An article in this week's SF Weekly asks the burning question: is Farmville's Zynga merely evil, or a black hole of vile darkness from which no ethics can escape?
In light of Zynga's phenomenal rise, one former senior employee recalls arriving at the company eager to discover what new business practices were driving its success in a market where other popular Web 2.0 ventures struggled to make money. What was Zynga's secret? Not long after starting work, he got an answer. It came directly from Zynga founder and CEO Mark Pincus at a meeting. And it wasn't what he expected.
"I don't f**king want innovation," the ex-employee recalls Pincus saying. "You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."
Workers at Zynga were fond of joking (albeit half-seriously) that their firm's unofficial motto was an inversion of Google's famous "Don't Be Evil."
"Zynga's motto is 'Do Evil,'" he says. "I would venture to say it is one of the most evil places I've run into, from a culture perspective and in its business approach. I've tried my best to make sure that friends don't let friends work at Zynga."
"We've never before seen this kind of deliberate unconcern for the aesthetics of the experience," says Ian Bogost, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology and founding partner of Persuasive Games. He says Zynga's market-driven approach to the development of simple but addictive applications is "like strip-mining. They don't really care about the longevity of the form or the experience. ... That sort of attitude is the sort of thing you usually hear about from oil companies or pharmaceuticals. You don't really hear about it in arts and entertainment."
One of the more common complaints among former Zynga employees is about Pincus' distaste for original game design and indifference to his company's products, beyond their ability to make money. "The biggest problem I had with him was that he didn't know or care about the games being good — the bottom line was the only concern," a former game designer says. "While I am all for games making money, I like to think there's some quality there."
Note to Mr. Pincus: at least no one said anything about your dog.
By setting up a non-refundable, bank-to-bank transfer program, as documented in the Zynga email we obtained and have reproduced below, the company can avoid giving a cut of the revenue to credit card companies and processors. More importantly, the program allows gaming addicts to feed their addictions more conveniently; on Facebook Zynga's game stores can top out at $50 or $200 in virtual credit at a time, effectively turning away the company's best customers.
Just as a note: if you spend $500 on Farmville, you might have a problem.