Welcome To Zynga, Where The Numbers Never Lie

Welcome To Zynga, Where The Numbers Never Lie

Through its rise, crash, and subsequent scramble for relevance, social gaming behemoth Zynga remains one of the most intriguing and infuriating companies in tech. Yesterday its high profile CEO, Don Mattrick, resigned. But just one week before, in one of the strangest interviews I’ve been a part of, I spoke to Mark Skaggs, a Senior Vice President at Zynga. Where to now for the most notorious development studio in gaming? It’s almost impossible to tell.

Zynga: the company that transformed your social media into a battleground.

The company that launched a thousand ships. The company that practically invented social gaming. The company that went public with a company valuation of $10 billion.

In February 2012 Zynga’s stock was valued at $14.69. In November of that same year it was $2.12. Catastrophic. What happened?

“Really, we got a little bit arrogant.”

That’s Mark Skaggs, he’s the Senior Vice President of Games at Zynga. When he arrived at the company its most popular game was Mafia Wars with 500,000 active users. On MySpace. Skaggs would go on to help Zynga create its next most popular game – Farmville. At its peak. 350 million people were playing.

I’m currently sitting in front of what Skaggs is calling his “labour of love”; an RTS game for mobile devices called Empires & Allies. I don’t know it yet, but I’m about to embark on one of the strangest interviews of my life.

Empires & Allies. It’s an RTS. An RTS made by people who know how to make RTS games. As far as I know it’s an extremely competent RTS. Mark Skaggs and Cameron McNeil, the game’s principal designer, talk a good game. They have years of experience in this arena. I have literally no reason to suspect that Empires & Allies is anything less than a well-made, sophisticated RTS game. Yet as the demo continues and Mark talks his way through his labour of love, a voice in my head:

“No-one cares about an RTS game made by Zynga.”

“No-one wants to read about an RTS game made by Zynga.”

“Kotaku readers hate Zynga. They hate everything about Zynga.”

An awkward pressure builds in my sternum. Mark and Cameron continue to talk. I try to listen. The voices reverberate around my skull.

This wasn’t supposed to be a demo, it was supposed to be an interview. Zynga’s Empires & Allies is in the midst of a soft launch, releasing in a handful of territories before launching ‘for real’ on a global scale. One of the regions earmarked for that soft launch was Australia. That seemed like an interesting enough angle, compounded by the fact the afore-mentioned Cameron McNeil, Empire & Allies’ Principle Game Designer, was Australian.

But something was lost in translation. Five minutes into the interview it was clear to me that both Mark and Cameron were here to ‘talk about the game’. They were here to talk about the intricacies of the Empire & Allies’ mechanics, its history, how it came to be. Quite rightly and fairly they wanted to talk about the thing they had just created, their “labour of love”. The passion with which they talked about this product made things even more difficult. My inner monologue increased in volume. I couldn’t hear a single word.

“No-one cares about an RTS game made by Zynga.”

“No-one wants to read about an RTS game made by Zynga.”

“Kotaku readers hate Zynga. They hate everything about Zynga. Stop this. Stop this right now”

I stayed silent for 10 whole minutes. My ribcage fit to burst. I couldn’t take it.

“I don’t think this is going to work.”

Those words I said out loud. For the first time in my eight years of covering video games I stopped a video game demo before it ended.

I tried to explain as clearly and honestly as possible. I can’t do this. Zynga has a toxic reputation with a certain type of gamer: the type of gamer who lives and breathes gaming culture. The type of gamer – in short – that reads Kotaku. If I write the standard ‘video game preview’ you want me to write, I explain, my readers are going to crucify me. They will crucify you.

I say these words in the most polite way possible, but there really is no sugar-coating it: Kotaku readers hate Zynga. They hate Zynga. In my naiveté I thought this might be news to them.

But they know. Of course they know.

