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November 6, 2009 1:35 PM   Subscribe

"I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away." So said Mark Pincus, CEO and founder of Zynga, the company behind social games like Mafia Wars and Farmville. It's the latest revelation in a week-long bit of drama between TechCrunch and the companies running the shady virtual currency that makes the games profitable.

At issue are the in-game offers to receive points/currency in exchange for filling out surveys, taking IQ tests or agreeing to trial offers. Many result in a recurring and unadvertised charge on the user's mobile phone bill, while others are even more brazen.

Especially entertaining in all of this: Michael Arrington from TechCrunch confronts Anu Shukla, CEO of Offerpal Media, at a virtual goods summit two weeks ago. He says her services facilitate fraud, punish legitimate advertisers and create a self-perpetuating cycle of deceit. Her response: "shit, doubleshit, and bullshit." Her company blog later responded in more CEO-like fashion.

Also fascinating: A former Facebook spammer talks about how it's done, and the underlying technology that makes it all possible.
posted by jbickers (43 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
Here’s the really insidious part: game developers who monetize the best (and that’s Zynga) make the most money and can spend the most on advertising. Those that won’t touch this stuff (Slide and others) fall further and further behind. Other game developers have to either get in on the monetization or fall behind as well. Companies like Playdom and Playfish seem to be struggling with their conscience and are constantly shifting their policies on lead gen.
Interesting point. The problem, of course, is that capitalism is always messy. And the people who make the most money are going to be the ones who have the least ethics, especially on the low-end.

I wonder when we'll see stuff like Mechanical Turk tied into these kinds of games.
posted by delmoi at 1:43 PM on November 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I play both MafiaWars and Farmville (the former as part of a trade with someone to play the latter).

It's important to note with these games that the paid currency is absolutely unnecessary. You can do everything in game without using the speed up of buying 'farmville dollars' or 'godfather coins'. I did buy Farmville dollars once for my girlfriend, to upgrade the size of her farm as a surprise, but that was a simple $5 Paypal transaction.

I'm not sure why these revelations are, well, revelations, since it's pretty damn obvious that the "free in-game cash" offers are scammy. Fill out a survey in which you put in a bunch of different personal information? Give them your cell number to receive a text with an unlock code? Give them a valid credit card number? You have to be wilfully blind not to see that you're stepping into a world of very grey transactions.

How many consumers these days believe that the seller has their best interests at heart? This isn't to excuse the scammers, who are certainly doing scammy things. But it's like complaining about being screwed by a street vendor's three-card-monte routine, when you knew it was a screw-job upfront, but thought, what, you could somehow beat it?
posted by fatbird at 1:44 PM on November 6, 2009 [7 favorites]


Anyone else laughing about the fact that there is a video game about the mafia that also operates like the mafia?
posted by pwally at 1:48 PM on November 6, 2009 [4 favorites]


I don't think you could actually call the behavior "like the mafia"
posted by delmoi at 1:49 PM on November 6, 2009


I wonder when we'll see stuff like Mechanical Turk tied into these kinds of games.

This is something I've been wondering for a long time. Non-player characters with completely realistic personalities seems possible with MTurk, and I'm surprised it hasn't happened yet.
posted by roll truck roll at 1:50 PM on November 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


I am conflicted. On the one hand, I can't stand Michael Arrington. On the other hand, I can't stand scammers. It's like the time the people that live on the Toronto Island complained about noise from the Docks Nightclub.
posted by chunking express at 1:52 PM on November 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: shit, doubleshit, and bullshit.
posted by Rangeboy at 1:52 PM on November 6, 2009 [3 favorites]


"Pretty damn obvious" is in the eye of the beholder. I've worked closely with vulnerable populations and people just starting to learn about computers and, hey, guess what, people are still falling for Nigerian 404 scams and lotto scams, too. Preying on unsavvy users is unethical and illegal no matter how you dice it or try to rationalize it and no matter whether it's part of a social networking game or not. In fact, it's shit, doubleshit and bullshit . The fact is that it is profitable and therefore people are falling for it. You either care about people who are more vulnerable than you are or you don't. (Note: This population includes everybody, but is especially biased towards the elderly, people with mental disabilities, children, etc...)
posted by Skwirl at 1:56 PM on November 6, 2009 [12 favorites]


How many consumers these days believe that the seller has their best interests at heart?

More than you'd think. A lot of people think that a business owner should be on the up-and-up as a matter of personal pride. They're a businessman, see, and have to work hard and be a good Boy Scout in order to make money and earn the trust of his customers because that's how Capitalism works, you see....

