In one of those rare, only-on-the-Internet moments, an anonymous former Zynga employee has opened the floodgates, speaking in great detail about his experiences, both good and bad.
The question-and-answer session, hosted on reddit, has already cased a firestorm of controversy, and it should be required reading for anyone interested in gamification, casual and social games, or the interactive entertainment industry in general.
As with all anonymous postings, the details offered here should be viewed skeptically, but the original poster did publish scans of some of his employment documents as evidence of his employment at Zynga.
Here are a few of the highlights:
Question: What kind of creepy stuff went on? Answer: Spying on players. Getting intimate gaming data, their habits, their networks, and how to effectively monetize given X. Another issue was skewing gameplay for the sake of profit, example; I actually resorted to BAD MATH, to make the case for making a feature more fun. At the end of one sprint, a QA dude was complaining about the drop rate of a specific item being absurdly insane, and therefore UnFun. I looked at the code, and tweaked some values, gave it back to QA guy, and fun was restored. Product Manager overrides this, goes for unfun, yet more profitable version.
Question: Just how data driven is Zynga? How much do the PMs rely on metrics to craft the games? Answer: EVERYTHING. I have a hook into every piece of new data and user involved feature. I have to report the data at all times. PMs rely on metrics more for office politics, not science, not game design. Zynga is a marketing company, not a games company.
Question: What is your opinion on Tiny Tower vs. Dream Heights? (Note: Dream Heights is a new Zynga game widely accused of ripping off a similar indie game called Tiny Tower) Answer: Tiny Tower + D Heights is all standard operating procedure here. If you can't buy em, clone em. Even the core technology for FarmVille (MyMiniLife), was bought. The only "homegrown" codebases at Zynga is Mafia Wars 2 and maybe Poker, the rest of their tech was just bought from small studios. Look up Dextrose Engine. To me, that's utterly creepy. They try to choke out the competition by gating all these engines and tech.
The entire thread is worth a read, and you can find it here. The most important takeway is that, no matter how much the game elements are emphasized, social games are still extremely data driven, especially compared to traditional PC and console games.