I am astonished by how calmly Mark takes my feedback. He is not angry, he isn’t even curious. He knows. Of course he knows. I tell Mark I was expecting an interview. I tell him I was hoping to talk about Zynga as a company, how it responded to the dramatic downturn of social gaming on Facebook. The story of the video game company that had it all. The billion dollar company that collapsed under the weight of its own hubris and staggered on long enough to tell the tale. As good as Empire & Allies may or may not be, I tell him, that’s what I want to talk about.

“We can talk about that right now,” he says. The tone is almost friendly, jovial even. “I was front and centre.”

July 1, 2013. Mark Pincus announces that Don Mattrick — once President of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business and for all intents and purposes the face of the Xbox division – is the new CEO of Zynga. The Pincus reasoning: Don Mattrick could help reinvigorate the business and “return Zynga to its leadership role in inventing and growing “play as a core human experience.”

Play as a “core human experience”.

Mark Skaggs talk in far less abstract terms.

“We brought in Don because his experience with game making, with entertainment making, with digital content,” he explains.

“When Don showed up it was a change in philosophy.”

Then, yesterday morning, six days after my interview, Don Mattrick resigned from his position of CEO at Zynga. Two months ago Zynga posted a $226 million loss. Mattrick had called it a “year of progress”.

“I am proud of the progress we have made together.” That’s what Mattrick said in his final statement as CEO of Zynga.

According to Skaggs, that progress was mobile focused, about transitioning the company into that space in a meaningful way. Don Mattrick’s arrival brought transformed the culture of Zynga. His words: Don Mattrick changed the orientation of Zynga dramatically.

Zynga has always taken pride in the hard science of metrics. That pinpoint awareness of what the userbase is doing at all times: how it’s sharing, what it’s engaging with. That’s the not-so-secret recipe for Zynga’s success. Mattrick’s job and his mission statement was to combine that set of skills with a move into mobile, a move that Zynga had failed to spot on the horizon during that pivotal moment in their history — most likely blind-sided by all the money they were making.

Mattrick’s goal, it seems, was relatively simple: help Zynga make mobile games. Help Zynga make good mobile games. Teach a company obsessed with the science of metrics to start caring about the art of making video games.

Mark Skaggs’ history is an interesting one. Once upon a time he made major AAA video games. He made Command & Conquer. He watched as development times increased, as production costs skyrocketed. He watched and grew disillusioned with what he calls the “dice roll”. That massive gamble on a product he spent two to three years of his life making: “50 million dollars at this single roll of the dice and if you’re lucky your product stays on shelves. That’s not something I wanted to spend my time doing.”

At Zynga the numbers never lie. With Zynga the success of a video game could be predicted down to a fine science and — crucially — you could make more of them.

“I came to Zynga during the social game era and you could make a couple of games a year. If that game did well, like Farmville, it could last a couple of years.”

But perhaps Zynga placed too much importance on those numbers. Maybe something was lost in the process. Maybe Zynga couldn’t raise their heads from those numbers long enough to see the behemoth lingering in the distance: that massive Farmville audience was in the process of evolving — to mobile, to video games with higher production values.

Skaggs saw this occur in real time. And when Don Mattrick arrived with the intention of turning Zynga in that direction, Skaggs believed he was homeward bound, to a history he had abandoned. To a compromise he now longed for. Zynga would no longer operate solely based on the numbers, but it wouldn’t be making Assassin’s Creed either. Zynga would still be doing what Zynga does best, but the games would resemble games as Skaggs once understood them.

“When Don came and started the transition,” he says, “it kinda felt like going home.”

Home was video games, smaller in scope. Fun video games with simple mechanics. “But now you’re doing it on mobile and now you’re doing it with metrics,” adds Mark.

That’s what Empires & Allies represents, that’s why it’s a labour of love. To someone like Mark, with his history, it represents the compromise he’s been searching for all his professional life. He’s making the video games he wants to make alongside the safety net of metrics.

I ask Mark frankly, is this going to work? How can it possibly work? Empires & Allies is a core-styled RTS. It’s aimed at an audience that hates Zynga and everything Zynga stands for.

