One of the Internet’s greatest success stories in 2010 can be found in a former potato chip factory on Vermont Street in Potrero Hill. This is the original office of Zynga, the S.F.-based creator of online “social” games — FarmVille, a simple application in which participants plant and harvest crops, is the company’s best-known product — that in three years has gone from scrappy startup to the toast of Silicon Valley.
Since launching its first Internet game in 2007, Zynga has grown rapidly. The company’s true earnings are unknown to outsiders, but industry observers estimate that its annual revenue could now be $500 million or more. In May, social-media analyst Lou Kerner estimated Zynga’s total price tag at $4 billion, based on corporate filings for a stock issuance.
In light of Zynga’s phenomenal rise, one former senior employee recalls arriving at the company eager to discover what new business practices were driving its success in a market where other popular Web 2.0 ventures struggled to make money. What was Zynga’s secret? Not long after starting work, he got an answer. It came directly from Zynga founder and CEO Mark Pincus at a meeting. And it wasn’t what he expected.
“I don’t fucking want innovation,” the ex-employee recalls Pincus saying. “You’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers.”
The former employee, who requested anonymity in order to speak candidly about his experience at Zynga, said this wasn’t just bluster. Indeed, interviews conducted by SF Weekly with several former Zynga workers indicate that the practice of stealing other companies’ game ideas — and then using Zynga’s market clout to crowd out the games’ originators — was business as usual.
Criticisms and speculation about Zynga’s theft of ideas have been aired before, chiefly in tech-industry blogs that have remarked on apparent design similarities between Zynga’s smash hits — including FarmVille, FishVille, PetVille, Café World, and Mafia Wars — and predecessors published by other companies. But company insiders have never discussed the frankness with which Zynga, led by Pincus, based its lucrative business model on exploiting the achievements of competitors.
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