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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

April 13, 2011 at 4:55 PM

Q&A: Zynga founder on Seattle hiring spree, Amazon, Facebook

The line was out the door Tuesday night at the new Seattle office of Zynga, the red hot San Francisco social games company.

About 175 engineers and game developers crammed into the space in the Washington Shoe Building in Pioneer Square.


Zynga called it a launch party, but it was really a recruiting event, the latest in a series of meet-and-greets hosted by California companies tapping into Seattle’s deep reservoir of tech talent. Similar events were held earlier this year by and Facebook, while Google, and Seattle startups have been talking up their hiring plans.

Tuesday’s highlight was an appearance by Zynga founder Mark Pincus, who gave a quick speech and worked the room, shaking hands and getting his picture taken with fans.

Zynga has had amazing growth. Started in 2007, it now has around 250 million players for its games such as “FarmVille” and “CityVille.” They’re mostly played on Facebook, generating a staggering amount of information about players’ activity that Zynga needs help sifting and analyzing.

Pincus, 45, told the crowd – including engineers from Cray, and RealNetworks – that Zynga is tracking 8 billion “neighbor connections” among between users, who generate 5 terabytes of click data per day, up 500 percent from the fall.

Managing this flood is a challenge but “what’s more interesting is what you do with it,” he said.

Also interesting to the audience is the chance to join Zynga before it goes public. Last month it was reportedly valued at $10 billion by investors and positioned for an IPO in 2012. It has raised more than $360 million and has nearly 2,000 employees.

In Seattle, Zynga set up enough room for 54 employees people initially. So far 10 seats are filled, mostly with early employees like Neil Roseman, who was hired last month as the vice president in charge of the office.

During an interview at the event, Pincus talked about Zynga’s relationship with Facebook, its future and what he’s looking for in Seattle. Here are edited excerpts:

Q: Why are you so interested in there so many employees here?

A: We are definitely not targeting Amazon or any other company.

It seems like there’s a lot of affinity between the cultures of our companies. I have huge respect for Jeff Bezos and the way he builds his company – the idea that he took a simple concept like shopping and made it so much better, and created a vision that makes as much sense now as it did 10 years ago, and you know it will make as much sense in 10 years.

The way that company has built out, it’s very technology-centric. It’s about APIs and Web services. Really they were way ahead of their time in approaching e-commerce not as a compilation of Web pages, but as something with a much more powerful backend.

That’s very similar to the approach that were taking to gaming. We want to have this very powerful backend that we’ve invested massively in, this real-time data store that may be the biggest in the game industry. I’m sure it’s the biggest by the sheer quantity of data, and a culture inside the company that’s very decentralized – everything is kind of an API service inside the company.

Q: Is your respect for Amazon why you’re in Seattle?

A: No, we’ve been interested in Seattle for a long, long time. It really was more coincidental that Amazon’s here and that we happen to have a bunch of former Amazon people.

It’s more likely that the Microsoft influence on Seattle will impact us than Amazon in the sense that we’re excited about the level of real hard-core engineering. When I think of the engineering horsepower here, I think in many ways it can be deeper than the Bay Area.

Q: The opening comments by you and Neil suggest Zynga is building a new foundation of services. Is that for running Zynga post-Facebook?

A: There are a couple of focuses where this talent pool will be really key for us. One is broadly in network products – consumer facing products that have value across all of our games – like Zynga message center, which is used by more than half of our players every day as a way to interact and be social with their friends. There’s a whole layer that we’re excited about, surfacing more social opportunities in any Zynga game.

Q: Independent of the platform?

A: Independent of the platform. That’s one area of network products. Another area is game development. If we can find and recruit world-class game entrepreneurs from up here – they exist up here but we don’t have them – we would love to build games here.

The third area is on mobile platforms — going deeper on new technologies whether around HTML, whether it’s rendering tools, development tools.

Q: Zynga has figured out ways to keep players around, offering them fresh content. That seems to make you voracious, acquiring talent so you keep getting new ideas.

A: Yeah, because we approach games as a service, it’s more like a TV show – it’s more like “Lost” or “Seinfeld.” The users of those games have a voracious appetite for new content. The games are all about engagement – these are really some of the deepest engagement on the Internet.

If you think about your options to spend time on the Internet, you can look at a bunch of links and text pages or interact in a deeply rich, interactive environment like a game with your friends. Chances are the game is going to be a more compelling experience while you’re engaged in it.

