TR: How do you keep people interested over time? The premise in a lot of these games seems very simple.
MP: As we found games that people connected with, we invested more and more in them. We wanted to bring out new user-facing features every week. I think we turned our games into something more like episodic TV, where you know every week there’s going to be a new twist or turn. I spent time talking to people like J.J. Abrams, who was one of the creators of Lost, because I thought there were so many similarities between the way he structured Lost, and its plot and character evolution, and the way that we try to structure games. In both cases, we’re creating short and long arcs of aspiration. A long arc of aspiration in FrontierVille might be finding your spouse or unlocking the Gold Rush territory, and a short arc that you need to do to achieve the long arc is something like building a cabin that then requires other short arcs like cutting down trees.
TR: People are dedicated to following their favorite TV shows. How do you turn someone into a dedicated social gamer?
MP: I think more and more about “How does social gaming deliver on this fundamental promise of giving people a five-minute break from their day?” What I think about is how we get the session times down. I feel like we need to deliver what I call a better social return on investment. I don’t like it when I find out that people are averaging long session times in any of our games. All of the newer games that we bring out are trying to reduce those session times. One of the biggest reasons people don’t play games is they say that they don’t have the time. I want to address that by making the game so that you can play a session in five to 10 minutes. I want to address people saying it’s a waste of time by giving you something back for that time besides just the entertainment.
TR: And what is that other element?
MP: I think it opens up a new dimension, not just for play, but for you to be social. So what I mean by that is I think we need more light ways to touch each other. There’s something like over 200 million gifts a day sent back and forth between players. Social gaming in a way could be more fun than instant messaging. I know they sound like oddly different activities, but people spend time hanging out on a social network because they want to connect with each other. But it takes a lot of presence and engagement to say things that are either interesting or funny. Games can give you this easier way to just make that connection without having to be a brilliant conversationalist.
TR: You’ve recently been making moves to spread Zynga’s games to more networks and more devices. Are you trying to escape being dependent on one particular network, such as Facebook?
MP: It’s less about independence and more about wanting to bring social games to the people or let people access social games. On the Web, anything that’s driven a lot of engagement and revenue ultimately has to be offered on every portal and every service. If social gaming continues to be popular, you should start to see it pop up in a lot more places.