haven't heard of anything like it where my friends in the industry work. We have a Skype chat of all the game designers, over 150 of them, including some people I hugely respect, like:

Jon-Paul Dumont (longtime Z veteran and very smart social games futurist); Shawn Carnes (LoL, WoW, and MTG); Wright Bagwell (Dead Space); Brian Tinsman (Lead Designer on MTG); Justin Cooper, who is so shy I almost didn't list him (EA,

I can't list them all but there are tons of great folks from all over and they'll answer your designer questions at the drop of a hat. We have weekly design meetings in Mobile, bi-weekly company-wide presentations about design, monthly catch-ups with the Chief Creative Officer, etc. The design culture is something Zynga began investing in around a year ago and it's very robust and seriously the best part of my day.

Long term, Zynga is trying to become synonmous with Play like Google = Search and Facebook = Sharing and Amazon = Shopping. The biggest, most accessible, and best service for gaming on the largest scale. I buy into that mission, that's why I'm here.

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Steve Peterson avatar
Steve Peterson: Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.
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