Why Isn’t Instagram at Least as Evil as Zynga?

Instagram selling for $1 billion dollars generated surprise, and envy.

Perhaps people can understand a strategic rationale for Facebook buying it, or competitive impulse, but the befuddlement remains.  You can hear the suppressed snicker coming from the mainstream business prairie: they weren’t making money, but hey, for the team itself, hooray!  Everyone agrees they’re really nice young men, who network and took risks.  They are poster boys for the Stanford-Silicon Valley axis.

Would people feel the same way about Instagram as a company if they did make money from their users?

They could insert an ad, spam your friends, or give you a premium upgrade only if you filled out a survey. They would share in Zynga’s original sin. There are other reasons Zynga may or may not be evil — options cancellations, labor practices and the like — but it is unlikely these are abnormal and surely the case that they are examined intensely only in the wake of their basic game philosophy of, and success from, compulsion loop design.  “Copying” is the other charge, but widespread in the industry, and goes back to the dawn of video game time.

Imagine an alternate history where Zynga relied on the capital markets instead of their user base to monetize. Imagine they sold for $1 billion just on the promise of how a user base could be monetized rather than how they actually did monetize. Zynga monetizes now, Instagram monetizes later, and by a different corporate entity.  Anyone that believes “Zynga is evil” must also hold that the corporate shower of riches on Instagram is even more nefarious. Their user base was “hooked” on beauty instead of compulsion loops, only to be revealed ultimately as corporate assets, passively awaiting their harvesting by Facebook.

When Shay Pierce of OMGPOP turned down the offer to join Zynga, he went out in a blaze of Gamasutra glory.  He warned:

When an entity exists in an ecosystem, and acts within that ecosystem in a way that is short-sighted, behaving in a way that is actively destructive to the healthy functioning of that ecosystem and the other entities in it (including, in the long term, themselves) — yes, I believe that that is evil. And I believe that Zynga does exactly that.

A “good” company is one which provides goods or services of real value in exchange for a fair price. A good game company recognizes that its developers are the ones who create that value, and treats them as valuable, especially if they are good at what they do. It follows practices that are sustainable. And it ensures that, at the end of the day, the world is a little better for having their goods and services.

An evil company is trying to get rich quick, and has no regard for the harm they’re doing along the way. It’s not making things of value, it’s chasing a gold rush.

This evil company moving fast on an acquisition was taking very normal preventative steps for their intellectual property. But the game Shay made and “loves,” Connectrode, was in jeopardy, or so he thought.  A game whose video is self-described as an “Addictive” “evolution” of Bejewelled, Mario, and so forth.  In other words, Zynga, just not as successful.  Even the art form of the haughty public resignation letter was an iteration on something that had been just been done two weeks before.

What are the PR lessons from the respective public responses to the startling ascendancy of these two different companies?  The strategy for public positioning of companies needs to take two powerful psychological biases into effect: anchoring and confirmation. One creator of addictive iterative games calls Zynga evil and it is uncritically accepted and propagated. NimbleBit’s Tiny Tower rips off Corporation Inc. only to have Zynga do the same to them, but is lauded for their sarcastic lob.

While a private company, Zynga was transparent to the point of being cavalier about their culture, aims, and monetization.  That could have originated out of Silicon Valley philosophy, carelessness, or speed.  Whatever the reason, no effective or persistent defense was made about the value that they were bringing to bear.  The fact of the matter is, Zynga games are fun too: objectively so.  Fun in the very elemental sense.  They are friendly, brightly colored, and not too taxing.

Is this worse than any other form of consumer entertainment product that isn’t a labored indie film?  “Gamerz” protest too much and play these games in bespoke fashion. Yup we’re just doing it for research. For our kids. To see what’s happening in the industry.  Let me see just how stupid…level 10 is.

Cow Clicker is a nice shot at Farmville — it’s also a shot at Skyrim?

Skyrim is so much higher quality but, quick, what is the literary quality of these place names: Eastmarch, White Run, Dragon Bridge, Winterhold.  Quality is a difference of degree rather than type. In each game you customize, click, and level up, with a different number of dimensions and more bloodshed than in Castleville.  Obsessed with communicating their corporate growth, Zynga never made it OK to like or admire their games as a product.  The financial prospects Zynga demonstrated saved the game industry from a normal console transition downturn.  There is no Kabam, Kixeye, Funzio, Crowdstar, and so on without Zynga.

Don’t flash your headlights in urban areas.  Al Gore claimed to have invented the internet.  Zynga is evil.  People look uncritically for confirmation of their beliefs.

Take two casual photographs: Mark Pincus is photographed in Vanity Fair, lord of all he surveys, from his condo.  He’s already rich.

The most smug photo I can find of the Instagram guys is still that they’re jus’ brogrammers, in some class B office space, maybe fresh from hacking:

We can not help but interpret these photos with information we already know.  Imagine the positions were reversed: the above photograph was of a photo filter CEO.  Beautiful city, shaded to orange.  Below, the punk manipulators of lonely middle America.  Don’t the smiles look a bit more cocky, the office more ominously clinical?

The lessons between Instagram and Zynga, both dazzling and great companies with different public perceptions:

1) Companies should zealousy discuss the value they are bringing to the world.  Discuss the vision that inspires the product line, not just the anecdote behind the corporate name (though that humanization is probably Zynga’s most effective consumer media message.)  Failure to do so opens interpretation to lowest common denominator possibilities – you’re just in it for the money.

2) Companies — but more particularly, the people creating them — should not talk about the financial benefits they have subsequently reaped or were going to reap.  Descriptions that someone is now “rich” are hard to latch onto, be envious of and tear apart.  Specific dollar figures are easy to.  (See any public executive officer compensation report.)  Rare is the response of a Paul Graham to any quantification of income inequality.  This works in reverse too. Simply saying one is charitable has minimal effect.  Giving away half of your income is tangible: even if you’re not giving it to old Skype employees.

