Millions of people are playing mobile game sensation Draw Something right now; and every game developer heard last week that the game's developer, Omgpop, was acquired by Zynga. Every business news outlet has reported that Omgpop was acquired along with all developers.
But that's not quite accurate: there was one Omgpop developer who didn't accept employment with Zynga -- and that was me. It made perfect financial sense for me to join, but in my case, Zynga asked for too much.
"I hope they don't make me choose between Connectrode and a job," I told my wife Laura. "I really hope that they don't turn it into that choice."
It was Tuesday night. News of the acquisition had been relayed to me only hours before. On Monday I'd worked a perfectly normal workday, with only the slightest rumor that something big might be happening. Fast-forward to 11 p.m. Tuesday: an Omgpop representative was telling me over the phone, "The boat is leaving, and you need to decide whether or not you're getting on board." Zynga had sent standard job offers to all of the current Omgpop employees earlier that day, for them to continue their employment under the new regime... and I was the one who hadn't already signed.
It was a reasonable contract. But there were a couple of consequences of signing it which concerned me. Zynga sells puzzle games on the iOS App Store. I sell a puzzle game on the iOS App Store. Was this a "conflict of interest" under the contract's definition, or not? If so, would Zynga act on that fact, or not? I didn't want to lose ownership of Connectrode, or have to remove it from the iOS App Store.
Connectrode is a game that I developed independently in 2011, while I was working as an independent contractor. I designed it on my own, did all the coding in my spare time, and contracted the visual and audio work to talented friends here in Austin. (I finished and submitted it to the App Store shortly after my employment with Omgpop began, with the company's awareness and permission.)
Financially, Connectrode had performed the same as most spare-time indie game projects: not terribly well. It was reviewed positively by TouchArcade, Joystiq, and others, and it was featured by Apple for three weeks; but it never broke into the top 10 or sold millions. It wasn't changing anyone's life.
But... I love Connectrode. It's a very personal creation. My wife (who's played hundreds of hours of Dr. Mario with me) encouraged me to make it; when you first launch the game, you see a dedication to her. (The code has a special case so that on her phone, this dedication appears on every launch.) And designing a compelling abstract puzzle game is more difficult than you might think -- I'm proud of it. It's not much, but it's mine.
And I was unable to get any assurance whatsoever that, by signing this job offer, I wasn't losing ownership or control of my creation.
Things were happening quickly -- I felt that the company's representatives were breathing down my neck. If I didn't sign, and sign soon, I wouldn't have a job. Everyone else had signed -- what was wrong with me?
When that 11 p.m. call came, the decision I'd feared was exactly the one I was being forced to make: Connectrode or a job with Zynga. I got off the phone and called my attorney. By 1 a.m. we'd drafted a very reasonable addendum to clarify my points. Connectrode makes almost no money anymore -- I knew it really shouldn't be a sticking point if Zynga wanted to give me a job offer. Surely a compromise was achievable, right? I emailed the addendum and went to sleep at 2 a.m.
Nine hours later, I was told that the addendum had been completely rejected -- there was no compromise here, and no getting around making this decision.
And then I wondered: why was I even trying to compromise? Zynga has an Austin studio, where several good friends of mine work. Yet I had never applied to Zynga. Why? Because the company's values are completely opposed to my own values, professionally and creatively. Because I believe that developers are at the front lines of game development and deserve to be treated well, and I didn't trust Zynga to do so. All this was still true -- except that their complete unwillingness to negotiate with me only confirmed my concerns. Why on earth was I even considering joining?
It's not easy to pass up a lucrative salary and solid benefits, of course. But I realized that ultimately I was letting myself be guided by simple inertia. I was part of a herd, and that herd was all going in one direction (and doing so with great urgency). I would really only be doing it for the sake of going with the flow, and responding to pressure to either conform to corporate expectations, or be left behind.
These are not good reasons to join a company whose values are the opposite of your own, or to compromise your ideals, or to give up control of something you rightfully own.
I politely declined to join Zynga and became the only Omgpop employee to be left behind. I don't have a job; but I can sleep soundly at night knowing that I'm not working for any employer with whom I strongly disagree.
