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Zynga CEO Mark Pincus (© Stephen Lam / Reuters/REUTERS)
Zynga CEO Mark Pincus (© Stephen Lam / Reuters/REUTERS)

Gaming

Zynga's 'Willy Wonka' gambles he can level-up social games Add to ...

Walking into Zynga’s headquarters in San Francisco is like entering one of the games it develops for social networks. The reception is a log cabin modelled on a virtual building from FrontierVille. It is littered with cattle skulls and old lanterns for added effect. Once past this frontier, guests go through a tunnel of shimmering lights into the main, 60-foot atrium. Floors stretch above you like the levels of games to be attained – and each one represents another game being worked on.

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Chief executive Mark Pincus is waiting to greet me and show me round like an amusement park guide. “I see myself as a kind of Willy Wonka,” he says half-seriously, referring to the fun factory he has created rather than the fictional chocolate factory. “This was a gigantic, quiet, horrible lobby – the kind of last-century concept I’ve always been frustrated with. It was such a waste of space. So we took it over and made it a play space and community space.”

Now the place contains a vintage Winnebago RV covered in Zynga regalia, a “Skee ball” fairground attraction, an area covered in fake grass for ball games and a mini stage with a backdrop of 13 giant posters of dogs owned by staff. Zynga is actually named after Mr. Pincus’s own late bulldog Zinga. Indeed, dogs of all shapes and sizes trot past on leads with their owners as we talk – 200 pets have their own Zynga tags for access to the building.

The 46-year-old founder, clad in a T-shirt and jeans, worked in investment banking before reinventing himself as a serial technology entrepreneur. Indeed, it could be said that Zynga’s building partly represents the unleashed zest and creativity that had been stifled during his former career. The company had been renting part of the 670,000-square-foot space for its 1,700 staff here before Mr. Pincus decided to buy the whole building in March for $228-million. “It made sense economically because the rent was doubling and owning the building lets us do a lot more culturally – now we can do what we want with it.”

He has big plans to convert a larger atrium on the other side. “I’m considering opening an indoor park – I want you to feel like you’re in Central Park with benches and a dog run and quiet zones. I think we can make it spectacular, but it has to have intimacy too.”

This is beginning to sound like CityVille, the Zynga social game in which players build the city of their dreams. Zynga HQ is a place its staff may never want to leave – free breakfast, lunch and dinner, and then there are the happy hours, sports bar, yoga studio, cinema and gym. Workers are urged to decorate their office space in any fashion they like. “I like to say that with Zynga, we’re trying to build a house we want to live in. I’m trying to make something that feels more unique and homely to people.”

One begins to understand the rules of the game in the organized chaos that is Zynga: blend the real with the virtual, mix work with play and office with home. As well as dogs bounding about, the founder’s twin toddlers, Carmen and Georgia, are in a couple of days a week and have been attending company meetings since they were a month old.

There is role-playing as well – Mr Pincus wants everyone to feel like they are a CEO. “We want everyone to own their outcomes, so I speak to every group of new hires and say: ‘We want you to be a CEO of something.’ In effect, we start a new company every month when we launch a new game – there is a big team, a big budget and hopefully revenues being earned. It’s like a startup, but with more support around you and more probability of success.”

His ideas stem from the frustration of his own early corporate experience. He was a financial analyst at Lazard Frères for two years after graduating from university, before serving as a vice-president at the investment bank Asian Capital Partners in Hong Kong and going on, via Harvard Business School, to work for a venture capital firm in Washington. “I felt like an expert witness in my 20s – I had a series of jobs where I felt that I had the right answer but was never empowered to make the decision. You were called to the stand, you said what you thought was the right answer and then you were excused and you find the next day what the decision was. Then you have to live with it and make it successful.”

He became an entrepreneur instead, co-founding his first company Freeloader.com in 1995 and selling the technology behind it for $38-million a few months later. Support.com, an online support company, followed and went public in 2000, before he cofounded Tribe.net, an early social network, in 2003. It was acquired by Cisco in 2007.

That same year he founded Zynga. Its growth has been phenomenal, helped by the popularity of Facebook – it currently has 275 million monthly active players of its games on Facebook, more than six times those of its nearest rivals. The company went public in December, earning a $7-billion valuation and making Mr. Pincus a billionaire with his 37 per cent stake. Its share price, however, has yo-yoed – boosted by Facebook’s own impending initial public offering and depressed by doubts about whether the company could keep coming up with hits such as FarmVille and Words with Friends.

There have also been doubts about its $200-million purchase in February of OMGPOP, developer of the Draw Something game that had 35 million downloads within seven weeks of its launch but is now showing signs of being a passing fad.

“That’s only the second product acquisition of any size we’ve ever made and when we do that we are saying we think this is really where social gaming is going,” he retorts. “It might not go somewhere in the first quarter, but investors should eventually expect it to see it move our results and strategy.”

That strategy is based on his belief that “play,” as he refers to social gaming, is a new medium in the same way television once was. Zynga aims to connect 1 billion people to play together in every kind of gaming genre, in the same way television covers every type of programming.

Play seems to be in the Pincus genes – he talks about how his twin girls make up games with him all the time and how, in Chicago, where he grew up, his parents were fierce gamers who made their own rules. “After dinner, we’d have these highly competitive games of charades and Trivial Pursuit, where we’d throw away the board and just read the cards. We’d invent our own games and my dad even made up a board game about him and my mom.”

He seems just as competitive – hiring personal coaches to improve pursuits such as skiing and tennis. “If I do something, I like to go all-in. I don’t get why people struggle to learn something on their own when you can go to an expert that can get you there in a couple of months rather than a couple of years.”

That sounds suspiciously like the levelling-up that Zynga urges players to pay for in order to get ahead in their games, thereby gaining quicker access to the next level.

The same applies to his employees – 15 per cent of the workforce are levelled up every quarter, earning greater responsibility, a new job title and a pay rise. “In games and life, we all like to level-up,” he says, summing up what drives him and a company that seems to mirror its customers and products on every level.



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