Dudley: Dinner with Zynga CEO a game-winner
Seattle's Cara Ely, created the blockbuster "Dream Day" franchise for Oberon Media's I-Play, went to a Zynga recruiting dinner and ended up sitting next to founder Mark Pincus. Now she's been commuting constantly to Zynga's San Francisco offices, where she's the creative director on a new hidden-object game called "Hidden Chronicles."
Seattle Times staff columnist
Sometimes you just get lucky on your job search.
Or maybe luck finds you.
Either way, things worked out pretty well for Cara Ely when she came to a recruiting party at Zynga's Seattle office earlier this year.
Ely, 41, spent more than a decade developing casual games in the Seattle area, first at Sierra Online and then Oberon Media's I-Play, where she created the blockbuster "Dream Day" franchise.
After the party in April, Ely went to a dinner event filled with engineers.
Ely ended up sitting next to Zynga founder Mark Pincus and they spent more than an hour talking about casual games.
"We got to talking about games, and it all started from there," said Ely.
She sent a follow-up email to Pincus floating some ideas; Pincus responded within a day and now she's creating an entirely new franchise for the company. If it's a big hit, it may help win over investors who were cool to Zynga's public offering last week.
Ely thought the dinner seating arrangement was coincidental, but Zynga's a pretty careful company.
According to recent stories, it's the kind of place where everything is tracked, measured and analyzed to the nth degree.
Ely was invited to the opening party by Neil Roseman, a former Amazon.com veteran who leads Zynga's office in Pioneer Square.
Her specialty is hidden-object PC games, a genre staked out by Seattle's Big Fish Games starting in 2005.
The games present a series of tableaus in which players must find and click on small objects.
They became one of the most popular kinds of downloadable PC games, which are the foundation of the casual-games industry centered in the Seattle area.
"That's what Zynga's looking at in terms of opportunity. They hired one of the leading creative people in that genre," said Don Ryan, who was Ely's boss at Oberon and is now an industry consultant.
At Oberon, Ely came up with a "Dream Day" concept and romantic art style that resonated with women, who are the largest audience for casual games. It was "by far the most successful original concept we had," Ryan said.
Now the genre's coming to Facebook.
The week before Pincus dined with Ely, Disney released a hidden-object game on Facebook that was an immediate hit.
"Gardens of Time," created by Disney's Playdom subsidiary, was the fastest-growing Facebook game after the launch. Last week it was among the top 30 Facebook applications, with 2.1 million average daily users, just behind Skype, according to AppData.
On Facebook, hidden-object players can share tips and race against friends. The games can also be plugged in to commerce systems selling ads and virtual game enhancements, which generated nearly $600 million in sales for Zynga last year.
Zynga isn't wasting time.
Since Ely started at Zynga in June, she has been commuting constantly to its San Francisco offices, where she's the creative director on a new hidden-object game called "Hidden Chronicles." The game is being developed there with some input from the Seattle team.
Zynga unveiled the concept in October and is releasing a preview trailer Monday. It will launch the full game in January.
Ely, an Army brat who came to Seattle after studying theater at Whitman College, said she hasn't suffered from the intense Zynga workplace, which has been documented in several reports published ahead of the company's stock offering.
Ely said, "There are more smart and talented people everywhere I turn. ... They're pushing me to try harder, or try things in a different way."
The company moves fast and executives from Pincus on down are easily available, she said. Instead of having to do formal presentations they say, "Let's talk about what we think ... that's really nice," she said.
The company isn't a pressure cooker, but people work "really hard," she said.
"I'm working really hard — I put that pressure on myself," she said.
"And because I'm working with these people who are smart and talented and I'm learning from, I want to give back ... and deliver in the same way. There's definitely a feeling of you want to do well, you want to succeed, you want to make something great," she said.
"I don't consider that a bad thing — we're all adults, you set your own boundaries."
Meanwhile, Big Fish last month released the 10th edition of "Mystery Case Files," which has been downloaded more than 100 million times since its launch.
Founder Paul Thelen isn't too worried about Zynga taking its business.
"We don't view Zynga as a competitor — Big Fish is the leader in premium casual, Zynga the same for games on Facebook," Thelen said via email. "Big Fish's games are immersive, relaxing adventures. Most Facebook games — and likely this one, too — are about status building and asynchronous socialization."
They may both have hidden-object scenes, "but they appeal to different psychographic needs," he said.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or email@example.com.
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
firstname.lastname@example.org | 206-515-5687
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