Let me make a few things clear before I say anything else:
- I didn't work on Draw Something.
- I wasn't screwed. I had a small amount of equity in Omgpop, I received a compensation for that, and that was never at stake in this decision. The amount is not going to change my life but it's fair. I lost a job; that's all.
- I'm not bitter. I have zero complaints about anyone at Omgpop and I congratulate them for their success. Zynga had the right to ignore my attempts to negotiate; I had the right to walk away. This has all been legal and amicable.
- I was not directly asked to give up control of my indie game. I was only asked to sign a job offer -- which might have that legal consequence. (If this seems like a flimsy point over which to worry so much, ask yourself: if you were asked to sign a document that might mean that you lost custody of your child, with no assurances otherwise -- would you do so? I don't have a child, I have Connectrode.)
- I'm not an idealist. (I would love to be, but I work in an industry and I have a mortgage.) I've received paychecks from Zynga before: In late 2010 I was a full-time contractor for NewToy (on the Words with Friends client team) when that studio was also acquired by Zynga; I didn't balk at working with Zynga then. I've made many compromises in my nine-year career in professional game development, but this one was simply asking too much.
Zynga has been called "evil" by both industry pundits and former employees. I know many developers who find this claim naive. A company seeking profit is never "evil" from the perspective of its stockholders and employees -- employees who are normal, real people just trying to pay off mortgages and support their families. So what is "evil"? Can a company be evil?
When an entity exists in an ecosystem, and acts within that ecosystem in a way that is short-sighted, behaving in a way that is actively destructive to the healthy functioning of that ecosystem and the other entities in it (including, in the long term, themselves) -- yes, I believe that that is evil. And I believe that Zynga does exactly that.
A "good" company is one which provides goods or services of real value in exchange for a fair price. A good game company recognizes that its developers are the ones who create that value, and treats them as valuable, especially if they are good at what they do. It follows practices that are sustainable. And it ensures that, at the end of the day, the world is a little better for having their goods and services.
An evil company is trying to get rich quick, and has no regard for the harm they're doing along the way. It's not making things of value, it's chasing a gold rush. An evil game company isn't really interested in making games, it's too busy playing a game -- a game with the stock market, usually. It views players as weak-minded cash cows; and it views its developers as expendable, replaceable tools to create the machines that milk those cows. It follows unsustainable practices (like cloning or even completely screwing innovators; or abusing viral channels until they have to be curtailed) -- all practices which, in the long-term, not only make things worse for every other company in the industry, but ultimately for itself. Zynga is not the only one of these, but yes, they fit my definition.
Not everyone shares my values, and not everyone is in a position to pick and choose job offers. I know many good developers who work for Zynga -- especially now -- and their choice of employment doesn't change the respect that I have for them. They have their reasons and I have mine.
But I exhort game developers: don't join a company whose values are opposed to your own. Values aren't just for idealists -- they matter. If a company's practices make you uncomfortable, pay attention to your instincts and be true to them.
For my part, I'll be returning to a company I can be certain meets my definition of "good": I'm re-activating Deep Plaid Games, my personal company. It has one employee -- myself. I'll be contracting out my services as a generalist/gameplay programmer to other companies that follow sustainable practices, for projects that I think are worth making (or at least which don't actively make the world a worse place). Meanwhile I'll also be creating innovative and fun indie games that respect the time and intelligence of players.
It's not a business model that has attracted much VC funding to date -- I imagine you won't be reading any headlines about Deep Plaid being acquired by Zynga. But I can go to work and feel that I'm making works of value -- and that I'm making the world overall a better, more fun place.
[Shay Pierce is a professional game designer/programmer who has been making digital games since he was 13 years old, and professionally since 2003. He's worked for such employers as Blizzard, Midway, NewToy, and Omgpop. He is now sole proprietor of Deep Plaid Games LLC, an independent game development micro-studio. His views do not represent those of Omgpop or any other former employer. Rumors of his lycanthropy have been slightly exaggerated.]