The company behind Mafia Wars and Farmville doesn't like to talk about the sad addicts who fuel its profits. But it does quietly run a special store for them, where imaginary credits are bought with very real bank transfers.
The minimum purchase in Zynga's underground "Platinum Purchase Program" is $500, payable by wire transfer (see email below). The reward over buying online with your credit card: Extra points with which to buy virtual goods for the company's Facebook games. If you refer a friend to the program, you get even more points. Zynga, meanwhile, gets word of mouth, which is especially important since Zynga keeps this bulk sales program hush hush; it's not mentioned on the company website, nor within its games. If you Google for it, you'll get a few complaints for disgruntled customers and a couple of posts from a blogger named "Loot Lady," who writes that it was "hard to find a lot of information out about this" program.
Well, naturally. With top-drawer partners like Apple and Google, Zynga is not going to be keen to draw attention to how much of its profits come from obsessive online gaming junkies, many of them underaged or low income, like the unemployed disabled man the New York Times discovered was spending 16 hous a day on Zynga's YoVille.
But it is keen to tap the market. Indeed, when it comes to game design, Zynga CEO Mark Pincus has a predatory attitude toward gamers, and has told his programmers that pumping up profits is more important than the experience of actually playing the game, ex employees say in an excellent new SF Weekly cover story. Disillusioned employees have even reportedly given Zynga an unofficial motto: "Do Evil," an inversion of Google's informal slogan "Don't be evil."
Having explicitly aimed to get people addicted to its mindless, low-quality games — SF Weekly writes that titles like Zynga's are built around a "compulsion loop," which sounds about right — Zynga's not just going to leave money on the table. By setting up a non-refundable, bank-to-bank transfer program, as documented in the Zynga email we obtained and have reproduced below, the company can avoid giving a cut of the revenue to credit card companies and processors. More importantly, the program allows gaming addicts to feed their addictions more conveniently; on Facebook Zynga's game stores can top out at $50 or $200 in virtual credit at a time, effectively turning away the company's best customers.
It's not a pretty notion, the idea of grown humans throwing huge quantities of perfectly good money into electronic addictions. Then again, it's not exactly novel one, either. Zynga deserves credit, at the very least, for going with the tried and true solution of keeping its junkie-serving business in the shadows, rather than throwing it onto the open web in some misguided gesture of transparency. Drug dealers have been doing it this way for centuries, with good reason.