This isn't to excuse the scammers, who are certainly doing scammy things. But it's like complaining about being screwed by a street vendor's three-card-monte routine, when you knew it was a screw-job upfront, but thought, what, you could somehow beat it?

You'd also be surprised how many people don't know the three-card-monte routine is a screw-job.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:01 PM on November 6, 2009 [5 favorites]


PS - Dear Mark Pincus, you owe me $90 an hour consulting fees for every time I've had to delete your spyware from the computers of friends and family. kthnxbye.
posted by Skwirl at 2:04 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Pretty damn obvious" is in the eye of the beholder
I agree. But...

Nigerian 404 scams
Is that where the prince needs your money to get his royal website back up?
posted by drjimmy11 at 2:10 PM on November 6, 2009 [15 favorites]


What do you call Farmville players? FarmVillians, that's what.

I've only dealt with Zygna once, and this was through GDC Swag. The pen went dry months ago and the snowboard shaped bottle opener is functionally useless. So if you ever find their booth, don't take the free stuff.
posted by hellojed at 2:13 PM on November 6, 2009


Nigerian 404 scams
Is that where the prince needs your money to get his royal website back up?


No, that's when a black man is illegally elected president of the USA and brings 403 of his best friends from Chicago to run the government farm like the mafia. AMIRITE?
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:18 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Preying on unsavvy users is unethical and illegal no matter how you dice it or try to rationalize it and no matter whether it's part of a social networking game or not.

Agreed. I certainly don't want to imply that the organizations like Video Professor aren't grifters, and that there aren't classes of vulnerable people who fall prey to their schemes out of naivete. And Zynga is certainly responsible insofar as it enables those grifters.
posted by fatbird at 2:19 PM on November 6, 2009


I agree completely with what fatbird said. I only play Mafia Wars, but in my review of the application on Facebook a week or so ago, I said almost exactly what fatbird said and gave them only 3 of 5 stars because of its scamminess (even though I enjoy playing).

I also paid $5, once, to speed up an in-game operation that my group had put a time-limit on, but it wasn't really necessary, and I did it so I could just get it over with and stop waiting. When I paid $5, I also used Paypal because it was obvious that I didn't want to give Zynga my credit card number.

But there are plenty of players in my gaming group who do regularly give zynga real cash to do the same thing they could wait a few days or weeks to do on their own clicking-driven power. As far as I know, they're not getting scammed beyond the temptations already put into the game (avoiding delayed gratification, essentially) on explicitly.

Mostly, though, playing is just clicks and some postings on my Facebook wall here and there (which the game uses, I'm sure, for shady things like essentially viral advertising and social networking in the capitalist motherfucker sense).

Here's my question: With virtual cash existing in virtual worlds like Worlds of Warcraft, Linden's SecondLife, There.com, Eve and other more or less respectable game worlds, how can we not have thought this kind of cheaper implementation was coming?

To keep people from being taken advantage of, I'd welcome regulation, but I also know that that path is fraught and free marketers really don't like that idea. My opinion? If you don't make the skeezy capitalists follow rules, they won't. Don't waste breath asking them to be nicer. If you want them to follow some rules, give the enforcement some teeth.
posted by kalessin at 2:23 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


You have to be wilfully blind not to see that you're stepping into a world of very grey transactions.

This AskMe question was posted just a few hours ago about this very issue -- yes, most people on MetaFilter completely recognize that this is scammy and unscrupulous behavior, but a lot of people, and most especially a lot of older people, don't. It's likely that if you're on MetaFilter you're pretty internet saavy but if you've never heard of this sort of scam before and don't know much about how these sorts of transactions work it might genuinely not occur to you that something could be wrong.

Also, I think you might be discounting the impact of willful blindness just a bit too much; I think there can be a pretty hefty human disposition towards willful blindness because it plays off of the fact that we really WANT to get something for nothing and it's easy to want that enough to ignore your common sense. It's not isolated nitwits; intelligent, thoughtful people get scammed as well.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 2:24 PM on November 6, 2009 [2 favorites]


See, this is a good article to post to your facebook page. The CEO's quote is just golden, too.
posted by Decimask at 2:38 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


> The problem, of course, is that capitalism is always messy.

Yes, caveat emptor and all that. BUT - messy does not include fraudulent or grossly misleading. Unfortunately this sort of 'capitalism' seems more widespread. Take bond-rating on Wall St... ok too easy.

