NEW YORK – Mark Pincus – the other Mark of Silicon Valley – helped usher in the Facebook era with catchy games that got people clicking on virtual cows and building virtual cities while staying on Facebook for hours on end.
Named after Pincus late American Bulldog, Zynga, the company that gave us FarmVille, CityVille and Bubble Safari is now stretching the limits of its Facebook leash by steering players to its own digital gaming hub.
June 26 marked the second Zynga Unleashed event at the companys sprawling San Francisco headquarters. Last year, it used the occasion to launch what was then known as Project Z, a place for people to play Zynga games on the companys own platform, rather than on a social network such as Facebook. This year brought more games and new social-networking features centered on gaming.
Project Z is now Zynga.com. Its a place separate from Facebook, sure, but much as a clever canine that knows not to steer too far from its human companion, Zynga isnt leaving Facebook behind. People who want to play games on Zynga.com still use their Facebook identities to log in. Once there, though, its a place free of status updates, news links and baby photos that clutter Facebook. Instead, its all about games.
Zynga wasnt Pincus first project, but its by far the biggest. The Chicago-born Harvard Business School graduate founded an early social network, Tribe.net, in 2003. Tribe was created to let people form online communities around shared interests, but it never gained the kind of following that Friendster and MySpace would just a couple years later. He also founded FreeLoader Inc., an Internet technology startup he sold for $38 million.
Pincus recognized the promise of social networks early on. He was one of Facebook Inc.s earliest investors. And in 2003, he and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman bought a broad and sweeping patent covering social networking, wrote David Kirkpatrick in The Facebook Effect. Hoffman told Kirkpatrick that the purchase was a defensive move, to make sure no one would kill the nascent industry by using such a patent to block emerging networks.
Pincus says he was a serial entrepreneur before Zynga because he failed to create a long-term, sustainable company. Now 46, Pincus spoke with The Associated Press recently by telephone. Here are excerpts, edited for clarity and style:
Q. There is a lot of money in Silicon Valley right now. How does it compare with what was happening in the 90s?
A. There are so many ways I think this is different. The most fundamental difference is that we are seeing consumer Internet services delivering a lot more of the promise that everyone saw 12 years ago. And the size of the audience that successful applications are reaching seems to be getting bigger and bigger.
The second difference is I think that there is a much more sustainable, scalable, profitable business model behind successful products and services that can sustain these companies. And the third difference that goes along with the first two is that Silicon Valley, the culture and the entrepreneurs have grown up. Even the younger ones show so much more maturity than 12 years ago. You see the companies that are growing up today want to build long-term, sustainable consumer brands and franchises.
Q. How is it different for you, with Zynga?
A. The way I describe my career is that Ive been a serial entrepreneur before Zynga because I failed to create a long-term, sustainable company. Not by choice. So whats different for me is that weve gotten someplace where we can invest in a single company and brand and product on the long run. Its much more fulfilling. Ive never had this kind of opportunity before in my career. Ive never been able to bring products to market that could be quickly seen and loved by millions of people.
Q. And that was because of Facebook?
A. Facebook has been a key catalyst and enabler. These open platforms that are enabling new products to get to broad audiences much quicker. Facebook, iPhone, Android, Google opening up. This whole environment of open platform makes it possible for great products to get to the mass market.
Q. Where would you like to see social games go from here?
A. The promise of games for everyday people is still so much greater than the experience that everyone has today. The overall tectonic shifts that are going on in games and more broadly in media are that everything is moving to becoming free, social and accessible. But were just at the beginning of that. We can get to a day where short-session play can enhance, if not replace, text messaging as a way to stay in touch with people.
Q. So kind of like the chat that people do right now in Words With Friends but an evolution of that?
A. Yeah. I call it pokes with a purpose. The idea that were all on the go and running around and we are looking for ways to keep in touch with so many people. Thats one of the reasons why Facebook has been so important for so many people. And Twitter, and social media.
Games can give you a new dimension, but we have to make them. We still have to go a ways to package them more so that they are a poke with a purpose but not a rulebook thats asking for a lot of your time. Words With Friends and Draw Something and Scramble With Friends start to kind of poke at that, at what that future could look like.
Q. Is that future mainly on mobile devices? Does this mean that you guys are moving away from the Web and from Facebook?
A. No, each of these mediums offers different kinds of exciting experiences. We still use the radio. We still use TV, and Im a long-term believer in the PC. We still sit down in front of one at work. I just think of the PC as when you sit down for a meal. And when you are on the go and want a snack, you are on your mobile device. They need to talk more to each other, those experiences.
I still believe that we can offer you a much deeper, more engaging, more compelling play experience on a PC than we can on a mobile device, but one can enhance the other and one can expand the other. I dont think they necessarily will compete with each other, just like how we find a place for movies in our lives, and TV and radio. The same will be true between a handset, a tablet and a PC.