The video clip of Pincus climaxed TechCrunch's torrid series of posts, "ScamVille: The Social Gaming Ecosystem of Hell," that outed the many in-game cross-promotions that promise Reward points to users who take this quiz, install this toolbar or sign up for this "free" CD series. Under public scrutiny, Zynga temporarily removed these blatant scams, which Pincus says accounted for a third of the company's revenue. (Fake Steve Jobs has a good ScamVille summary.)
What drove Pincus to dance with frauds? Fred Wilson commented on the TechCrunch post, "I've known Mark Pincus for 15 years and have invested in every one of his companies. Some have been very successful and some have been failures. He is a great person and a great entrepreneur. ... [He] is adamantly pro-entrepreneur and anti-VC [venture capital investor]. He's had his companies taken away from him by VCs."
Zynga has a VC - behemoth Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, which owns big chunks of dozens of companies, including a fifth of Google. Mark Pincus could only hope to protect Zynga from this grasping octopus by getting profitable before taking its money. Even then, he installed further safeguards, including creating a class of stock that maintained his control of the company as a buffer against VC pressure.
As in any mob story, with control comes influence. Zynga has succeeded partly through Pincus' chumminess with Facebook's founders. Though Pincus originally benefited from Facebook's huge growth, his games may now be driving it. It's getting hard to tell tail from dog. When the ScamVille story broke and Facebook needed to show it was Doing Something, the company temporarily shuttered one of Zynga's offending games, FishVille - but it was only the smallest and newest. What? Kill the bigger games serving the same scams? Ice Mafia Wars or (horror!) FarmVille? Fuhgeddaboudit.
I meant to document more Mafia Wars abuses, but the truth is I've been too busy playing it. For all its faults - the unbalanced character classes (be a Maniac, trust me), the irrelevance of New York property, the appalling grind - and the dubious ethics behind it, Mafia Wars is a satisfying experience. Or, rather, I'm unsatisfied when I'm not playing, which isn't the same. "Addictive" is used as a synonym for "good," but these games aren't good, only compelling. You don't exactly have fun playing; you just feel bad when you stop. So I'm hooked. Once you're in the Family, it's hard to leave.
Ultimately, Mafia Wars is just a time management game, and after long exposure it teaches the same lesson as every other time management game: namely, you should stop wasting time playing such a pointless - ooh, wait, I just helped Deborah complete a job. I got seven XP and 1,053 Cuban pesos, and she sent an Energy pack. Clickety clickety click-click, ding! Level 112, woohoo!
Writer and game designer Allen Varney can give up Mafia Wars any time he wants, but he still wants every Escapist reader on Facebook to be his fake friend and join his mafia.