Zynga's IPO filing shows dog-eat-dog world of social games
Details in documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission last week give a glimpse of how the hottest online gaming start-up has become a dominating force on the world's largest social network since its founding in 2007.
Zynga disclosed a half-million-dollar bonus last year to the company's chief counsel, Reginald Davis, for "securing acompany-favorable settlement" in a major lawsuit. While Zynga did not disclose the nature of the suit, it did announce in November that it had privately settled its high-profile dispute with Walt Disney Co.'s Playdom social games unit. At the same time, Zynga itself recorded a loss of $39.3 million from paying out its own legal settlements.
Lawsuits brought by and against Zynga's competitors provide hints of the viciously competitive nature of the burgeoning $7.3-billion social games business, where titles released by one company are freely cloned by others, triggering flurries of copyright infringement disputes that keep attorneys like Zynga's Davis busy.
In June, for example, Zynga filed a lawsuit against Vostu, a Brazilian game developer founded by three Harvard University graduates. The suit alleges, among other things, that Vostu's MegaCity game is identical to Zynga's popular CityVille. In January, it filed suit against BlingVille, saying the company's social games rip off Zynga's suite of "ville" franchises.
"The general response to the lawsuits was that it was the pot calling the teakettle black," said Billy Pidgeon, a game analyst with M2Research. "Zynga itself has been accused of ripping off other games."
A spokesman for Zynga declined to comment, citing regulatory restrictions on speaking about matters related to the company's IPO.
"Lawsuits, sadly, have become endemic to the social games business," Pidgeon said.
One lawsuit, filed last month by a Los Angeles company called SocialApps, claimed Zynga copied its myFarm Facebook game, which came out in November 2008, six months before Zynga released FarmVille. The suit claims Zynga had engaged in discussions to buy SocialApps in May 2009. During those negotiations, Zynga was able to access the source code for myFarm, the suit said. Zynga called off the negotiations shortly after it received a copy of the myFarm source code. Weeks later, Zynga released FarmVille in June 2009.
Zynga was also sued in 2009 by the creator of Mob Wars, a popular social game on Facebook that claimed Zynga's Mafia Wars was a knock-off. Zynga settled the lawsuit that same year for an undisclosed amount.
Zynga currently faces a suit filed this May by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.'s interactive game division, Learning Co., which owns rights to the Oregon Trail game franchise. The lawsuit contends Zynga's Frontierville game is blatantly similar to Oregon Trail.
"The fact is, very few of these social games are original," Pidgeon said. "That's because there's an aversion to risk and a tendency to replicate what's already out there that's doing well."
To date, so-called "farm" games on Facebook include FarmVille, Farm Town, Tap Farm, Zombie Farm, Happy Farm, Farm Life, Farm Pals, Farm Valley, Country Life and Tiki Farm, to name a few.
What makes Zynga special is that it has managed to capture the lion's share of a market that's rife with aggressive copycats. As of this week, 283.3 million users have played a Zynga game within the last 30 days, according to AppData.com, a site that tracks Facebook applications. That's more than eight times the number of players for its next biggest rival, Wooga, which had 34 million users.
Part of Zynga's ability to grow has come from its aggressive pace of acquisitions. The company on Friday announced it had purchased Five Mobile Inc., a mobile game developer in Toronto, Canada. It was the company's 15th such deal in 13 months.
"Zynga has become the 800-pound gorilla in what is the largest social network in the world," Pidgeon said. "And gorillas eat a lot of bananas."
Many of Zynga's purchases have been geared toward acquiring talent. But it's also been handing out big incentives to attract key people away from rivals. Among them was Steven Chiang, who had managed Electronic Arts Inc.'s sports business in Florida prior to joining Zynga last year as president of games.
In addition to his base salary of $242,308, Chiang received a $2.9-million bonus that included a $601,900 "relocation bonus" as well as $42,458 in moving expenses last year. Chiang also received stock in the company valued at $25.7 million.
Zynga in April also hired EA's chief operating officer, John Schappert. But Schappert's compensation was not disclosed because it occurred after the company's required disclosure period, which ended March 31.
Zynga founder and Chief Executive Mark Pincus also enjoyed some company perks last year, including $69,587 for "security services" and $120,000 to reimburse Pincus for using a private plane.
While Zynga has not yet priced shares for the public market, some investors are speculating that shares could be as high as $20 or more, which would give Zynga a market valuation of roughly $16 billion.
"At the end of the day, what investors care about is growth," said J.T. Taylor, managing director of Arcadia Investment Corp. in Portland, Ore. "I don't think the generous spending, and to some extent the lawsuits, will be the main things investors will look at. It will be more about how they maintain their dominant position and whether they can continue to grow."
-- Alex Pham