"The Family" Business
An Offer You Can't Refuse

Allen Varney | 17 Nov 2009 08:43
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Back. Gah, I just got attacked six times by some total stranger called Bella B - and, practically defenseless with my mere four dozen mafiosi, I got snuffed. Six XP, gone!


Because I don't have many friends besides Deborah playing Mafia Wars, I'm missing out on much of its design, like fighting other players - and being a hired gun for the Hitlist - and declaring war. The game excels at making poorly connected players feel wretched. If you don't have a large mafia, you're mere chum in the water for the sharks with 500 friends. Useful weapons and lucrative properties even include a requirement to recruit two additional mafia members. No wonder so many Facebookers open their mafia to total strangers.

That's far from the only way Mafia Wars has spread its influence throughout Facebook. These social games want your friends to see everything. My first sense of Zynga's nature rose when it tried to enslave me as its personal spambot. It attempted to hijack my address book, and every time I leveled, helped someone or found some thingy, it wanted to announce it in my feed. Facebook has announced a plan to prohibit such spamming, but we'll see how aggressively they pursue it.

Worse, though, is Zynga's blatant plagiarism. My heart sank when I learned its games don't just borrow subjects or mimic tone the way, say, Vampire Wars knocks off the goth-punk vibe of White Wolf RPGs. No, these are precise, literal clones. Mafia Wars started as a direct copy of David Maestri's Mob Wars, and FarmVille is a point-for-point duplicate of Slashkey's Farm Town. At the Austin Game Developers Conference in September 2009, Brian Reynolds - yes, the same Brian Reynolds who this year forsook real-time strategy godhood at Big Huge Games to become Chief Designer at Zynga - boasted how they brought FarmVille from conception to launch in five weeks. Yeah, five weeks to commission new art and press the Copy button. In late September, Zynga pushed the button again with Cafe World, a close copy of Playfish's Restaurant City, and now they're targeting CrowdStar's Happy Aquarium with FishVille.

Zynga's aggressive copying must make small developers shudder, like a restaurant owner watching well-dressed thugs walk in. You start a new app, it becomes successful and a month later Zynga moves in, rips it off and recruits your entire customer base. Mafia wars, indeed.

But this is perfectly legal, if not ethical. It took me longer to learn the worst.


I needed revenues now. So I funded the company myself, but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean, we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this Zwinky toolbar, which was like - I don't know - I downloaded it once and couldn't get rid of it. [Laughs.] We did anything possible just to get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business.

That's Zynga's founder and CEO, serial entrepreneur Mark Pincus, speaking in spring 2009 at a [email protected] mixer. In early November, TechCrunch posted the video, commenting that "scamming users was part of Zynga's business model from the start." The scams involve Zynga's micropayment model, seen in Mafia Wars and all its other games. Though Mafia Wars is free, it makes you hunger for in-game Reward points that get you super-good loot, energy, skill points, name changes and above all, extra hired guns.

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