Do you honestly think this is going to work? I ask.

“Yes. Let me tell you why.

“We soft launched in Australia, and being a metrics driven company we know all the key performance indicators. Part of the soft launch process is testing how players around the world are playing the game, how long they’re playing the game, how they monetize in the game and those numbers look great.”

The numbers look great. The numbers never lie.

Mark says some interesting things. He says that gamers don’t care where games are made and who makes them. They only care about the games themselves. He’s worked at multiple different companies with varying types of brand awareness — positive, negative, non-existent. In Mark’s experience people go to the game.

“If people don’t want to play this game because Zynga made it, they’re missing out.”

Then Mark says something that surprises me.

“When people look at this game they’re gonna say, ‘this doesn’t feel like Farmville at all.’”

There is an overwhelming irony at play; the sense that Zynga is desperate to escape it’s own legacy, yet cannot help but embrace it. Mark Skaggs remains committed to the idea of metrics based game development, but his willingness to accept Zynga’s past mistakes is bewildering; the humility is endearing. “It’s humbling to go through a transition,” explains Mark. “If you can’t admit that you made a mistake then you’re just going to keep making them and you can’t progress.”

But now Don Mattrick is gone and very little of what was said makes any sense. Mark Pincus is once again steering the good ship Zynga: out with the new and in with the old. What does that mean for the compromise Skaggs values so much? What does that mean for the Zynga Don Mattrick tried to build? Yesterday, Michael Pachter tweeted the following: “I am sad Don Mattrick is leaving Zynga before the fruits of his labor are apparent. I think the company is on the right track.”

Perhaps we’ll never know.

Perhaps nothing will change. Perhaps nothing had changed. When I first heard news of Don Mattrick’s departure my first instinct was to follow up with a new interview. Mark Skaggs spent so much time together preaching the merits of Don Mattrick and his ability to transition Zynga into what was openly being called ‘Zynga 2.0’, a place where the art of games were given its due diligence. Sadly a second interview, we were told, was not possible at this time.

Now, given the context, Mark’s final words stuck with me. The interview was over, I had stopped recording. I was in the process of wrapping up but Skaggs had more to say, he asked me to restart the tape. He couldn’t let me leave without communicating one final message:

“When I started at Zynga, there was about 100 people.

“I got to see us, and I got to participate in making games that really took us to the top on social, and then the subsequent sort of fall. I’m really proud to be here in this new version of Zynga. Because it’s very authentic, it’s very real. That’s refreshing and exciting especially at this point in my career.

“It’s my choice to be here and do this.”


    • Lol I scrolled down just to re-affirm that statement xD

      Edit: Mark as always reading your articles is enjoyable and did make my way through it for the fact it was written by you and in hopes you saw something of a spark in Zynga after it collapsed in on itself. Sad to say it just looks like they’ve released a futuristic version of Clash of Clans and took too long in jumping on to the proverbial band wagon of f2p mobile games.

  • Guys, go back and give this story a chance. This is some thoroughly interesting stuff.

    • I read every single word of it before posting and it still doesn’t change my perception of the company and what it stands for.

      “and being a metrics driven company” – It’s all about making money, not lovingly making games with any substance.

      “gamers don’t care where games are made and who makes them” – Yeah we do. I like to support the developers that make good games and buy products from companies that I respect (or put up with in the case of EA).

      Zynga stands for everything I and others hate about the modern day gaming industry. It’s all about getting people hooked to garbage games and milking every cent they can in the process.

