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Former Zynga Engineer: They Don’t Care About Fun, Focus Everything On Big “Whale” Spenders

Ex-engineer dishes on the social gaming giant

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Former Zynga Engineer: They Don’t Care About Fun, Focus Everything On Big “Whale” Spenders
[ Gaming]

I’ll start this out the way that it really should be started – with a warning to have your grain of salt ready. From the some-guy-is-bashing-his-former-company-on-reddit files, it appears that Zynga focuses the large majority of their attention on folks that you could say are borderline addicted to games like Farmville.

On Sunday, reddit user mercenary-games began an AmA session (Ask Me Anything) titled “IAmA Former FullTime Zynga Engineer – quit 6 months ago.” They alleged former employee says that they worked at Zynga for 8 months and eventually quit. They also make a point to say that this isn’t about a grudge -

No, this isn’t payback, or about a grudge. This is just word from someone who’s seen what this industry is capable of doing. Good, and Bad. No, I was not under contract, I was full time, offered stock (common shares, not that options bullcrap). I sympathized with contractors on how they were treated, most of the time. No, I was not some IT mangler. I worked for one of their “game studios”, basically the front lines where content made it to the masses.

The user offered proof in the form of a Zynga termination certification letter, available for your perusal here.

So there’s the evidence. Either this person is genuine of full of it – take your pick. If you choose genuine, then what he has to say about Zynga is pretty interesting.

When asked about some “creepy” stuff that the company does, our engineer talks about information gathering and how that is used to target a specific type of player:

Spying on players. Getting intimate gaming data, their habits, their networks, and how to effectively monetize given X.

Here’s another example;
Internal metrics researchers often give studio wide talks on what trends are going on. They’ve basically tracked down very popular players and also players who’ve spent an excess of 10k into the game. We often tweak our features to match and maximize for a particular gaming habit. We do this for massive populations of players. Players are not aware of this. To me, that’s a big brother like issue, someone is measuring and monitoring your behavior intimately, and you don’t know how that data is going to be used.

They go on to call the super users ($10,000+) Zynga Black or “Whales.” They apparently make up about 5% of Zynga players.

They are the “hardcore” crowd Zynga caters too. Every other player is treated as a spammer.

[Zynga] designs the game purely to fit the needs of the “whales”. Everyone else is treated as an “enabler”; spam messages, beg for tools, etc

Our former engineer elaborates on “creepy”:

The creepy factor at Z comes when they start designing for “behavior” instead of game design and fun. Behavior is what they are looking for. Behavior is what they measure, on a massive scale. It’s not about having fun to them, its about monetizing the fun, cloning games, buying indie studios, and suing the shit out of other companies. THAT is creepy.

On the issue of gameplay, they say that the actual gaming part of Zynga’s plan is secondary. Marketing is key:

Another issue was skewing gameplay for the sake of profit, example; I actually resorted to BAD MATH, to make the case for making a feature more fun. At the end of one sprint, a QA dude was complaining about the drop rate of a specific item being absurdly insane, and therefore UnFun. I looked at the code, and tweaked some values, gave it back to QA guy, and fun was restored. Product Manager overrides this, goes for unfun, yet more profitable version.

And later, “Zynga is a marketing company, not a game company.”

The treatment of contractors was also a topic of discussion:

Z treats them like second citizen employees, they almost have no feedback or say on their work schedule. I’ve seen people waiting to turn full time, but only spend more time as a contractor because of office politics. Worst of all; they are NOT welcome to company events, they are openly excluded from them. Yet, they want them to work twice as hard as regular full timers.

Have you swallowed your salt? Yes? Good. However, sure is interesting, right?

Former Zynga Engineer: They Don’t Care About Fun, Focus Everything On Big “Whale” Spenders
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  • Edgarska

    This isn’t that surprising, because this is how most developers conduct themselves with games that offer DLC.
    What really bothered me was the term “hardcore” being used to describe farmville users.
    I hadn’t seen a grosser misuse of that term since it was applied to COD fans.