Welcome To Zynga, Where The Numbers Never Lie

Through its rise, crash, and subsequent scramble for relevance, social gaming behemoth Zynga remains one of the most intriguing and infuriating companies in tech. Yesterday its high profile CEO, Don Mattrick, resigned. But just one week before, in one of the strangest interviews I've been a part of, I spoke to Mark Skaggs, a Senior Vice President at Zynga. Where to now for the most notorious development studio in gaming? It's almost impossible to tell.

Zynga: the company that transformed your social media into a battleground.

The company that launched a thousand ships. The company that practically invented social gaming. The company that went public with a company valuation of $10 billion.

In February 2012 Zynga’s stock was valued at $14.69. In November of that same year it was $2.12. Catastrophic. What happened?

“Really, we got a little bit arrogant.”

That’s Mark Skaggs, he’s the Senior Vice President of Games at Zynga. When he arrived at the company its most popular game was Mafia Wars with 500,000 active users. On MySpace. Skaggs would go on to help Zynga create its next most popular game – Farmville. At its peak. 350 million people were playing.

I’m currently sitting in front of what Skaggs is calling his “labour of love”; an RTS game for mobile devices called Empires & Allies. I don’t know it yet, but I’m about to embark on one of the strangest interviews of my life.

Empires & Allies. It’s an RTS. An RTS made by people who know how to make RTS games. As far as I know it’s an extremely competent RTS. Mark Skaggs and Cameron McNeil, the game’s principal designer, talk a good game. They have years of experience in this arena. I have literally no reason to suspect that Empires & Allies is anything less than a well-made, sophisticated RTS game. Yet as the demo continues and Mark talks his way through his labour of love. A voice in my head:

“No-one cares about an RTS game made by Zynga.”

“No-one wants to read about an RTS game made by Zynga.”

“Kotaku readers hate Zynga. They hate everything about Zynga. They will hate you for writing about Zynga.”

An awkward pressure builds in my sternum. Mark and Cameron continue to talk. I try to listen. The voices continue reverberating around my skull.

This wasn’t supposed to be a demo, it was supposed to be an interview. Zynga’s Empires & Allies is in the midst of a soft launch, releasing in a handful of territories before launching ‘for real’ on a global scale. One of the regions earmarked for that soft launch was Australia. That seemed like an interesting enough angle, compounded by the fact the afore-mentioned Cameron McNeil, Empire & Allies’ Principle Game Designer, was Australian.

But something was lost in translation. Five minutes into the interview it was clear to me that both Mark and Cameron were here to ‘talk about the game’. They were here to talk about the intricacies of the Empire & Allies’ mechanics, its history, how it came to be. Quite rightly and fairly they wanted to talk about the thing they had just created, their “labour of love”. The passion with which they talked about this product made things even more difficult. My inner monologue increased in volume. I couldn’t hear a single word.

“No-one cares about an RTS game made by Zynga.”

“No-one wants to read about an RTS game made by Zynga.”

“Kotaku readers hate Zynga. They hate everything about Zynga. Stop this. Stop this right now”

I stayed silent for 10 whole minutes. My ribcage fit to burst. I couldn’t take it.

“I don’t think this is going to work.”

Those words I said out loud. For the first time in my eight years of covering video games I stopped a video game demo before it ended.

I tried to explain as clearly and honestly as possible. I can’t do this. Zynga has a toxic reputation with a certain type of gamer: the type of gamer who lives and breathes gaming culture. The type of gamer – in short – that reads Kotaku. If I write the standard ‘video game preview’ you want me to write, I explain, my readers are going to crucify me. They will crucify you.

I say these words in the most polite way possible, but there really is no sugar-coating it: Kotaku readers hate Zynga. They hate Zynga. In my naiveté I thought this might be news to them.

But they know. Of course they know.

I am astonished by how calmly Mark takes my feedback. He is not angry, he isn’t even curious. He knows. Of course he knows. I tell Mark I was expecting an interview. I tell him I was hoping to talk about Zynga as a company, how it responded to the dramatic downturn of social gaming on Facebook. The story of the video game company that had it all. The billion dollar company that collapsed under the weight of its own hubris and staggered on long enough to tell the tale. As good as Empire & Allies may or may not be, I tell him, that’s what I want to talk about.

“We can talk about that right now,” he says. The tone is almost friendly, jovial even. “I was front and centre.”

July 1, 2013. Mark Pincus announces that Don Mattrick -- once President of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business and for all intents and purposes the face of the Xbox division – is the new CEO of Zynga. The Pincus reasoning: Don Mattrick could help reinvigorate the business and “return Zynga to its leadership role in inventing and growing “play as a core human experience."

Play as a “core human experience”.

Mark Skaggs talk in far less abstract terms.

“We brought in Don because his experience with game making, with entertainment making, with digital content,” he explains.

“When Don showed up it was a change in philosophy.”

Then, yesterday morning, six days after my interview, Don Mattrick resigned from his position of CEO at Zynga. Two months ago Zynga posted a $226 million loss. Mattrick had called it a “year of progress”.

"I am proud of the progress we have made together.” That’s what Mattrick said in his final statement as CEO of Zynga.