      • What they mean by metrics is that they approach feedback from a more clinical standpoint the way places like Valve, Blizzard and Nintendo do. Rather than responding to critics they monitor more directly measurable feedback. Looking at the numbers rather than listening to critics may seem like it’s all about the money, and yeah in this case it probably is, but it’s also a great method for listening to the feedback of people who aren’t talking.
        MMOs do it a lot because they have so much data and their most vocal players tend to be the ones arguing on the forums instead of getting better at the game. They read the forums and see that everyone is complaining about the Knight class being over powered, but then they look at the numbers and realise that the Knight class isn’t over powered it’s just popular and people aren’t used to having to counter them. Give it a week and everyone will get used to keeping Knights at range, but if you reduce the power of the Knight’s attacks you’ll remove their ability to compete in serious play.
        In Zynga’s case they hear a lot of ‘you guys suck, these games are terrible, why would anyone enjoy this?’ from people who don’t even use Facebook, but the numbers actually show a really positive response to Farmville. The opinion of a critic complaining it’s not a love letter to Harvest Moon doesn’t really matter, but if people aren’t expanding their farms as much that’s a solid indicator that the game is getting stale and needs a shakeup.

        As someone who is pretty stubborn when it comes to game design I don’t think I could ever trust the numbers over my own judgement, but some great games have been made with that attitude.

        • DogMan, I must have missed that in the article, or completely misinterpreted what he said, plus as you said “yeah in this case it probably is [about the money]”. To me the following:

          “and being a metrics driven company we know all the key performance indicators. Part of the soft launch process is testing how players around the world are playing the game, how long they’re playing the game, how they monetize in the game and those numbers look great.”

          Reads more like: “we check to see if people are spending the right amount of cash and sufficient hours on the game each day – if they’re not, we need to revise the gameplay to make sure they spend more time and more money on it – what can we do to get them more hooked and to monetize the game further to increase profits” Call me cynical, but with their history I struggle to believe that they’re doing this for benevolent reasons.

          Other companies, perhaps, but not them.

          They don’t make games for the artistic endeavor. They do it as a business first and foremost with profits in mind, driven by addiction and micro transactions.

  • I honestly just don’t care about them one way or another. Like my feeling towards about 95% of developers (and publishers, more so). They are a company. I don’t like them but I also don’t hate them.

    They got my mum playing Farmville which got her playing The Sims which has just about got her to playing Cities: Skylines. One step at a time. Probably wouldn’t have happened without Farmville.

    I think the right thing is to wish them good luck. Wanting to see people fail is not a nice thing to do.

  • Good piece, Mark.

    To be honest, I never hated Zynga for using rehashes of old newgrounds-like ideas into microtransactiony games tocapitalise on a soft market, even though I dislike social games in general. I hated the Facebook spam that dominated my feed and ultimately drove me away from Facebook. I didn’t play Farmville or the fifty million clones of it because those weren’t for me. But I won’t not play a quality game because of who made it, assuming it’s genuinely a quality game.

  • I think what happened to them is a combination of a couple of things.

    1. The market didn’t quite know what they were, much like Twitter… and Facebook too I guess, so they saw the potential user base and valued them based on that. Then as their performance started becoming a known factor, and their audience started dropping (as did their capacity to monetise) the market corrected.
    2. They were successful doing one thing, and they doubled down on it… not expecting it to end. That’s human nature. X thing is working, let’s keep doing it. Activision did that with Guitar Hero and Tony Hawk games, Australia has done it with mining. So when the boom ends they weren’t expecting it.

