Can Pincus Still Make Zynga An “Internet Treasure”?

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“An Internet Treasure is something that consumers can’t remember what life was like before they had it,” Mark Pincus told Y Combinator’s Startup School back in 2009. Then, Zynga had hit titles and cash flowing in. Today, Zynga’s shares sit at a third of their IPO price and it lacks a blockbuster game. With the arrival of Don Mattrick as CEO, if Zynga wants to become an institution, it’s now or never.

Onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt 2010, Zynga board member John Doerr and Pincus discussed what being an Internet Treasure really means. Doerr explained “I believe there are some companies and some brands that give generations pride. The Internet is the cornerstone of our generation in business. An ‘Internet Treasure’ is a company on the Internet that makes us all proud to be alive right now.”

When asked what the term meant to him, Pincus revealed:

“Like so many of you guys I’ve spent my whole career pursuing new ideas and venture creation, and it wasn’t until Bing and John introduced this idea of Internet Treasure to me that it brought the ‘why’ into better focus. I realized we all have this opportunity to create, at a consumer level, products and brands that people can’t imagine life without. And I think Facebook and Amazon, and BlackBerry and the iPhone are products we can’t imagine life before, and we can’t ever imagine life without. For me it became a mantra and a rallying cry inside of our company that helped create the far-out vision for all of us to come back to “is that on the path to building an Internet Treasure?”  We all talk about being sustainable and profitable but for what purpose?  The idea that this greater purpose and opportunity for what we’re all doing — it was really inspiring for us.”

That purpose, Zynga’s mission, is “Connecting the world through games.” Taken earnestly, it’s admirable. People spend much of their time slogging through work they’re not passionate about, separated from the people they love. Games can offer a simultaneous respite, while also drawing us closer together and making memories.

Zynga arguably has a better chance of succeeding at that mission than past generational games companies like Hasbro (owner of Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley) or Nintendo. Games of the past were typically played by people who were already physically connected — you had to be sitting next to each other to play. But with the Internet and mobile phones, Zynga has an unprecedented opportunity to bring us together even when we’re apart. It can squeeze joy out of the downtime moments of everyday life. It can let us escape without being alone.

But the rise of the technologies that enable Zynga also brought a newfound ability to quantify the success of a game, for better and worse. Zynga co-founder Eric Schiermeyer, who one former employee said “made numbers God” at Zynga, instilled a culture of metrics-driven game design. Zynga A/B tests every pixel to find out exactly what drives more engagement, retention and payments.

You could argue that that strategy is what vaulted Zynga onto the world stage in the first place. There’s no denying that it takes success to fund the creation of things people care about. However, that process of homing in on what causes people to whittle away hours tending a virtual farm and pay as much as possible to protect it can suck the life out of a game and its designers. That’s led to a constant exodus of talent, as well as crushed morale where game designers feel like the bean counters make the final calls.

Mark Pincus and Don MattrickWhether Mattrick and Pincus can change that power dynamic will determine whether Zynga ends up a blip and flameout at the end of the 2000s, or a company that brings happiness to another generation — the mobile generation. I believe they can despite all the odds stacked against them. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear enough of that in the emails to Zynga’s staff today from the two executives.

Mattrick sounded too buttoned-down, like a business man rather than a gamer, when he told employees “We too, have all the makings of a successful service and business and we have the opportunity to create lifelong relationships with our customers through our high-quality products.” Zynga’s quest to become an efficient, financially sound company must be signaled to shareholders but kept away from its designers. Otherwise the great game developers already there will tune out or drop out, and new ones will flow to Zynga’s competitors.

At least Pincus wrote “Zynga has so much more potential ahead, the opportunity to be an Internet Treasure” and ” I’m excited to…return Zynga to its leadership role in inventing and growing Play as a core human experience.” But he also focused on how Mattrick “turned Xbox into the world’s largest console gaming network, growing its installed base from 10 million to 80 million and transformed that business from deep losses to substantial profits.”

Profits and growth. Zynga needs those, but they need to be byproducts of creating games that connect us, not the goals themselves. Zynga won’t become a generational company by beating estimates and delivering returns for shareholders. Those may restore confidence in the giant, and win it the funds and prestige needed to fuel its mission. But to become an Internet Treasure, it must foster a culture and build games that put fun first.