Forbes magazine carried an interesting feature this week on the 43-year-old Internet entrepreneur behind some of the social networking scene's most successful applications – Mark Pincus, a man who has made a fortune from giving net workers something to do.
Pincus, who named his games provider company Zynga after a pet bulldog, explained the fundamental base for his success with sites like the 300 million member Facebook, telling Forbes: “You have this cocktail party – you've brought everyone together. But there's nothing to do.” His answer? Games played with friends to fill users' time.
In early 2007 Pincus learned Facebook would soon open its site to software developers such as game makers. He and a small team quickly got to work on a Facebook card game that would eventually become Texas Hold'Em Poker.
It was the first Facebook poker game that people could play with their online friends; gamblers could even see their friends' pictures as they played hands. Players spend real money to buy chips–it costs $5 for $75 000 in chips and $50 for $5 million worth – but they can never cash out.
Zynga also gave players another way to stay in the game: Instead of using a credit card to buy chips, gamblers could accept some sort of offer from a marketer. They might install an application on their computer from TripAdvisor, or sign up for Netflix, for example. Zynga gets paid an undisclosed bounty every time one of its customers accepts an offer. Such offers are now a big chunk of Zynga's business, though Pincus says that sales of cyber goods make up the biggest portion of its revenue.
Following the runaway success of Texas Hold'Em Zynga developed other games which could be monetized by selling the users enhancement features to the base game, which Pinkus dubs “golden mechanics.”
In ‘FarmVille' players run a farm, checking on their crops periodically as they grow and then returning for the harvest. That means more opportunities to spend real money in the game, purchasing things like distinctive barns, virtual sheep or scarecrows.
In ‘Café World', aspiring restaurateurs run their own virtual eateries, with plenty of kitchen pressure as plates of food have to reach diners before the contents spoil. Users like ‘Mafia Wars', too – it provides a fantasy outlet for buying guns and ordering hits on enemies.
In picking new gaming applications Pincus always insists on having the last word despite a staff of several hundred. He recently killed a sword fighting game despite $2 million already spent on development costs.
Zynga's size and its breadth of games also creates a classic network effect, helping it to better market new titles. Novice users of Café World might see a teaser for Mafia Wars when they first log in, inviting them to try the mob game. Zynga also ploughs profits back into advertising on Facebook. Zynga gamers often broadcast their exploits to their Facebook friends; friends might receive a notice when someone starts playing FarmVille or moves to a new level on Mafia Wars.
Zynga should rack up revenues this year of at least $100 million, says Pincus, though he won't disclose how much. The San Francisco company, founded in 2007, employs 530 people, including contractors.
The company's social games have by far the largest number of active users according to independent surveys, ahead of competitors like Playfish and SlashKey. It has raised $39 million from investors such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Union Square Ventures and Foundry Group and could be a candidate to go public next year.
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