  • The thing is it’s not entirely about love and hate. Think of McDonalds. Plenty of vocal people love it and plenty of people hate it, but most simply feel they know what they’re looking at. McDonalds food is McDonalds food. Every now and then they try and redefine that. Healthy menu options, higher quality ingredients, etc. However it’s so well defined in people’s minds that they rarely manage to change how people think of their food. Zynga face a similar problem. People associate them with previous experiences and that association is strong because they did what Zenga did and they did it hard. The association is so strong that it takes a mountain of critical acclaim for a user to look at a positive review of their game without thinking ‘when people say it’s good they mean it’s good for a Zynga game, which means it isn’t for me’. Normally I’d be the opinion that the games Zynga made aren’t particularly reliant on people knowing who made the game, but Zynga were huge enough that they actually did make a name for themselves amongst the less informed audiences.
    I don’t think Zynga will ever be able to convince the world that they’ve made a ‘real’ game. I don’t say that because I think they suck, or that they’re evil, or that they’ll never be able to make a good game, I say it because they’re more or less typecast. They can give a great performance but it’ll take a lot more than that to change people’s first thoughts when hearing the name Zynga.
    If they want to do that sort of labour of love project I think they’ll have to cash out, start something unrelated, work under alias’ and hope that they can distance themselves enough to get out of their own shadow. It’s not impossible and it doesn’t mean rejecting your previous work, abandoning your methods, or being ashamed of what you accomplished. You can continue to care about the various metrics and whatnot as Mike Honcho. You can do Zynga 3.0 without Zynga.
    As a business they don’t have to keep going until they die. Profitability and bankruptcy aren’t the only options. The ship doesn’t have to stay out until it sinks. They can accept that Zynga was a massive success but now it’s time to retire it. If making a AAA game is a roll of the dice I’d say Zynga is sinking your winnings back in trying to jump start a dead hot streak.

    • You make very fair points, I’ll give you that.

      For some no matter what McDonald’s does, it doesn’t change what they’ve done in the past and also what they largely continue doing, which is to get kids hooked on food devoid of nutrition and pump people with crap via their fast food.

      To me it’s the equivalent of a cigarette company starting a gym. I’d never pay money to sponsor such an unethical company. If others choose to, good for them. But from an ethical perspective, I will never support such practices.

  • What I dislike most about Zynga is that it (and others like it) approach games as a science, rather than an art. I’m sure other publishers have the same outlook but at least with indies and AAA budgets there is more scope to create something that has artistic merit. With Zynga the metrics are the only thing that matters. They are producing ‘test tube’ games rather than something with artistic vision. I think the problem that gamers have with Zynga is that it is exploitative.,

  • Call me a cynic, but I can’t help feel that this image of humble and regretful Zynga is just what the focus groups suggested would work best at this point. You know, really capitalise on that 18-35 demo, open up to some social synergy, progress the market landscape going forward.

  • I agree that Zynga approaches games as a science more than an art, but what gaming company outside of small mobile developers and indie studios doesnt? It IS a business and companies need to make a return on their investment. This is the world we live in.

    We’re in the age of franchises. Look at games and movies. There are numbers after most entertainment titles… 2, 3, 4… trilogy… etc. The age of franchises looks to make a game and then serialize that concept for money. Its not an environment that is prone to taking chances, creating an artsy game, or even pushing new mechanics. Its all based on calculated risk. At least at the larger companies.

    Will it go on like this forever?
    Maybe, or at least until production costs and times shrink.

    Okami was a good game for playstation that was more on the artistic side and it is considered a cult classic. To my knowledge, and it might not be 100% accurate, that studio was closed right after that game failed to meet the monetary goals set by the parent company.

    The mobile market is very unpredictable and no one knows where or what the next hit will be.

    Does Zynga swing for the fences on every game?
    Yes they do and they are always looking to make the next hit, however, it is getting harder and harder in the facebook and mobile space to predict what those games might be.

    Can you fault them for swinging for the fences?
    Maybe. Similar to baseball the home run guys typically have a high strike out to home run percent. For all its home runs, Zynga has had its strike outs. Its all about taking the time to understand why the strike outs happened and making adjustments (just like a hitter in baseball).

    The real issue might be in the fact that they cannot seem to get to shorter development times and release a lot of smaller games that hit a lot of different genres/spaces. These games might not be home runs but should still be good games. Zynga has the capability to latch on to any game that is proving successful and continue to develop and improve it in real time while it is on the market. Thus taking a good game and creating a home run.

    Zynga needs to get back to its roots of creating games, failing fast and not being afraid to take some calculated risks.

  • It always amuses me when people say companies make games for the love of games, tons of games on shelves at Gamestop for free. Yeah….

  • Gamers don’t care ? But just in case, Zynga decided not to include their logo in the E&A icon. What a coincidence.

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