For the moment, this game scam will work because it's a form of 'micro-grift', where the sting is usually too small to justify taking action. Also, the companies are nicely isolated. So what we maybe need are 'micro-heavies', who, in exchange for a small payment - say, a buck, from each of the scam victims, will sugar the gas tanks of all the boardmembers of said scummy company...
posted by Artful Codger at 2:40 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


I play a couple of these games. Not to say that some people aren't educated enough or whatever to realize they are about to get taken for money or that it isn't scammy to the max, but when I looked into these "quizzes" and "offers", the ones that are going to take your money or charge your cell phone do mention this before you give them your info. At least the ones I checked out did.*

And as fatbird said, the "money" you pay for isn't necessary. I haven't given any of them a dime or done any of the offers to get it free or given them any more information than what they can harvest from my Facebook account (which isn't much).

*Sure it was small print, but it clearly said there would be a $XX.XX charge to my cell phone with another asterisk with even smaller print saying there would be a monthly charge.
posted by Orb at 2:48 PM on November 6, 2009


Excellent post, jbickers.
posted by Decimask at 2:51 PM on November 6, 2009


And apparently Shukla is now no longer CEO of Offerpal.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:54 PM on November 6, 2009


I am conflicted. On the one hand, I can't stand Michael Arrington.

I vaguely recall John Gruber getting ruffled about Arrington a few months back but now I'm genuinely curious as to what he's done to elicit those kinds of reactions. My first exposure, so far as I know, was the critique of the social game ads, which seems completely reasonable.
posted by 6550 at 3:17 PM on November 6, 2009


From a player's standpoint:

I started playing FarmVille two weeks ago. I did two surveys to get "FarmCash" and, of course, it never showed. BUT a few days ago Zynga apologized and pulled most of the offers they were ..er.. offering to get FarmCash. Since then the only offers available to me are very clear that a credit card and a purchase are required to get FarmCash. No more offers of surveys that take 20 minutes, a brazillion pages/clicks and nothing to show for it when you're done.

Yesterday I used my credit card and bought some FarmCash and got it straight away. It was on a secured server, plus my CC will reverse any charges I dispute. So I'm not too worried about any fallout.

Want to be my neighbour? Send me an email or MeMail. :-)
posted by deborah at 3:25 PM on November 6, 2009


I vaguely recall John Gruber getting ruffled about Arrington a few months back but now I'm genuinely curious as to what he's done to elicit those kinds of reactions.

Arrington has long had conflicts of interest with TechCrunch, where they pump products and stocks in which Arrington has a direct interest, without disclosing the link.
posted by fatbird at 3:38 PM on November 6, 2009


I play Mousehunt, Metropolis and Farmville/Farmtown.

Both Metropolis and Mousehunt have a fair amount of integrity: they suggest openly that you buy Superbrie (effectively, game cash) or become a Gold Member (eliminating a good deal of clicking) once you're a fair distance into the game. That said, it's never necessary -- least of all in MH, where the money just speeds up your progress rather than making it possible. Mousehunt is fun, and the developers, who actually seem to enjoy developing the game for its own sake, add new things on once or twice a month. I'm not bored. I've paid 10.00 to play (via Paypal) twice in the last three months.

This, as far as I'm concerned, is just fine. I pay that much for coffee in a week.

Zegna's Farmville has a different feel: the support boards are positively arcane and unpleasant, and it feels far less like a fun little ever-expanding adventure game being written on the fly by a bunch of happy geeks, and much more like a means to separate people from information. The money isn't necessary, although there are items you can only get if you pay for them: the real issue, though, is why I would want to give people money so that I can have a fake virtual skeleton on my fake virtual farm?

As opposed to, you know, being able to catch the Hydra mouse and make it to Rodentia sooner, but I digress...:)
posted by jrochest at 3:49 PM on November 6, 2009


It scratches the Harvest Moon itch.
posted by Decimask at 4:26 PM on November 6, 2009


Zegna's Farmville? Isn't that the one where you have to liberate the 12 galaxies guiltied to the rocket society?
posted by acb at 4:35 PM on November 6, 2009


God I miss MouseHunt. I never did catch the Hydra though, and got bored trying. Still, the mice pictures print out well if you want weird art for your new house. :)
posted by twine42 at 4:43 PM on November 6, 2009


I'm really glad to see this series written. This new breed of social games is very interesting to me as a kind of game design, an alternative to MMOs like World of Warcraft that are much more casual. They are doing a lot of very smart social network things, things traditional computer games don't get. OTOH they often do sleazy, exploitative things too.

I don't mind being charged outright for more in-game options; "give us $5 for the ability to plant faster" is a fair trade. But the deception that leads to selling your personal data, signing you up for credit cards, etc. That's evil.

