LIVE from TechCrunch Disrupt: John Doerr, Mark Pincus, Bing Gordon

TechCrunch Disrupt, the tech blog’s annual conference in San Francisco, is underway. I’ll liveblog the highlights of this first panel of luminaries, which is looking at Building Internet Treasures. FYI, John Doerr is a partner at Kleiner Perkins, as is Bing Gordon (former longtime creative guy at Electronic Arts), and Mark Pincus is CEO of social game giant Zynga.

Actually, Doerr is soliciting audience questions for everyone, and then they presumably will address them. They’re all over the place–where do you look for new ideas, what about micropayments, the wisdom of developing on a closed platform (in other words, Facebook), is advertising the revenue model for the Internet, what’s the future of companies like Groupon, what matters most for the future of the Internet, what is the future of social games, is the intelligent Web real or a myth, is there a future for Flash vs. HTML5, Internet disruption in health care.

Pincus starts out. 33 million people as of yesterday played a Zynga game. 1200 full-time people. Won’t disclose revenues.

Pincus says the best companies are creating products and services that we now can’t imagine living without–Amazon, Google, etc. That’s what an Internet “treasure” is. He says Zynga measures its users’ “net promotion score,” which has to do with how much they spread the word of their game experiences to others, if I understand correctly.

Doerr says he’s getting a different sense of games culture today–more analytical than creative. “We’re data junkies. We measure everything,” he says, and Zynga has invested in big data warehouses–more than a petabyte of data a day. “We’re adding a thousand servers a week.” Yikes.

But, he adds, design and creativity still really matters.

Doerr: What is disruptive about social games? Gordon: Four big disruptions from the Internet: Social, analytics, APIable Internet (app economy) and new payment methods. What’s disruptive about social games is that they combine all four in one. Pincus: In summer 2007, I was here for the Facebook apps platform launch (so was I). Games and fun were not a big macro on the Internet yet. The disruptive thing for me was not apps and platforms, but that they took down the barriers to entry to playing games–you could now design games that three clicks in, you know how to play them.

Doerr: Is the social Web going to create other great possibilities beyond games? Pincus: We are going through the biggest change in Internet consumer behavior since using the browser. Somebody will become the travel icon on my phone–and be that throughout the Web as a result. Health is waiting for someone to turn it into a consumer product that’s useful.

Turns out John Doerr’s daughter Mary, in high school when meeting Pincus along with her dad and Gordon to assess whether Kleiner would invest in Zynga, sealed the deal by saying, “He’s cool.”

Pincus: Wanted to keep control of the company to avoid “death by a thousand compromises.”

Doerr: Zynga has the notion that every employee is a CEO. That can’t be right, can it? Pincus: We sure try. People have to define what they’re the CEO of, and how they’re going to kill it (that goal).

Doerr: Is it the app economy? Pincus: Every consumer behavior on the Web is going to become an app and a new kind of industry. Consumers are going to expect the way they interact with a service is an app.

Will there be a revenue stream besides advertising? Pincus: I’m a big believer in the user-pay economy. Just as offline, ads will eventually be a small part of the overall Internet economy. Advertising [online] is only a $50 billion industry–smaller than the auto industry.

Pincus: We’re still far far away from being an Internet treasure. People can still imagine life without playing our games. Gordon: I don’t know, I was harvesting wheat at 6:15 this morning. Pincus: We have to make the daily grind have more meaning. It’s a big challenge.

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How Long Will Social Games Keep Us Hooked?

Not long after I started my farm (pictured above) on FarmVille, the leading social game on Facebook, I got a message from a friend. He was relaying a question from his wife, who had seen countless semiautomated posts to my Facebook Wall chronicling my progress in the game. Her query: “What’s the matter with him?”

It wasn’t the only such reaction I got from playing Farmville. I started the game as research to write a story on their rise for Graduate School of Business alumni magazine at Stanford University, where a surprisingly large number of social games founders or managers got degrees. It seems that people either love social games (one friend either is doing a very deep research project on them or needs an intervention) or hate them. But it’s hard to deny that they’re a game apart from most previous online games, because millions of regular people who don’t even know the term “gamer,” let alone touched an Xbox console or joined a World of Warcraft guild, are playing them.

I hope my story explains some of the reasons why, but what I’m uncertain about is how far social games can go. Clearly, Zynga and other social games leaders have found a way to provide entertainment people enjoy–and, let’s not mince words, appeal to people’s addictive nature by adroitly manipulating game mechanics to keep players coming back again and again. As a result, Zynga is raking in big bucks and seems headed for a blockbuster IPO. And games may well support a second big business in virtual currency for Facebook.

Given their undeniable appeal, it seems that social games are here to stay for a good long time. But I also wonder if the slowdown and churn we’ve seen in social games this year indicates a certain weariness on the part of players. I’m afraid I don’t have the addictive gene, so much of the appeal of social games is lost on me (although I would like to reach level 12 in FarmVille so I can plant chile peppers…).

But even people who respond to the rewards of these games can feel like they’re on a treadmill. As a result, social games companies are trying to add more wrinkles to their games to keep users from getting bored. But then, like so many tech companies that have fallen victim to the Innovator’s Dilemma, they may start losing the mass market, for whom the simplicity of social games is key. Only a few companies, I’ll wager, will be able to walk that thin line.

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