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October 21, 2012

Slate: Hard times in FarmVille

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Nobody in Silicon Valley respects Zynga. Sure, the prolific developer of Facebook games has long been considered a "hot" startup, one that hit all the early markers of success. Zynga was founded in 2007, and within a couple years it was one of the world's biggest game companies. Its titles — including FarmVille and CityVille and Words With Friends — have won hundreds of millions of players, a small number of whom spend vast sums to purchase virtual items that improve their standings in the games. These virtual items make for real money: Zynga's 2011 revenue topped $1 billion, and its initial public offering last December was one of the most anticipated tech debuts of the past few years.

Yet despite its blistering early fortunes, I've never spoken to anyone outside Zynga who considers the company's rise a positive development for the tech or gaming industries. Instead, it's more common to hear grousing about how the company treats its employees poorly; that it, ahem, draws inspiration from other game makers' ideas; and that its ultimate prospects may not be that bright.

Zynga CEO Mark Pincus has defended the company's game development strategy by arguing that the company's versions of other people's games are better: "We don't need to be first to market. We need to be the best in market," he told employees in a memo earlier this year. He has also said that some employee complaints stem from "growing pains"; many of the company's current employees love working at the firm, he has said.

Despite Pincus' statements to the contrary, Zynga feels like a firm without a purpose. The major difference between today's Internet companies and ones that were founded during the dot-com bubble of the 1990s is that modern firms believe they're changing the world. Though their claims may be dubious, Facebook and Twitter genuinely believe that they're going to make a killing and they're going to improve the lives of billions. By that standard Zynga is an unfortunate throwback to the best-forgotten bubble years. All the gaming company does is convince suckers to spend a lot of time and money tending virtual flowerbeds — and it didn't even invent those virtual flowerbeds. If you're looking for this generation's Pets.com, Zynga is pretty much it.

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