Every company has a few skeletons in the back of the closet. People trampled, shortcuts taken. Some more so than others. Zynga, the makers of Farmville, exploited vulnerabilities in Facebook’s API that transformed their user base and built a path to their IPO valuation of more than $11.5 billion. While their methods were far too heavy handed and came back to bite them later, there’s still a lot to learn in a Zynga post-mortem. 

The goal: Accelerate app downloads

The vulnerability: The ability of apps to post to friends’ feeds on your behalf

What changed: Facebook opened up user feeds to the developers of third party games

The exploit: Farmville ‘nudges and nags’

The result: Released in June 19, 2009, by March 2010 Farmville from Zynga had 83.76 MMAU. Daily users peaked at 34.5 million. 


Let’s talk about Zynga!

Zynga, founded by Harvard MBA Mark Pincus, started life in a disused potato chip factory in San Francisco. Zynga was the name of Mark’s pitbull. The media describes Zynga’s founder as short, highly intelligent and profoundly disagreeable. In an earlier role at a cable company he once pitched the idea of a Disaster Channel with live war feed. “Like a Chechen helmet cam”

Could there be a better evil villain starter story?

Pincus was a highly competitive board game fanatic with a penchant for social engagement. Vanity Fair mentions a video of Pincus, in the early days of Zynga vowing to do “every horrible thing in the book” to make revenue. 

With two exits under his belt, both at the thirtish million mark, this wasn’t quite his first rodeo, though by his own admission he was never on the A list. He made his attitude clear, once yelling “fuck innovation” at a meeting, preferring to re-monetise classics like Poker and Boggle, adapting them to online platforms that leveraged social invitations, online betting and chat functions. AT Zynga, they frequently copied other people’s games, then leveraged social, added the ability to pay for shortcuts… and made an absolute fortune. 

Internally, staff mocked Google’s ‘Don’t Be Evil’ by coining the inverse ‘Do Evil’. SF weekly was told by a former employee “I would venture to say it is one of the most evil places I’ve run into, from a culture perspective and in its business approach.” While playing fast and loose with other people’s ideas, they would still come down hard on anyone who crossed them. In 2009, they sued 7 employees who opted to leave and work for another game design company. 

Picking through the rubble of Zynga’s many sins, there are also a few subversive gems. One perfect example is Farmville.  

First a quick history lesson.

Farmville launched on Facebook (and MSN games) in 2009 as a Flash application. Let’s put aside for a moment the remarkable similarity Farmville had to an earlier game called ‘Farm Town’ developed by a small Florida games house called Slashkey. Let’s also ignore Zynga’s reputation for strip mining the gaming ecosystem for good ideas then bringing them to market as their own. 

Zynga already had close ties to Facebook. Pincus was, in fact, an early investor, having dropped $40,000 into the platform back in 2005. The two Marks used to have dinner together “all the time” according to Pincus in a New York Times article. 

Back in 2007, MySpace was the most popular social network in the world. Facebook had a much sleeker interface, but less users, and critically, no games. Zynga was the first platform to bring games to Facebook with Texas Holdem. Re-licenced as ‘Zynga Poker’ the game made Facebook a serious amount of money and in 2008 tipped the user numbers firmly in favour of Facebook over MySpace for the very first time. 

It was only the beginning. 

Texas Holdem had demonstrated to Zuckerberg that social games could be incredibly good for his business. Social games gave people a reason to log in more frequently, and the platform enabled game makers to reach larger audiences. It was a win win. 

Pincus was told that Facebook would soon allow games to post to user’s feeds. Apparently Zuck told him to “flood the zone with new games and that Facebook would sort out the ones that resonated” So he did.  

Farmville was especially good for Facebook metrics because of the Tamagotchi effect. If you didn’t log in frequently, your plants would wither and die (though you could also pay a buck to ‘unwither’ them). Zynga employed a behavioural psychologist to leverage natural instincts to connect, mind, earn, grow and share. But there was one specific vulnerability that made all the difference to Farmville, and allowed it to become the most popular social game of all time. 

The two companies developed an intensely symbiotic relationship – and with Farmville they struck gold.

Farmville used an API to enable the game to run on Facebook’s platform. Zynga developers were given access to Facebook user data via the API. It was one vulnerability in particular that unlocked the entire opportunity – the ability to inform non-players of their friends’ game activities. It attracted attention, then turned that attention into profitable demand. 

  • Alistair is turning straw into gold! 
  • Alistair just sold their goods at the market stand and made a fortune. Grab some coins and start a farmer’s market of your own. 

This particular combination of nudges and nags allowed Farmville to spread like herpes across the platform. Zynga combined a high adspend with that particular API exploitation to phenomenal success. Before the year was out, Farmville had 72.9 million monthly active users, which was more than 20% of Facebook’s total user base at the time. 

Farmville accelerated player rewards by inviting non-users to install the game, and let you earn additional benefits by persuading friends not already on Facebook to join. There’s no way we could find to directly link Facebook growth from that period to Farmville usage, but in the first two years from 2009 – 2011, Facebook’s user base grew from from 200 million to 750 million signups, with Zynga accounting for 10% of all Facebook’s reported revenue

What does any good zero-day marketing strategy include?

Doubling down while the going is good. Well hello FishVille and CityVille! And using similar growth hacks, by 2010, Zynga’s original Facebook game Zynga Poker was by that point the biggest poker tournament in the world.

Four Things Farmville Did Fabulously

  1. Exploited a new vulnerability and turned users into adverts
  2. Baked virality into the game mechanism – users ask friends for help
  3. Leveraged social behaviours – The tamagotchi effect
  4. Piggybacked on another network to access new audiences

Four Ways Farmville F*cked Up

  1. Bit the dust – By overusing the exploit they pissed off enough Facebook users that Facebook had to shut down the vulnerability. 
  2. Forgot friendship fundamentals – Facebook is built around identity and people don’t actually  want to spam their friends. 
  3. Put all their eggs in one basket – Facebook gouged them for 30% once they made it big
  4. Were a one trick pony – Without innovation, and with their main exploit known, they had only one way to go. 

Channel burnout is real and like all good (or bad) exploits, the vulnerability they had found and exploited was eventually patched. In September 2010, Facebook announced that it would disabled the ‘nudge and nag’ capability following multiple complaints from non-users. 

What Zuck giveth, he could also taketh away. 

Facebook forced Zynga to use its new virtual currency, Facebook Credits and started taking a whopping 30% of all Zynga’s transactions. That certainly put a strain on the relationship, and on Zynga’s margins. 2012 share values fell by 40%, and users 

Over the next 5 years, despite acquisitions and launches aplenty, and a much chewed over IPO, Zynga’s revenues went into decline, with successive redundancies, office closures and share price falls, never again achieving the dizzying heights of 2011 success. With Flash subscribed in 2021 to the historical trash heap, Farmville is no more, however its impact cannot be underestimated. 

Ian Bogost, a professor of game design at Georgia Tech describes how Farmville “gamified attention and encouraged interaction loops in a way that is now being imitated by everything from Instagram to QAnon”. 

Pincus combined disagreeability with platform subversion and changed the way the world played games. He exploited a known vulnerability in Facebook to turn a small startup into a global powerhouse. However, he achieved enough momentum to transform how people everywhere used social media. He got the world hooked on planting carrots, and turned your mom into a gamer. 

14 years later, Zynga still exists, and revenues in 2022 are expected to exceed $680 million, a 61% increase YoY.