Former Zynga Employees Talk About Copying Games for Mark Pincus' 'Evil' Online Empire

Categories: Business, Tech
The latest SF Weekly cover story explores Zynga's culture of game-copying
Zynga's cutthroat business practices have long been a subject of speculation in the social-gaming industry. The company behind such hit Facebook applications as FarmVille and Mafia Wars has, in the words of a recent trademark-infringement lawsuit, "garnered a reputation for its predatory business and suspect marketing tactics."

But what's the real inside story on Zynga's alleged knack for making millions on re-branded copies of its rivals' games? We've learned that within company walls, the social-game developer's employees reportedly make no bones about trying to steal competitors' ideas. And we've learned it from the people who should know: the employees themselves.

In the latest SF Weekly cover story, multiple former employees of Zynga, speaking on condition that their names not be published so that they could discuss their work experiences candidly, tell us that studying and copying rivals' game concepts was business as usual. One senior employee who has since left the company describes a meeting where Zynga CEO and founder Mark Pincus said, "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."

Another former employee recalls a meeting where Zynga workers discussed a strategy for copying a gangster game, Mob Wars, and creating Zynga's own Mafia Wars application. "I was around meetings where things like that were being discussed, and the ramifications of things like that were being discussed -- the fact that they'd probably be sued by the people who designed the game," he says. "And the thought was, 'Well, that's fine, we'll settle.' Our case wasn't really defensible." (Mob Wars' creator, David Maestri, proprietor of Psycho Monkey, did sue Zynga for copyright infringement. The case was settled for an undisclosed amount.)

Zynga's smash hit, FarmVille
One former Zynga game designer says that the company's interns were instructed to do "recon" on competitors' games, isolating features that their higher-ups would try to copy. "They would sit and look at competitive products and write down all the features and make it obvious to us," the designer says. One contractor says he was offered freelance work from Zynga, related to mimicking a competitor's application, with explicit instructions: "Copy that game."

One of the more common complaints among former Zynga employees is about Pincus' distaste for original game design and indifference to his company's applications, 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'm all for games making money, I like to think there's some quality there."

Slashkey's Farm Town game, which preceded FarmVille
Pincus is a deeply controversial figure, and internal documents reveal that he's not just the subject of griping among his workers. A confidential memo produced for the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a major early Zynga investor, expressed reservations about Pincus' management style. "Mark needs strong lieutenants to keep him from micromanaging," stated the document, which was obtained by SF Weekly.

The former senior employee who says he was present for Pincus' "No Innovation" speech jokingly sums up Zynga's corporate ethos as an inversion of Google's famous "Don't Be Evil" motto. "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."

For the full inside story on the controversial business practices that drove Zynga's phenomenal rise, read our cover story.

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