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Ex-Engineer Lashes Out at Zynga Culture, but Current Devs Will Respond on Reddit

Meet Slade Villena.

In February, the ex-Zynga engineer publicly slammed the door in the San Francisco online social gaming company’s face in this discussion thread on Reddit, although at first he kept his real identity a secret.

With a new seven-person team and a successfully-funded Kickstarter game under his belt, Villena’s a prime example of the sort of independent game developer I wrote about last week. He’s passionate, ambitious and full of big ideas.

But even though he’s adamant about focusing now on a small niche audience, he’s also made a name for himself online directly bashing his old employer.

Welcome to the dark side — or, at least, the gray area– of indie dev culture.

Villena’s Reddit thread three months ago got hundreds of questions and thousands of upvotes, and made Zynga look pretty bad.

But today tomorrow, Zynga — which declined to comment for this article — gets a chance to strike back. In the same section on Reddit, known as IAmA, two Zynga engineers, Seth Allison and Andrew Pellerano, are scheduled to open a Q&A thread at 1 pm PT tomorrow.

So, who do you trust?

When he waxes philosophical about the video game industry, Villena makes some good points. Most interestingly, that competition may be a myth in the indie space, since developers don’t necessarily have to go after a mass audience of, for example, war game-loving teenage boys. But I was surprised by just how much he was willing to put Zynga down, especially since he worked there for only eight months and quit almost a year ago.

And while some of Villena’s points are valid or plausible, Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter said others are “borderline psychotic.”

On the one hand are arguments you’ve probably heard before: That in the pursuit of bigger and bigger audiences, Zynga grinds its employees too hard and pushes them too far.

“I was averaging 70 hours a week because I had to,” Villena said. “They were demanding large spikes and large revenue gains in a very short amount of time.”

He said the heavy workload leads to lots of bugs, and that bugs drive away players. Pachter readily acknowledged that yes, that could happen, but questioned whether Villena was a fair judge.

“He’s probably not spending as much time playing everybody else’s games like I am,” said Pachter. “So, I can tell you that their games are less buggy than most.”

On top of that, Villena alleged a culture of unprofessionalism at Zynga, where long hours were rewarded with trips to Las Vegas and free alcohol for engineers while they worked.

Pachter said he had never observed anything of the sort any of the times he’s visited Zynga, nor had he heard anything about this supposed drinking culture from the 50-odd people he knows who work there.

Putting aside any culture clash on the social front, Villena also alleged that Zynga invades players’ privacy. I asked him to elaborate in our interview, and he compared the games’ use of player data to military-intelligence profiles he observed while serving in the U.S. Marine Corps.

When he was a member of the FrontierVille team, he said, the company posted on the wall the pictures, real names, ages, habits and Facebook posts of some of the game’s biggest spenders.

Creepy? Maybe, if true. But the devil’s advocate argument, of course, is that many social gamers technically agree to give over some or all of that data to game developers in order to use their apps in the first place.

“I was told, ‘We’re getting to know our players,’ but why are you posting their names?” Villena countered. “Why not just post their game’s avatar without having to deal with their photo or their name or anything like that?”

Fair enough. But it’s really when the discussion gets into Zynga’s finances that he starts to sound, to steal Pachter’s words, “a bit unhinged.”

As we were wrapping up our interview, Villena volunteered: “I don’t expect Zynga to survive the summer at the rate that they’re going. Look at their stock, dude. They’re scraping at $7. The way I’m looking at it, by the end of the summer, they’re going to be de-listed from Nasdaq.”

Pachter’s reaction over the phone was, “HA! Ha ha ha! No.

He later apologized for laughing, while simultaneously calling the idea of Zynga going under this year “the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

Even though Zynga’s stock is at record low levels, under $7 per share, it would need to trade at under $1 per share for 90 days to get de-listed. As for going bankrupt, Zynga is profitable, and doesn’t have any debt.

“And by the way, why the hell does he care?” Pachter asked. “This guy sounds pretty bitter.”

But back to things that matter: Like I said in my last article, gamers don’t have to choose between the games that come out of big companies like Zynga and indie shops like Villena’s Mercenary Game Studios.

Keep an eye on the Zynga engineers’ Reddit thread. In theory, Redditors are supposed to be able to ask them anything, so we’ll see if and how they respond to Villena’s claims.

An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that the Reddit Q&A would be happening today.

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There was a worry before I started this that I was going to burn every bridge I had. But I realize now that there are some bridges that are worth burning.

— Valleywag editor Sam Biddle