As he speaks, Pincus alternates between sake and green tea—it's an unusually chilly December night, and he's fighting a cold. "I'm trying to kill it the old-school way, with alcohol," he says with a sly grin. Although he isn't one to concede easily, he's no fool. He recently announced he was putting a halt to the troublesome third-party offers, which one Zynga executive said account for a third of the company's revenue. "We were playing Whac-A-Mole," he says. "It was out of control and hurting legitimate advertisers like Netflix." What remains to be seen is whether this self-policing will help him in court. The class-action suit filed against Zynga (and its host, Facebook) by a Sacramento law firm on behalf of a Santa Cruz resident who claims ads served up by Zynga scammed her out of hundreds of dollars is seeking $5 million. "We take it seriously," Pincus says of the case. "But we think it is an opportunistic suit." Sure to be dredged up as evidence is Pincus' "horrible things" speech. "I didn't mean to be so crass," he says, sighing. "But I was talking in a bar."
Even when Pincus tries to do something noble, his motives are attacked. In March, the Brazilian news service Folha Online claimed that Zynga's charity, aimed at helping Haiti, was poorly designed and intentionally confusing. The story was retweeted thousands of times and Zynga was quickly hammered by the tech blogs Valleywag and Social Media Today, which insinuated that the company was skimming half of the money given to aid Haiti. As it turns out, the online peanut gallery had confused two Zynga Haiti charity campaigns, the one in place prior to the January earthquake, which donated 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale of virtual goods, and the effort launched after the disaster, in which 100 percent of users' purchases went to the UN's World Food Programme and which raised $1.5 million. And in any case, Pincus says, he was up front about the earlier program. "What did they want me to do?" he asks. "Put it in Portuguese? There's no difference between buying white corn on FarmVille and us donating 50 percent of the proceeds vs. buying an iPod and Apple donating only 10 percent," says Pincus. "We're giving people another reason to buy what they want. If you feel uncomfortable buying, how great is it that a portion of your $5 purchase goes to charity?"
But it's clear that many of the criticisms—especially those questioning his work for Haitian earthquake relief—irk Pincus. "It's really reprehensible. I feel morally offended that we get attacked by the media for doing something good and no one else is outraged when these people are wrong," he says incredulously. A little gratitude might be nice, he adds. "We invented social gaming. We were the first ones to figure out virtual goods and social pay, and we've helped the whole industry. They haven't thanked us for it."
In time his critics may grudgingly come around. Social Media Today issued a clarification about its coverage of donation-gate that struck a distinctly apologetic tone. And in January, Pincus was named CEO of the Year by TechCrunch, startlingly enough, voted in by the very readers who savaged him a few months before. One person, at least, wasn't surprised: "The same people who called you an idiot will kiss the ring," Pincus says, downing the last of the sake. "Because we have the chance to make history."
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