The Evil Zynga

I’ve taken my shots at Zynga before, but this New York Times article is just odd.

It talks about crying employees, of course (see my article here) and warns that “Zynga’s tough culture risks a talent drain,” and “signs of trouble are emerging.”

The problem? A focus on metrics? Emphasis added: “But the heavy focus on metrics, in this already competitive industry, has also fostered an uncompromising culture, one where employees are constantly measured and game designers are pushed to meet aggressive deadlines. While some staff members thrive in this environment, others find it crushing. Several former employees describe emotionally charged encounters, including loud outbursts from Mr. Pincus, threats from senior leaders and moments when colleagues broke down into tears.”

Measuring employees and pushing them to meet aggressive deadlines doesn’t sound all that outrageous to me, to be honest.

The infamous stock option renegotiations were once again surfaced as well, but the article failed to point out that a grand total of four employees, out of thousands, were affected.

But the article also points out the perks. I’ve never had perks like this:

The company has added data centers and expanded teams to ease the burden on its engineers. It is also encouraging managers to schedule a bigger buffer between project phases and to give teams the week off before a game’s debut. Zynga — which offers employee perks like acupuncture, Friday happy hours and a cafeteria with organic food — is also spending millions on focus groups and other initiatives to strengthen its manager training programs.

Acupuncture?

And:

Zynga dispenses lavish gifts like vacations and $100,000 in vested stock. After the game Mafia Wars reached a milestone two years ago, Zynga sent the team to Las Vegas to celebrate, buying some 80 plane tickets and providing $500 in cash for each person and luxury hotel accommodations, according to one former senior employee.

Next, rival Electronic Arts’ fingerprints are all over this story. There are two quotes from EA executives:

“I expect a lot of game and tech companies will begin recruiting Zynga’s talent after their equity becomes liquid,” said Gabrielle Toledano, head of human resources for Electronic Arts. “Competitors will make the case that they offer much more compelling opportunities for creative people.”

and

“We’ve learned that when companies treat talent as a commodity, the consequences are severe,” said Ms. Toledano of Electronic Arts. “It takes years to repair a reputation.” (probably referring to this EA lawsuit)

And there’s also a quote by famous venture capitalist Roger McNamee saying Zynga will end up a cautionary tale (McNamee, with all due respect, is the man who predicted Palm would kill the iPhone).

“Zynga should be an example of entrepreneurship at its best,” said Roger McNamee, a co-founder of the venture capital firm Elevation Partners. “Instead it’s going to be a Harvard Business School case study on founder overreach — this will be a cautionary tale.”

The fact that McNamee’s former founding partner at Elevation Partners, John Riccitiello, is now the CEO of EA, isn’t mentioned. Nor is the fact that Elevation Partners tried at one point to invest in Zynga.

And Zynga, in the IPO quiet period, can’t do a damn thing to fight back.

All’s fair in love and war, and with the hundred plus former EA employees and executives now at Zynga, I’m not surprised they’re fighting back. But the New York Times should have known better than to become a tool for EA. That article just smells bad.

43 thoughts on “The Evil Zynga

  1. Read the NYT article earlier tonight and thought it came off as heavy-handed. And not knowing the Elevation-EA connection, the quote from Roger in the middle seemed random. Thanks for providing some background.

  2. The irony here is that EA are known in Silicon Valley as one of the worst employers. There are numerous anonymous EA staff blogs ranting about how terrible the experience working for EA is, the most prominent example is ‘EA Spouse':

    http://ea-spouse.livejournal.com/274.html

    http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1454102

    EA have setup their own employee relation websites in an attempt to dilute the SERP’s on EA employment and jobs (it used to be that any search for ‘EA’ and ‘work’ or ‘jobs’ would turn up one of these anonymous blogs):

    http://insideea.com/working-at-ea/

    • to add: EA always come up in forums as the worst example of ‘bad employer’, on Slashdot, HN etc. It is funny that a hit job on Zynga that quotes EA executives makes no mention of their own problems.

      • Mo says:

        Missed this part?

        “Employees at Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard have filed lawsuits against their employers, with claims of hostile work conditions and withheld compensation. In 2006, Electronic Arts settled two class-action lawsuits by game artists and programmers for about $15 million each”

  3. h h says:

    EA Spouse worked at Zynga.

    • ez says:

      Colleen McCreary and Mark Skaggs both work at Zynga. They also worked at EA during the Spouse of EA controversy. Skaggs was named specifically in the blog post that started the whole controversy and Colleen worked as “Director, Corporate HR & Diversity”. The toxic culture was partially imported from EA. The rest comes from the tiny dictator himself, Pincus.

