Zynga, the social gaming juggernaut whose games are played by over 50 million people a day, may well be the most reviled big company to emerge from the frothy whirlpool of money, ego and talent that’s opened up in Silicon Valley over the last few years. Its much-talked-about $200 million acquisition of Draw Something creator OMGPop was a defining moment, one that crystallized for many the sense that we were in the middle of another tech bubble. As Draw Something’s user numbers fell, Zynga and its ability to create hit games became subject to a whole new level of scrutiny.
If there seems to be a sense of glee in the media’s rush to cover Zynga’s every misstep on the way to its potential collapse, that’s because there is. There doesn’t seem to be a company more universally loathed — except maybe Groupon, another poster child for Silicon Valley excess, widely regarded as essentially a scam. So people have been eagerly awaiting the unfolding story of the company’s financial problems: It’s taking an $85 million to $95 million writedown on its purchase of OMGPop. It cut its outlook for the year a second time and its stock is currently at $2.45, down from a high of $14.50 after an IPO price of $10 in December. Analysts are raising questions about whether it can make the transition from being totally dependent on Facebook to producing hit mobile games, which is where everybody — including Zynga — thinks it needs to be next.
Data from various news reports
Zynga has had a particular zeal for buying talent and intellectual property, swallowing around a dozen companies in the year or so before it bought OMGPop. While its corporate culture has an increasingly dismal reputation, a former employee of a studio that had been acquired by Zynga told me that “the staff was happy with how the acquisition went.” In fact, he said, “I would say that up until about a year after the acquisition, the studio ran more or less the same way it always had, except for growing much faster.” No rampant demotions, as has been reported elsewhere.
The bigger problem, as this former employee explained, was that the company couldn’t figure out how to create another hit game. When the studio was tasked with developing a game that’s now one of Zynga’s top 10 biggest properties, “a lot of management was brought in from San Francisco, and there were a lot of chiefs trying to figure out how to make [the game] a hit. As you can see from the DAU [Daily Active User] figures, they didn’t succeed at that.” He added that it “took nearly 18 months to launch one game, and it’s clearly a failure. Not an OMGPop-level mistake, but they’ve spent a lot of money and the return does not look good.”
A look at how some of Zynga’s acquired properties have done over the last year reveals a similar pattern: The popularity of a game tends to plummet after its creator is acquired by Zynga, and the games created by studios acquired by Zynga have failed to be lasting megahits. AppData provided BuzzFeed with user data from four of Zynga’s games, stretching as far back as its data allows for Draw Something, Hanging With Friends, Hidden Chronicles and Indiana Jones - Adventure World.
Draw Something was created by OMGPop, which Zynga purchased in March; Hanging With Friends was a post-acquisition production of the team that made Words With Friends; Indiana Jones was produced by Zynga Boston, which was created after Zynga acquired Floodgate and Conduit Labs; and Hidden Chronicles was Zynga’s first major post-IPO game. (One note: the data from Hanging With Friends and Draw Something only includes users who log in to the app with Facebook because of the way AppData collects data, but the overall user trend is on point.)
Of course, all games experience dropoff after a certain point. What we wanted to see with this data is what happens to games that have been or are produced by studios that have been acquired by Zynga. None of them have been able to produce and maintain the kind of numbers Zynga saw with its early breakouts like Farmville — a game launched in 2009 that still has 18 million monthly active users, according to AppData. The Ville, its biggest game developed primarily by an acquired studio, Challenge Games, currently has just over 21 million users. Farmville, at its peak, had 84 million monthly active users. Its three biggest games, Texas Holdem Poker (a classic), ChefVille (an update of sorts of an earlier Zynga game, Cafe World) and FarmVille 2 (a sequel) all have fewer than 40 million monthly active users according to AppData. Zynga did not respond to our request for comment about its acquisition strategies.
On the bright side, of its top 5 games, four are titles that have been launched in the last year. And Zynga is still, by far, the biggest developer on Facebook, with nearly 330 million monthly active users — over 5x the number of the next most popular developer, Microsoft.
The way Zynga creates games — and why so many technology and gaming writers loathe it — is crucial to the story of whether or not Zynga will collapse. It has a long history of pulling from other titles — or creative bankruptcy, as it’s been put. There’s a now-infamous quote from CEO Mark Pincus to his staff, reported by SF Weekly: “I don’t fucking want innovation… You’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.” To wit, Zynga’s mega-hit FarmVille came from Farm Town (and the source code might’ve come from elsewhere); Dream Heights copies iPhone Game of the Year Tiny Tower; Hidden Chronicles is a clone of Gardens of Time; Chefville pulls from Restaurant City; Mafia Wars rips Mob Wars; The Ville is a riff on The Sims Social; and so on. Zynga’s been sued by EA as a result.
Which explains much of the intense loathing for a company that pulls in hundreds of millions dollars a quarter, and was once hailed as a killer company. Zynga has become known mostly for doing assholish things, and has, until very recently, been wildly successful precisely because it was doing those things. There’s also a general feeling that Zynga, for all the money it made, never created anything of value. That not only did it fail to create anything deeply original, that what it made inherently lacked value — most of its games were designed to do nothing more than steal its users’ time, money and attention without giving them anything in return. No story, no skills, no real sense of accomplishment. And those games, sometimes a little too closely “inspired” by the work of others, were built on the back of something else Zynga didn’t create — literal timewasters built on top of another timewaster, Facebook.
More recently the focus has been on the bad blood surrounding Zynga’s stock and its top executives. Things like Pincus, a dot-com veteran whose previous ventures include Support.com and the early social network Tribe.net, allegedly forcing some employees to give back stock last November before its IPO, even as he offloaded $190 million worth. There’s a lawsuit over insider trading. So it’s not surprising that some employees have been venting on Quora about how they’ve gotten screwed in the process.
So if Zynga’s lack of fresh hits, and the dearth of “whales” that spend big money playing those hits actually does kill the company, will anybody mourn it? On the outside, people talk about Zynga like the whole thing has been a big trick. And when Pincus walked away with kajillions of dollars, he hadn’t merely tricked his users, he had tricked the whole world. The thing is, if Zynga does die, taking the jobs of thousands with it, not only will the revelers outnumber the mourners, but Pincus has already won, even if everybody else loses.