Zynga CEO Wants To Bring Playtime To The Masses Mark Pincus' company is the maker of FarmVille and other games played on Facebook. He's worth $1.3 billion, and he may see that number grow if he meets his goal: to expand the universe of digital game players from sci-fi geeks to soccer moms and their kids.
NPR logo

Zynga CEO Wants To Bring Playtime To The Masses

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/145839904/146265476" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Zynga CEO Wants To Bring Playtime To The Masses

Zynga CEO Wants To Bring Playtime To The Masses

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/145839904/146265476" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Another thing the analysts saw when looking through Facebook's balance sheets is the amount of revenue generated by one company - Zynga. It accounted for more than $440 million of Facebook's revenue last year. Zynga is the name behind games like Words with Friends and Farmville. And right now, its CEO Mark Pincus is worth $1.3 billion.

NPR's Aarti Shahani visited his San Francisco headquarters.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: A public service announcement by Mark Pincus.

MARK PINCUS: Just a reminder, you know. Have you played today?

SHAHANI: He's the CEO of Zynga, and a philosopher on the nature of human beings and our Internet.

PINCUS: When you think of these verbs that make up our Internet experience, there's not many of them. There's shop, there's search, there's share. I said, I think that play can be one of these fundamental things that we do for the rest of our lives.

SHAHANI: Even when a flight attendant says not to. Alec Baldwin got kicked off American Airlines for playing Zynga's Words with Friends on his cell phone. It's a knock off of Scrabble. Baldwin joked about it on "Saturday Night Live."


ALEC BALDWIN: What harm would it do to let him keep playing his game? Not any game, mind you, but a word game for smart people.

SHAHANI: Without even trying, Pincus has a celebrity cast. And after the flap, Atlanta's airport called him about installing Zynga games in their terminals.

In the lobby of Zynga, Inc., a Winnebago - dubbed a Zyngabego - sits at the foot of a neon pink tunnel. On the other side, six floors of cafes, doggy daycare, and studios - one studio per game.

Founded in 2007, Zynga has over 2,700 employees. No company in Silicon Valley has added workers that fast. In a closed-door meeting about an undisclosed game, Pincus pushes a few of them to think like a CEO.

PINCUS: I've got to believe that there is something more compelling that we could do with that network effect. We ought to be more opportunities for what you care about than anybody else.

SHAHANI: Pincus' superpower is data. Zynga tracks the usual demographics, plus keystrokes, idle time, mouse clicks. Every day the company collects a volume equal to five million copies of "War and Peace." The output is more like a McDonald's Happy Meal. Engineers work at lightning speed to turn player feedback into whiz-bangy features - like getting cows to move their heads in the mega-hit "FarmVille."

Lead engineer Kostadis Roussos says he's committed to quality control.

KOSTADIS ROUSSOS: I want people to think that when they're playing our games, they're touching something magical. That's what I want. And I think that's what Pincus wants.

SHAHANI: Pincus grew up in Chicago, watching his dad make up new rules for Trivial Pursuit and Charades. Now, age 45, this play evangelist makes money by changing the rules in the game industry. When Facebook opened its platform, Pincus saw an opportunity to make play part of the social network. He started churning out free games. No Xbox or disk or assembly required — just an Internet connection.

He whips out an iPhone to demo Scramble with Friends.

PINCUS: Steel.


PINCUS: Ooh, where do you see that?


No, no, no. You have to (unintelligible.)

PINCUS: Thanks. OK, I'm not the best speller.

SHAHANI: True, but he is excellent at counting. Pincus makes money by getting a small percentage of players to exchange real dollars for virtual currency. Twenty U.S. dollars - or 200 "CityVille" dollars - buys an imaginary skyscraper. It's a $9 billion industry and it depends on players getting addicted - waking up at 3:00 AM to collect "CityVille" rents, for example. Critics call Zynga games the crack cocaine of the Internet. Pincus counters.

PINCUS: There's a fine line between calling it crack cocaine and calling it awesome, great entertainment. The last people we want to give a bad experience to are the people who are spending money. They're the ones who you want to – you want to shower with love.


SHAHANI: Zynga's investors didn't feel love the day the company went public.


PINCUS: The American entrepreneurial dream opening bell crystal(ph).

SHAHANI: The Nasdaq team joined Pincus in his lobby. Looking over the Zyngabego, they rang a virtual bell. And, at lightning speed, the stock price dropped. Shareholders - including the workforce paid in stock options - lost millions.

Months earlier, Pincus made more than $100 million by selling off shares to private investors at a higher price than the public got. Vivek Wadhwa is a business professor at several schools, including Stanford. He criticizes the move.

VIVEK WADHWA: When the CEO starts selling stock even before the company goes public at the rate Mark Pincus has, it sends a message to the employees that it's all about money. This person doesn't believe in his own company.

SHAHANI: Google went public when it was flush with cash. Facebook is doing the same. Pincus threw Zynga into the stock market when it was barely breaking even. He says about his own style.

PINCUS: I've had a bad tendency to kind of throw myself under a bus and I'm learning about management leadership every week.

SHAHANI: In the coming months, players online and in the stock market will decide just how much Mark Pincus has learned. Aarti Shahani, NPR News.




Copyright © 2012 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.