Around this week last year, more than a half-dozen clowns invaded Zynga headquarters in San Francisco, and began terrorizing some of its employees. This wasn’t research for some carnival game the company was working on; no, a herd of clowns—in full makeup, red- and green-haired, the ones who haunt children’s dreams—had swarmed the social-game developer’s offices, and, by some accounts, made employee lives miserable, for days on end.
“He means well, but just doesn’t realize the downstream effects of his decisions.”
Another former developer lead agrees with the assessment. “It’s almost a mechanistic thing like, ‘Morale is low, so let’s do something that makes people happy.’
It was very typical of Zynga to address the symptoms rather than the root causes.”
Zynga, a publicly traded company, is trying to prove it spent hundreds of millions of dollars on more than just a blank piece of paper and a few digital crayons. Yesterday, the company’s advertising platform for Draw Something was unveiled for the first time—and, if not handled with some finesse, it’s a great potential example of forced brand interaction.
Advertisers now have the option to purchase drawing terms related to their brands. When a user opens Draw Something, the game gives three options to choose from—say, tennis, pancake, or snowball—which players then doodle for a friend, who in turn has to guess what that user has drawn. Soon, however, users will start to see brands among the fun options typically available—imagine trying to draw Hewlett-Packard or Toyota—which could quickly turn the game into a mobile version of Brand Tags. The NHL is one of the earliest advertisers on the platform, hoping to promote the Stanley Cup playoffs. But not all brands are as player-friendly as the hockey league.
Photo Issue 2011: Mark Pincus, Zynga’s founder and CEO, leads visitors through the San Francisco company’s colorful, dog-friendly Potrero Hill headquarters at a brisk trot, showing off the huddles of engineers and designers who self-assemble into the “studios” that run Zynga’s insanely popular online games.
Pincus and Zynga’s aggressive embrace of lightweight and addictive social gaming has turned the company into a leviathan of fun, attracting 300 million people a month to play its titles. Known as “casual games,” they are colorful alternate universes in which people, and their friends, raise avatar families in FrontierVille and crops in FarmVille. Those users spend real money to buy virtual goods to fill their imaginary places, stuffing the company’s real-world coffers to the tune of an estimated $500 million in 2010. In late December, one month after it debuted, City-Ville (thinkSimCity with a Garanimals vibe) became Zynga’s most popular game, with 84.2 million active monthly users, according to market analyst AppData. It is the fastest-growing app and social game on Facebook. Moreover, it is the fastest-growing game in history.
It is also a validation of Pincus’s exceptional entrepreneurial vision, one that few people saw coming. In 2006, when he and his cofounders developed the concept for an asynchronous online game you could play with your real-world friends, the idea was exotic and untested. And the distribution plan — hitch a ride on the backs of the still-evolving Facebook and MySpace — seemed equally risky. “Mark went up and down Sand Hill Road and didn’t get the deal he wanted,” recalls Fred Wilson, the New York — based venture capitalist who has invested in and with Pincus since 1995, including an early-stage stake in Zynga. “He said, ‘They all tell me that I have no expertise in gaming.’ “
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