Social gaming owes a lot to Facebook

Bambi Francisco Roizen · May 1, 2009 · Short URL:

Zynga's Mark Pincus on the evolution of social gaming, and why Lightspeed's Jeremy Liew is wrong

If you want to get Mark Pincus, founder and CEO of Zynga, hot under the collar, just ask him if he thinks Lightspeed Venture Partner's Jeremy Liew is right when he says social gaming is a marketing channel not a category. (See Liew's post)

"I cannot say how wrong Jeremy is," said Pincus, in this first part of our interview on how the Internet has changed our culture, and particularly the way we play games. Pincus believes that believing social gaming is just a marketing channel is as shortsighted as saying the Web is just a marketing channel. Clearly, with the emergence of eBay, Amazon, Google and Facebook, the Web is not just a promotional tool. 

In fact, Pincus would go so far as saying that "social gaming is the next-generation of social networking."

Here's an edited version of the interview.

BF: What's the biggest change in online gaming in the past five years?

MP: The biggest change in online gaming in the past five years is that it's gotten social and increasingly mainstream. If you look at big categories over the past five years, they were either MMOs, like World of Warcraft, which were social, but were for hardcore gamers. The other large category of online gaming was the download market, which was inherently a single-player game. It unlocked free-to-play games, but it was on the growth trajectory of individual game play. What we’ve seen is a much more casual and mass-market audience that has embraced gaming. The single most important thing that’s happened in online gaming is Facebook and social networks. It's made it really easy for you to play games with your real friends.
The idea of playing an online gaming on a gaming site where you had a fake screen name, to me is one step less cringy than porn. If you were playing games with your mom or stepson, people would say, 'Oh Wow. You have five minutes of free time and you're connecting with real people in your life. The idea of socializing with your friends, it’s possibly the next-generation of social networking. 

BF: Zynga has 45 million monthly unique visitors playing games. What is the most fascinating thing you’ve learned about human nature as you watch people play games?

MP: The more we make it social in the sense that they’re coming together for this cocktail party and people are connecting with their real friends, there’s this magical power to that. The way they behave changes. This sense of people wanting to connect with real friends and wanting to build social capital, is powerful.
We turned on gifting. The rate at which people gave gifts to friends was high. Giving an interactive dog in YoVille is a popular thing to do. It costs a couple bucks, but it's a rare gift. The idea of status is similar to what we see in our everyday lives.

BF: Some people, like LightSpeed Venture's Jeremy Liew, say social gaming is not a category, it’s a way to market games. What do you say to that?

MP: That approach failed.  Electronic Arts and Pogo launched games using social networks as a channel, and the numbers show that games created for the medium were far more successful. To me, what Jeremy is saying is similar to what people said a decade ago about the Internet. They said that Web pages were just a place to put a brochure. Every one said it was brochure-ware. They said it wasn’t a medium, but a marketing channel. They were wrong. I think the leading social games are going to be created for the medium. There’s so much that you can unlock in a new social experience. What about asynchronis games, like Scrabulous? Where did that exist before? The fact that you can now play a game and shift time and space - that’s a new experience that’s bringing a new audience who’d never play before. I cannot say enough how wrong Jeremy is. The future will prove it out. I believe social gaming will subsume all online gaming. I believe casual gaming will be referred to as social gaming.  Social gaming will be bigger in terms of revenue and audience. Social gaming has a potential to make gaming mass market by Web standards. When I say Web standards, I mean a third to half had done something last month. I believe online gaming will get there.

(Stay tuned for the second part of this interview with Pincus in the coming weeks)

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Bambi Francisco Roizen

Founder and CEO of Vator, a media and research firm for entrepreneurs and investors; Managing Director of Vator Health Fund; Co-Founder of Invent Health; Author and award-winning journalist.

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Zynga is the largest social gaming company with 8.5 million daily users and 45 million monthly users.  Zynga’s games are available on Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Hi5, Friendster, Yahoo! and the iPhone, and include Texas Hold’Em Poker, Mafia Wars, YoVille, Vampires, Street Racing, Scramble and Word Twist.  The company is funded by Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, IVP, Union Square Ventures, Foundry Group, Avalon Ventures, Pilot Group, Reid Hoffman and Peter Thiel.  Zynga is headquartered at the Chip Factory in San Francisco.  For more information, please visit


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