      As for the perks, good luck finding an open time slot or the free time for acupuncture or whatever it is. The perks are bullet points on the website or talking points during an interview. You will be working too much to enjoy them. The same goes for the BS of the vacation policy…

      http://company.zynga.com/about/jobs/benefits

      ‘We have no formal policy for exempt employees. Our vacation policy is “please rest and take some days off.”’

      You will be told you cannot take time off until the current (manufactured) crisis is over. That vacation “policy” is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

      The article/blog post is quite accurate. Zynga is especially horrible.

      • activateTheDog says:

        Weird, I’ve gotten accupuncture like 5 times, and I’ve taken more than 5 days off per quarter every quarter.

        Sucks to be you?

        • ez says:

          Not everyone at Zynga is forced to work hard. A small group of people manage to skate by. Pincus calls them the “MIA”.

  4. Abiel says:

    The problem with Zynga is that most people don’t consider most of their games as real games. Plus is it me or this Startups Are Hard. So Work More, Cry Less, And Quit All The Whining and Zynga’s Tough Culture Risks a Talent Drain were published at the same day.

  5. Naren says:

    “Employees at Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard have filed lawsuits against their employers, with claims of hostile work conditions and withheld compensation. In 2006, Electronic Arts settled two class-action lawsuits by game artists and programmers for about $15 million each”

    Did you miss the above quote?

  6. Omar says:

    I suspect that having a tough culture is more of a criticism that will stick at a company that has such a cheery exterior and hires artists to churn out their main product. As a designer I believe in working hard to achieve a defined goal, but if I’m under constant pressure to show results, it becomes harder to see the big picture. Creativity happens in bursts. No amount of corporate perks can make up for a lack of vision.

  7. Joe Scrilota says:

    Dealbook is a blog!!! Remember your post about how blogs don’t have to be journalism? :)

  8. Robyn Smith says:

    I find it quite annoying when journalists write articles like the above and place emphasis on employees crying and emotionally charged encounters. Go to any business in the world and you can find an employee that has been upset or had an emotional argument with a fellow colleague/senior member of staff.

    There are 11 people in the entire company I work for and these kind of exchanges even happen between us. Get over it.

    I also fail to see how environments like that risk draining talent? Leave. I have no sympathy for people who let that situation ‘drain’ them. Clearly they’re not suited to the company. You think you’d see some of Wall Street’s high flyers crying in a corner? Of course not, they either take charge of the situation, or leave.

    • Omar says:

      Taking charge of a situation means having the wherewithal to do so. A wall street high flyer is a lot more likely to have a golden parachute than someone taking a design job.

  9. John Best says:

    From anecdotal evidence, ALL games companies work like this. There is always the constant crush to meet shipping deadlines. As far as tech companies go, they’re at the pressure cooker end.

  10. Assaf says:

    >> Acupuncture?

    Stabbing employees in the back now actually considered a perk.

  11. and what pray tell is your axe to grind, arrington? you may be getting rusty but you havent written such a derivative piece in a long time.

  12. Mike says:

    The NYT article does seem to be a hit job. Yet, there’s an awful lot of smoke around Mr. Pincus for there not to be at least a small brush fire.

  13. Jeff says:

    Oh, please…

    Any geek worth hir salt can get a better job in a second. It’s the do-nothing whiners who have to worry about the lack of a parachute,

  14. Glenn Kelman says:

    Zynga could respond to the NYT article in its quiet period without making any forward-looking statements, financial disclosures or other announcements that would draw SEC concern.

  15. Jon Lim says:

    I read the article and came up with a good outlook on Zynga: they work their employees hard and have a rough company culture, possibly through growing like crazy over the past couple of years.

    However, they seem to be trying hard to fix that image and become better aligned with their employees.

    Seems like a feel good story in my eyes!

  16. Fish says:

    If I was a game designer I would hate to work for zynga. Their games are designed to be compulsive/addictive, whether they are fun or not is irrelevant to them. It’s all about keeping people addicted so they will eventually pay for virtual goods, it’s like designing slot machines. Zynga doesn’t think ‘what can we change to make the game better’ they think what can we change in the game to improve conversion rates of people buying virtual goods.

  17. Anas Hashmi says:

    Thank god you are back! I almost began hating techcrunch because I stopped seeing your posts on there.

    As one of the early readers who started reading your blog 3 months into service, I have frequently been inspired by YOUR insight into the stuff you research. You don’t just do some stupid rewrite of articles unless it is worth your reader’s time. I like that.

    But when you sold out to AOL, my heart sank and my life dimmed. I tried to stay (cough, fake) positive, but I still don’t like techcrunch anymore except for that startup stream which is the only thing close to what you wrote about.