But in our kinds of games, as you go up the ladder, there’s this always increasing appetite for new content – quests, in Farmville – decorations, new features. We’re always trying to innovate around creating new ways for you to interact with your friends. Farmville just launched Farmville England. In Farmville England we came out with things like animal breeding, new kinds of buildings that matter. Cityville has every week or every other week, they just came out with new version of franchises, which is incredibly social.

Q: You also do a lot acquistions, to keep the machine going …

A: Yeah, the acquisitions have been about bringing in new DNA. We like teams that have worked together for a long time. We love teams that have already brought products to market and have that battle hardened sense of what it takes really to get something out the door and take it to scale.

Q: Had you considered buying a Seattle company to get started here?

A: We’ve been interested in Seattle for a long time. It’s surprising when you think that we’re in 13 locations it’s taken us this long to come to Seattle.

Q: What do you think about Seattle’s Big Fish Games and PopCap?

A: I think they’re great companies that are in slightly different businesses than we are. I have huge respect for both of them — and I play and have been addicted to a bunch of PopCap’s games.

Q: Where will you be in two years?

A: I hope that we have made many, many tens of millions of more people into daily social gamers. I hope that we’ve made “play” as big a verb on the Internet as “search” or “shop” or “share.”

Q: What will happen to console networks like Xbox Live and PlayStation Network?

A: I probably have a counterintuitive or contrarian view on that. I actually think you’re going to see a surprising upsurge in their business. I think that social gaming is teaching a lot more people about how fun games are and I think there will be people who graduate upwards. I think you’ll see the two come closer together in the sense the console games probably will see the value in going more where the Nintendo Wii went or most recently Microsoft Kinect. I think you’ll see them see the value in going more casual. It’s kind of like movies versus TV – they’ll always be in a position to deliver a much higher value, deeper, engaged experience than the web can.

Q: You’re following Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others that recently had big recruiting pushes and events in Seattle.

A: Is it inappropriate to ask if their CEO’s came?

Q: No – they didn’t.

A: So we’re hungrier for Seattle talent.

Q: Is Seattle talent’s hungrier for you, because Zynga is in position to go public?

A: I don’t know about that but I hope that people wouldn’t join us because they were hoping we’d go public. We want people to join us because they’re excited about this mission. I think there’s probably a great financial opportunity at all of these companies. I’m hopeful people are excited about games and they’re excited about the kinds of products we want to build and the ways we want to innovate and they’re excited about the kind of data that we’re digging into and the kind of problems we’re trying to solve. It’s a very different environment and experience at our company than any of those companies, public or private.

Ours is more small teams that are more like startups that have their own missions and they’re off doing them.

Q: Where will this office be in a few years?

A: I just don’t know. If we’re able to attract the game talent as well as engineering talent here, then Seattle could be one of our biggest if not second biggest location. It depends on how big social games gets and how big we get with it, but the remote studio model has been very successful for us.

Q: Your Facebook partnership expires in what, 2014 or 2015?

A: Gosh, we don’t even think about that. I think the way that Mark [Zuckerberg] and I think about that is both of us hope that that is a partnership that lasts decades.

Q: I keep hearing that a huge amount of money generated on Facebook is by Zynga.

A: Neither company talks about it, but it’s definitely a very important business relationship for both.

Q: How will your mix of global vs. U.S. players evolve? (Now 75 percent are outside of the U.S.)

A: I would assume it will eventually look more and more like the Internet. Our view in the future is there will be something like 4 billion devices connected to each other through a combination of the Internet and social networks on top of that, and that half of those people will engage in games.

Q: How many will be Zynga games?

A: Of course I hope the lion’s share. We hope that we can be the Google or the Amazon — what they are to their verbs, we want to be to “play.”

Q: Who are your biggest competitors?

A: We don’t think about it. We don’t spend our time thinking about beating competition. For Google to build out search or Amazon to build out shop, they had to take it direct to the consumers and convince them this had value in their daily lives. So it’s a much harder mission than just trying to take out a competitor or beat somebody else.

We have to innovate and prove to you that we’re worthy of 15 minutes of your day every day, and we’re a better way for you to play and relax and connect. It’s probably like you’re going to do that instead of TV or a conference call at work – or during a conference call.

I know in traditional media it’s “what are you taking away from.” Social gaming to me feels additive: I think people have these nooks and crannies of time that we haven’t every been able to fill as a society before, and these mobile devices are starting to let us do that. We all want to multitask a little bit – we’re really designing our games to fit in those nooks and crannies.

It’s funny, we don’t want them to be too engaging – they shouldn’t compete for your attention too much. They should be just nice, in the background.

Comments | More in Interviews | Topics:, Billionaire techies, Cray


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