(I also have major qualms about the fact that TechCrunch is the origin of these stories, but I'm glad someone's writing on this topic. TechCrunch has a terrible track record of getting stories wrong, playing to its founder's business interests, and just plain making shit up. They have no journalistic ethics.)
posted by Nelson at 4:44 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the reminder, by the way! I had been meaning to check out my cell phone bill, because it seemed higher than usual.

Sure enough, a $9.99/month "subscription" had attached itself to my bill like a swollen tick. I have no idea where they got my phone number, although I have my suspicions.

Phoned my provider, and asked them to cancel it. The CS rep credited this month's and last month's charges ($20 back in my pocket!) AND asked if I wanted their free monthly "tick blocker" feature. HELLZ YES I WANTS IT.

Lessons:

1. Check yer bill.

2. Don't give out your phone number.

3. Always be polite to the CS rep. You'd be surprised how refreshing they find it, and they are in a position to basically give you free money and fix things you never knew were broken in the first place.
posted by ErikaB at 4:50 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]


twine42:

On her most recent visit, Ronza brought a Hyrdo trap, which makes catching the Hydra bloody simple: I got one, with the Ship blueprints, on my 3rd piece of gnarled.

Of course, all this means is that there's some gawdawful horror of frustration waiting in the Tribal Isles...
posted by jrochest at 5:13 PM on November 6, 2009


I don't know about in other states, but here in New Jersey, the mafia does operate through free trials. Just the other day, a guy held a gun up to my head and ordered that I take a personality test, for FREE*. I gave in to his demands, and I'm now getting the Henry Winkler Quote of the Day texted to my phone for $30 a month. I'm worried they will strike again, and force me to try a FREE* sample of Acai Juice, which is the weight loss secret that a mom in MY HOMETOWN discovered.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:25 PM on November 6, 2009


capitalism is always messy

Oh, come on.

Companies that operate without ethics are generally doomed to fail. You would probably be surprised at how important the development of ethical businesses and core values can be in many companies.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:42 PM on November 6, 2009


Wow, that last link was a great read.
posted by cowbellemoo at 8:14 PM on November 6, 2009


I have, through various throwaway email accounts, done the "sign up for X and you will get something in-game" offers. They work more often than one would think. (I never do anything that requires a mobile number or a credit card.) As a general rule, I am more cheap than impatient, but I'm not sure there's anything wrong with a game that allows you to pay extra but doesn't otherwise prevent you from playing for free. It's like a demo, only the game continues to work.

And, uh, I also would love more farmville neighbours. Mefimail me if you are equally ashamed of this weird obsession.
posted by jeather at 8:16 PM on November 6, 2009


Companies that operate without ethics are generally doomed to fail.

It's not that they operate "without ethics", it's just that their main ethic is to separate you from your money by any means necessary. Companies that do this can be quite successful. See: America's health insurance corporations.
posted by Avenger at 8:24 PM on November 6, 2009


**left to go check on Farm**
posted by 8-bit floozy at 6:31 AM on November 7, 2009


Fake Steve Jobs rips the Times for running a piece about Zynga that makes the company sound all on the up-and-up.
posted by joeclark at 1:56 PM on November 8, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow, that Fake Steve Jobs post really nails why today's media outlets are struggling to find readers: they have traded in their civic responsibility for an easy paycheck, and they deserve all the whirlwind they've reaped.

But the NYT still makes better kindling for damp firewood.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:56 PM on November 8, 2009


As of today there are no Offerpal offers being ..er.. offered from FarmVille.
posted by deborah at 6:22 PM on November 8, 2009


Everybody on my Facebook list seems to play either or both of those games. I probably would, too, if I had the time and patience for browser-based games (I don't have the patience, but I also don't have the urge to make micropayments to assuage it.)

However, as much as I ought to just block the damn apps outright, they do provide me sublime moments of true Internet, such as the day I logged into Facebook only to see a note from my Mom asking for more hookers.
posted by Spatch at 5:44 AM on November 9, 2009 [2 favorites]


In related news, Electronic Arts is buying Playfish for $300-$400 million. Playfish makes social network games for Facebook, MySpace, etc: Pet Society, Restaurant City, and others. The company is two years old and took in about $21 million in funding. TechCrunch estimates they were making $75 million / year.

Short time, big business.
posted by Nelson at 8:33 AM on November 9, 2009 [1 favorite]


I suspect it's way too late to take advantage of this, but I'm looking for some neighbours too. MeMail me if you're interested.
posted by Decimask at 10:54 AM on November 9, 2009


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