So the new issue of Vanity Fair, the one with the boobalicious pic of Katy Perry on the cover, was finally delivered to my house yesterday (Only about 10 days late and yes I am one of those weird people who still loves to read the physical copies of big, glossy magazines). And so last night I finally sat down and read Vanessa Grigoriadis’ profile of Mark Pincus, the founder and C.E.O. of Zynga, i.e. the brains behind FarmVille, CityVille, and Zynga Poker. The piece on the whole is sort of magazine profile fluffy — I really don’t care that he’s only 5’6” or about when he “looks down for a moment and purses his lips” — but I did enjoy the tidbits on Pincus’ background and how he came to be interested in games in the first place, but the most interesting part of the piece to me was a small bit on Zynga’s importance to Facebook’s survival, something I honestly don’t think I’d given much thought to previously, and the admiration one Hollywood big-shot has for what he’s built.
Facebook’s success, on a business level, owes something to Pincus, although most people don’t realize it. The dirty little secret of Facebook is that there isn’t really much to do there once you’ve finished looking at pictures of your friends’ babies and your crush, and signed up for a few pages run by political causes. “Is Facebook a success because of Zynga, or is Zynga a success because of Facebook?” asks Michael Pachter, a video-game analyst at Wedbush Securities. “The answer is both. But the truth is that it’s a delicate eco-system.” Zynga’s games are expected to claim at least $850 million in earnings this year. David Kirkpatrick, author of The Facebook Effect, says, “Zynga could account for as much as 10 percent of Facebook’s revenues this year, a lower percentage than last year but still very significant.” “We’re going to have billions of people on social networks, so if a third of the people on Facebook love games, about a third don’t, and a third are indifferent, you’re still talking about hundreds and hundreds of millions of people playing Zynga games,” says famed venture capitalist John Doerr, of Kleiner Perkins, which has invested heavily in Zynga. “These games are not for everyone, it’s true, but it’s for more of everyone than anything else I know.”
Pincus’s games work off a few basic principles. They are easier to play than any other games in the history of man, except maybe Tetris. FarmVille, if you haven’t experienced it, is a game where you decorate a virtual farm with virtual goods, like rose beds, cows, and stallions. It’s less of a “game” than it is organizing a bunch of fake collectible goods on a computer screen, not that different from amassing a bunch of baseball cards. If unbelievably mindless, it’s definitely a good alternative to taking a Vicodin to chill out, and also provides a strange sense of achievement. What is amazing is that people (mostly women; 60 percent of the players are female) are willing to assign monetary value to these virtual goods. The other day, I paid two actual dollars for a fake “hot cocoa” shop to put in my fake city on CityVille, another Pincus game. I’m serious. With this miraculous sleight of hand, Pincus has answered a question that has long existed on the Internet: How do you get people to pay for things that are “real” only on a computer? “What Mark has figured out is just amazing,” says DreamWorks Animation C.E.O. Jeffrey Katzenberg, who became a member of Zynga’s board in April and has said that if he could start his career over “I’d be Mark Pincus.”
Meanwhile, if I could start my career over, I’d want to come back as the pizza guy who has the Foo Fighters play in his garage. That’d be kinda cool.