According to Skaggs, that progress was mobile focused, about transitioning the company into that space in a meaningful way. Don Mattrick’s arrival brought transformed the culture of Zynga. His words: Don Mattrick changed the orientation of Zynga dramatically.

Zynga has always taken pride in the hard science of metrics. That pinpoint awareness of what the userbase is doing at all times: how it’s sharing, what it’s engaging with. That’s the not-so-secret recipe for Zynga’s success. Mattrick’s job and his mission statement was to combine that set of skills with a move into mobile, a move that Zynga had failed to spot on the horizon during that pivotal moment in their history -- most likely blind-sided by all the money they were making.

Mattrick’s goal, it seems, was relatively simple: help Zynga make mobile games. Help Zynga make good mobile games. Teach a company obsessed with the science of metrics to start caring about the art of making video games.

Mark Skaggs’ history is an interesting one. Once upon a time he made major AAA video games. He made Command & Conquer. He watched as development times increased, as production costs skyrocketed. He watched and grew disillusioned with what he calls the “dice roll”. That massive gamble on a product he spent two to three years of his life making: “50 million dollars at this single roll of the dice and if you’re lucky your product stays on shelves. That’s not something I wanted to spend my time doing.”

At Zynga the numbers never lie. With Zynga the success of a video game could be predicted down to a fine science and -- crucially -- you could make more of them.

“I came to Zynga during the social game era and you could make a couple of games a year. If that game did well, like Farmville, it could last a couple of years.”

But perhaps Zynga placed too much importance on those numbers. Maybe something was lost in the process. Maybe Zynga couldn’t raise their heads from those numbers long enough to see the behemoth lingering in the distance: that massive Farmville audience was in the process of evolving -- to mobile, to video games with higher production values.

Skaggs saw this occur in real time. And when Don Mattrick arrived with the intention of turning Zynga in that direction, Skaggs believed he was homeward bound, to a history he had abandoned. To a compromise he now longed for. Zynga would no longer operate solely based on the numbers, but it wouldn’t be making Assassin’s Creed either. Zynga would still be doing what Zynga does best, but the games would resemble games as Skaggs once understood them.

“When Don came and started the transition,” he says, “it kinda felt like going home.”

Home was video games, smaller in scope. Fun video games with simple mechanics. “But now you’re doing it on mobile and now you’re doing it with metrics,” adds Mark.

That’s what Empires & Allies represents, that’s why it’s a labour of love. To someone like Mark, with his history, it represents the compromise he’s been searching for all his professional life. He’s making the video games he wants to make alongside the safety net of metrics.

I ask Mark frankly, is this going to work? How can it possibly work? Empires & Allies is a core-styled RTS. It’s aimed at an audience that hates Zynga and everything Zynga stands for.

Do you honestly think this is going to work? I ask.

“Yes. Let me tell you why.

“We soft launched in Australia, and being a metrics driven company we know all the key performance indicators. Part of the soft launch process is testing how players around the world are playing the game, how long they’re playing the game, how they monetize in the game and those numbers look great."

The numbers look great. The numbers never lie.

Mark says some interesting things. He says that gamers don’t care where games are made and who makes them. They only care about the games themselves. He’s worked at multiple different companies with varying types of brand awareness -- positive, negative, non-existent. In Mark’s experience people go to the game.

“If people don’t want to play this game because Zynga made it, they’re missing out.”

Then Mark says something that surprises me.

“When people look at this game they’re gonna say, ‘this doesn’t feel like Farmville at all.’”

There is an overwhelming irony at play; the sense that Zynga is desperate to escape it’s own legacy, yet cannot help but embrace it. Mark Skaggs remains committed to the idea of metrics based game development, but his willingness to accept Zynga’s past mistakes is bewildering; the humility is endearing. “It’s humbling to go through a transition,” explains Mark. “If you can’t admit that you made a mistake then you’re just going to keep making them and you can’t progress.”

But now Don Mattrick is gone and very little of what was said makes any sense. Mark Pincus is once again steering the good ship Zynga: out with the new and in with the old. What does that mean for the compromise Skaggs values so much? What does that mean for the Zynga Don Mattrick tried to build? Yesterday, Michael Pachter tweeted the following: “I am sad Don Mattrick is leaving Zynga before the fruits of his labor are apparent. I think the company is on the right track.”

Perhaps we’ll never know.

Perhaps nothing will change. Perhaps nothing had changed. When I first heard news of Don Mattrick’s departure my first instinct was to follow up with a new interview. Mark Skaggs spent so much time together preaching the merits of Don Mattrick and his ability to transition Zynga into what was openly being called ‘Zynga 2.0’, a place where the art of games were given its due diligence. Sadly a second interview, we were told, was not possible at this time.

Now, given the context, Mark's final words stuck with me. The interview was over, I had stopped recording. I was in the process of wrapping up but Skaggs had more to say, he asked me to restart the tape. He couldn’t let me leave without communicating one final message:

“When I started at Zynga, there was about 100 people.

“I got to see us, and I got to participate in making games that really took us to the top on social, and then the subsequent sort of fall. I’m really proud to be here in this new version of Zynga. Because it’s very authentic, it’s very real. That’s refreshing and exciting especially at this point in my career.

“It’s my choice to be here and do this.”

This post originally appeared on Kotaku Australia

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