    You inspired me to be the person I am today. And if I were to do a startup, I would not tolerate anybody to report on it except you. Thanks for being back.

  18. @Arrington: I absolutely love how real you keep it. Here’s to metrics, results, keeping people accountable and weeding out the whiners.

  19. Ex-EA Employee says:

    Gabrielle Toledano (EA head of HR) and Colleen McCreary (Zynga head of HR, formerly reported into Toledano at EA) do not get along at all. Definitely sounds like an EA hit job.

  20. If you start working for a company that doesn’t meet your expectations (work hours, design goals, etc), get the hell out of there instead of crying some kind of entitled wave of emotion. It’s really that simple. If a company wants to conduct business a certain way, and it works, then that’s how they choose to operate.

    Folks join some of the most severely punishing military forces for their own reasons, and many choose not to. Folks deal with the pain of starting up companies for their own reasons, and many choose not to. Folks sit in a comfortable, retirement-oriented career, while doing repetitive and mundane things, and a few choose not to. Put on your thinking cap, vet your potential employer as much as they vet you, live a life you want to live and work the life you want to work.

    Odd article, indeed.

  21. D-MONEY says:

    So the NY Times was used by EA as a means in which to plant seeds about their pending demise?

    SOUNDS LEGIT. ALLOW ME TO ADJUST MY TINFOIL HAT.

  22. TruDat says:

    CORRECTION: I personally know six people (not four) who were asked to give back unvested stock options at Zynga. And there are others. Five of the people I know quit, and one stayed on b/c even giving back the options, the overall comp was far better than anywhere else. This said, Zynga is, as one person said above, a “grown up” startup COMPANY, not an evil person or the manifestation of Mark Pincus. Pincus and the e-team do what they believe they need to do to create the greatest shareholder value. This may inure to Pincus most as a largest individual shareholder (individual person, not fund), but it also inures to every employee with any Zynga stock. Zynga employees work very hard b/c they are pushed very hard. The hours can be crazy…but at the end of the day, this forced work ethic has made Zynga a juggernaut in less than 4 years.

  23. It’s that hard at Zynga, huh? Sounds like another day at work for me.

  24. Soluble Apps says:

    The article didn’t seem particularly pro-EA to me. They were used as an example of another company who had been sued by their employees.

  25. bhuwan says:

    A startup no more!

  26. Mike, you obviously have no clue on the subject.

    All those perks are useless when you are working 18 hours a day. It’s like offering a offering quadruple amputee fly time in a jet fighter,

  27. Mikael says:

    FYI — The NYT article was written by a former employee of TC:

    “BY EVELYN M. RUSLI”

  28. Honestly, I rarely hear anything good about the gaming industry, whether casual games or video games. It’s really just for true believers who seem to think that gaming is the greatest thing in the world ever. For others, my advice is treat it like any other job. Do your best work, but no more.

  29. dcberwick says:

    Thanks Mike, I had read the NYT post (got it from Hacker News) but although I found the article quite one-sided, I just thought that reporters are usually so. I hadn’t made the connection you make here, and now that I’ve read your post, it really does sound like a hit job. Thanks, keep it up.

  30. hukhanHabib says:

    God I miss you Arrington. Searched out this blog because the new TC had me crying tears of blood. Still some great people there though. But you know that.

  31. JoeDuck says:

    Excellent Mike, although topics like this are ripe for careful research since dramatically changing business models will drive us all forward or backwards in the coming years. Google, for example, seems to have combined a comfortable culture with success. My guess is that there was little cause and effect there however. Rather, Google’s massive early revenues allowed them to pick both brilliant and motivated folks and offer great benefits as well. Correlation not causation. Yahoo also had a relaxed corporate culture and IMO having stock and watching them flail around in the early rounds with Google … it contributed to the near-destruction of that company.

  32. Abused At Zynga says:

    EA, Activision & Zynga, have the same ethic as Microsoft, Yahoo and many other dare I say ‘companies’ out there. For all the name dropping (yawn), insults (hint hint) and googly eyes accompanied with the mutual embarrassment known as dribbling…… every single one of these companies treats people like commodities and if need be, will trample anything to reach that next dollar and banner it under ‘the american dream’ which is the exact reason why many right minded people hate ‘the american dream’.

    A day doesn’t go by, where all of these companies DO NOT treat a person like excrement.

    Ulterior motives and usage of the word “whiners” fail to change the corrupt minds and nature of the above. Shame on all who try to defend the corrupt ethic. Abusing people for profits is abhorrent and when justice hits, the “you whiners” will crying in your own acid based breakfast cereal.

    And you know what really does take the biscuit ? The majority of you probably pick up the paper and sneer at lesser evils.

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