Why founder Mark Pincus is bored of Zynga’s games (and you are, too)

1 Posted by - October 3, 2013 - News, Opinion

What’s it say when a company’s games can’t hold the attention of its founder?

Over the weekend, Zynga founder Mark Pincus, on a meet-and-greet tour of Israeli startups, gave an informal rooftop talk to a group of tech entrepreneurs. Yossi Vardi, one of the more prominent venture capitalists in Israel, asked Pincus what his favorite game is.

“Right now, I’m pretty bored with all games,’’ replied Pincus.

Offered a chance to backtrack, Pincus doubled down. He’d been a devoted player of his company’s own mega-hits — specifically FarmVille and CityVille — but fell out of them not long after release. “I want that addiction again,” he said.

It seems unlikely Zynga will provide one anytime soon. The social gaming giant has fallen from the throne it once commanded, with badly aging games shedding users and no stable replacements in sight. Pincus’ lack of enthusiasm for his own products isn’t so much personal as it is systemic.

Of course, it can’t help that the appeal of Zynga’s games lies in leveraging social networks to acquire more loot to achieve more goals. As the head of Zynga, Pincus likely didn’t need to make the same climb other players did. Certainly, he never had to spend money for the in-game boosters that fill Zynga’s coffers. That alone provides much-needed tension in games that basically boil down to pointing, clicking, and reaping the promised reward every single time.

Absent any kind of challenge or risk/reward, Pincus’ games really had nothing to offer Pincus as a player.

Long-term, their appeal has started to fade among other casual gamers as well. Games like King’s Candy Crush Saga stay casual, yet they feel immensely satisfying when you solve a particularly challenging puzzle. Strategy, forethought, and cleverness pay off in puzzle games, and that provides an emotional payoff as well. Clicking buttons for Zynga doesn’t.

No wonder Pincus is bored.

But what’s most baffling is how, for games based largely around social networks, Zynga’s games frequently avoid any real sense of community. Communities that do form are largely ignored by Zynga itself. Players are treated like wallets who provide free advertising, and that is all. Feedback is neither requested nor wanted from people, it’s worth noting, who often join these social networks to share ideas and opinions.

That complete lack of give-and-take has led to stagnation. Zynga’s only solution to date has been to shovel out more content, not better content. It’s not working.

It hasn’t occurred yet that they should leverage their social network for once…or if it has occurred, they haven’t figured out how to do it. Far smaller communities have built far bigger empires — Valve is a good example — when they were allowed to really get involved. While it also needs to create good games to compete against King on mobile platforms, Zynga is dead in the water if it can’t find ways to let its still-considerable user base feel important.

That means investing in the players far more than Zynga ever has before. It means shifting focus away from constant revenue flows and towards what players naturally want. It means giving people a voice, a way to play together, and a sense of belonging. Nobody wants to feel like they’re the only one who enjoys clicking those buttons.

Maybe then Mark Pincus won’t feel so bored. And maybe that’s as good a barometer for Zynga’s success as anything. After all, if Pincus doesn’t feel like he’s got any skin in the game, who will?