After years of struggle, the gamemaker Omgpop produced this year's biggest hit, Draw Something. Zynga promptly snatched up the company for $180 million. A success story, certainly--but Omgpop's founder (who left the company in 2011) and its CEO have dramatically different perspectives on the long march. As told to J.J. McCorvey.
EVERYONE HAS A BOSS
CHARLES FORMAN: I mowed lawns to get my first Nintendo system, so my measure of success was to create a product a kid would want to mow a shitload of lawns in order to get. But you have a fiduciary responsibility to your shareholders—the VCs—to do what is going to maximize success. Gaming became just a job.
DAN PORTER: I feel like the job of a CEO is to evaluate options for the company every day. Every day you wake up and you say, "What's best for the customers, and what's best for the shareholders?" The company isn't owned by me. The Zynga deal is what the shareholders wanted to do.
THIS PART IS NO GAME
C.F.: When I'm organizing my photos at my new start-up, Picturelife, I can see the Omgpop timeline. The whole thing is kind of a war story. I was working so much and not sleeping. I was drinking Red Bulls all the time. There was a long period of time where we weren't producing any revenue. One day, my ears started ringing from all the stress, and three years later, it hasn't stopped.
D.P.: When I sign on, I just believe. You get up, and you take another crack at it. When everyone else is like, Forget it, we can't make a hit, I'm saying we'll get it right next time. Charles and I worked together for a long time, and he just got really tired and burned out. I kept going.
C.F.: I created the original game, which was called Draw My Thing. I was like, The video game industry is broken, and I'm here to fix it! All the games were very Pavlovian. I feel like I'm ragging on the acquiring company now, but you can really play FarmVille only once. Is it still a game? Sure, probably. But it's not what I set out to make.
D.P.: I approached Draw Something as a very unsophisticated user, and I would look at it and say, "I don't understand what I'm supposed to do next." The process took a little over four months. We always knew our core users really liked Draw My Thing, so we thought, Maybe let's try it on mobile and see if it will resonate with players. And the bigger it got, the bigger it got.
WHAT A BUSINESS
C.F.: I will probably never do gaming again. I'm not gonna lie: It's much more comforting knowing that I don't have to produce 20 games in order to get one to be a hit. When you're on that roller-coaster ride, there are a lot of ups and downs. And I'm getting too old.
D.P.: So many times, people are focused on creating products or companies in a space that is probably too crowded. We managed to not make a game about flinging something through the air. After Angry Birds, how many people make games like that? There's a lot of ripping off game mechanics that every game company in the world does. How many people are running around Silicon Valley right now saying, "I'm the Pinterest of this and that"?
EVERYONE STILL HAS A BOSS
C.F.: I think a lot about what would happen if I had stayed with the company. I would just love to know what Zynga's work process is like. I don't know if I would enjoy it, though. I've heard stories. They don't get paid in warm fuzzies. If you produce a game, and it doesn't have the numbers, I would imagine they are not shy about either cutting your team or assimilating it in another, where you become the production staff for a game you didn't really care about. That's what happens in the video-game industry. It's a cruel world.
D.P.: Since the acquisition, we've kept our own offices. Zynga has moved companies into our location, so now we're Zynga New York. My title is general manager, so I oversee New York, making it a hotbed of creative gaming development. Right now, we're focused on adding more social features to Draw Something. There are so many more things we want to do—the beginning was a pretty straightforward version of the game. We're just going to keep doing what we're doing. It seemed to work pretty good the first time. Or actually, the 35th time.