3) Transparency is only effective if complete, and properly segmented. There is no such thing as complete information. If your transparency is simply “shocking revelation” (or even tongue-in-cheek revelation, or whimsical attention-getting revelation) it will be pulled out of context.  Zynga was transparent, Instagram was not but Zynga didn’t win any points from the blogosphere or the professional community for it.  When in conversations you need to know the motivations of the reporter (/analyst/blogger/customer.)

4) When monetizing something that had previously been free (or uncluttered), you have perilous waters ahead.  Success with many customers will mean failure with others.  You may risk backlash.  Proper messaging about the changes need to be done in advance, not in response.

Communications plans should incorporate strategies for success as well as failure. Aim for transparency but support it with a clear narrative.  Journalists start out wanting to like you. They want to see a company succeed; to talk about the transformations made possible by technology, and see the local kid do good.  Zynga was once that kid, just like David Morin’s path.io might be today – and at a crossroads. Are they a visionary networker or cynical monetizer?

 “A few weeks before f8, Morin had coffee with Mark Pincus, the erstwhile founder of Tribe.net, co-owner of the sixdegrees social networking patent, and early investor in Facebook.  Pincus told Morin excitedly that he intended to build a poker application for the new platform.  “It won’t work,” Morin asserted dourly.  “Games aren’t viral.” Pincus went ahead and launched Texas HoldEm Poker on Facebook, starting a company called Zynga, which was headed for huge success.” –David Kirkpatrick, The Facebook Effect

When pushed, most entrepreneurs will confess their jealousy for this early insight. It is easier to discount the visionary as evil, that they are somehow winning through unfair play. “Zynga is evil” might be the Phiten necklace of the videogame industry: Something objectively not especially true but a (consoling) motivator, at least until the Zynga buyout offer comes around.



Playing in an Asynchronous World

The recent rise of mobile as a key platform in the gaming space is accompanied by meteoric growth in asynchronous gameplay. Not what you typically envision when hearing of the latest “multi-player videogame,” asynchronous games do not require the two or more participants to be playing simultaneously; rather, players make turns at their convenience. Chart toppers such as Words With Friends, Hero Academy and Draw Something have millions of people around the world playing asynchronous games daily.

The appeal of this detached gameplay mode on the mobile platform is obvious: by not having to participate “in-sync,” players are free to go about their day, logging in to make a move only when it’s convenient. Growing up, getting a quick game of StarCraft going with my friends required planning in advance to ensure everybody was free (or hoping they were signed into Ventrilo). Now the rich, social experience of multiplayer gaming is available anywhere, anytime, and with any of your hundreds of Facebook friends.

Without a doubt, asynchronous gameplay is bringing millions of new gamers online. Everybody from busy professionals to even busier moms can find time throughout the day to glance at their phones and lay down a quick 20-point word or crudely sketch a sunflower for their friends. These types of people that could never carve out a two-hour block of time to delve into the latest RTS or explore the world of a new MMO are exactly the target audience for asynchronous games.

Recently, I became completely addicted to Zynga’s Words With Friends. My phone buzzed constantly with updates – after all, with 10 or 15 games happening simultaneously, there’s always somebody free to play. I am, and imagine I always will be, a huge Scrabble fan, and my initial enthusiasm motivated the first few weeks of play. However, after a few months of playing WWF, I found myself oddly numb to the experience. Sliding my finger across each subsequent “New Move” notification pop-up seemed more and more of a chore and less about enjoying the game. I was no longer playing because I was immersed in the game, but rather because felt beholden to making the next move so my friends would not be left hanging.

A few months back, I finally snapped out of my daze and started reflecting on the experience, ultimately concluding that I expected too much of asynchronous gameplay. Like most of my daily electronic information flow, the game simply became another source for that short, addicting burst of serotonin so many of us crave in the Digital Age, with little to gain that could not be found in a casual glance at Twitter.

I may think that I’m a busy person and at times certainly am, but I’m no mom rushing kids to soccer practice and dance recitals. In retrospect, I probably spent close to two hours a day keeping up with WWF – not exactly a “non-disruptive” amount of time. Keep in mind, this was not two hours I scheduled specifically for play, but like with most players, time taken in small increments throughout the day that quickly added up to the point of distraction. This most convenient form of gaming was not only sucking an hour or two out of each day, but also doing so when I should have been focusing on work or enjoying the company of friends.

A few months free of Zynga’s iron grip and I’m making a point to schedule time for the sort of immersive gaming that I used to know and love, inviting friends over for a game of Super Smash Bros. or investing the time to set up a game of Risk or Settlers of Catan. I still play the occasional game of Draw Something or Scramble With Friends, but my notifications have all been turned off, and the icons are gone from my home screen. Now, I play only when I’m truly not busy or have made a point to invest some time.

Asynchronous games are part of a wider push in the tech space to make everything as convenient, connected and on-demand as possible. “No time to sit down and play? Just have these bite-sized snippets instead!” That’s great for people on the go, but for those of us accustomed to the deep immersion that comes with truly investing yourself in a game, with setting up your StarCraft hotkeys and arguing over which dictionary to use for Scrabble, there is more than a bit of magic missing so far, in asynchronous gameplay.

While I may sound like the exception to the rule in the face of so much overwhelming success, evidence suggests many others experience the same burnout and disappointment after the initial rush to play. However, I’m confident that the next generation of asynchronous game developers will mitigate these issues with innovative new features that not only keep us hooked, but also tear us away when things start to get out of hand and our entertainment threatens to become a chore.