Zygna Isn’t Playing Around

Turns out that the exploding game industry isn’t all sunshine and flowers: after all, billions in revenue is at stake and that tends to not bring out the best in people.

It seems that Mark Pincus’ Zygna is a hotbed of idea theft, stealing ideas from competitors, and crushing them with the company’s reach. Just like Elvis Presley knocking off all the old ‘Race Music’ and repackaging it as rock’n’roll.

But Zygna may be reaching the end of that streak. Pincus has apparently been telling his employees to forget about innovation, and simply appropriate competitor’s game ideas:

Peter Jamison, FarmVillains

As the former senior employee who listened to Pincus rant against innovation recalls, 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.”

The derivative nature of Zynga’s high-grossing games isn’t just an ethical liability. While the company has recently enjoyed a spate of bullish mainstream media coverage, some industry experts say that its star could soon be on the wane. The audience for its signature application, FarmVille, has collapsed by 26 percent from its high of 84 million monthly users. As a new generation of social gamers demands more sophistication in online entertainment, some observers — including at least one of Zynga’s founders — question whether the company can adapt.

“You can’t make the cheap little viral games like you used to,” says Tom Bollich, an early Zynga investor and former lead engineer who owned more than 400,000 shares of the company in 2008, and who has now divested completely. “These games, it’s like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it. You can get a lot of people, but they don’t stick around.”

We’ll have to see if Zygna has reached some limit in its growth, but I doubt that its business practices are known to users, or that it would make any difference if they did know.

Umair Haque twittered today ‘I don’t know what these guys are so upset about. That’s what business is all about.’ with regard to this story. After all, stealing the best ideas is Silicon Valley lore, isn’t it? But maybe there are still lines that can be crossed, even when unbridled capitalism is held up as a societal good.

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