PR And VCs Behaving Badly, or How And Why I Became A Shill For Zynga’s “Draw Something” On Japanese Television

By May 8, 2012

Pics or it didn’t happen, right? Well… it happened.

That’s a picture of me being interviewed by reporters from Japanese television station TV Asahi when I was in Tokyo a little over a week ago.

We were walking out of the subway when the gentleman in the purple/magenta hoodie and chinos approached me and asked if I had five minutes to talk about OMGPOP’s game Draw Something. I said I did.

I was asked five or six questions. The interview took ten minutes (I’ll explain why in a bit). I was asked whether I’ve played the game. I had to explain the game mechanics. And I was asked a few other questions like how many of my friends played Draw Something, why the game was so popular, and – most intriguingly – what are the most popular social apps in America. And finally, they asked to explain why someone might prefer playing Draw Something to Angry Birds.

Although I did my best to give objective answers to their questions, my interlocutor had me respond to the same question several times. He asked me to refine my answers with each take, and skewed my responses toward the positive. An example: when I answered that “many” of my friends have played the game, he asked me – between takes – whether “most” of them have. Somewhat reluctantly, I said yes, most of my friends have played Draw Something. “Great,” he said, “now say that.”

When he asked me about the appeal of Draw Something, I said that it was the next logical step beyond Words With Friends in the social word games genre, and that the drawing component of the game added a degree of intimacy to gameplay… basically that it presents a more humanizing user experience for both players. I knew I was over-intellectualizing it, but I didn’t care. I’d flustered my interviewer, who despite his really good English appeared to have gotten lost. And he didn’t like me talking about Words With Friends.

Interviewer: “Draw Something is fun, no?”

Me: “Yeah, it’s fun. It provides a nice break from whatever you’re doing,” I responded.

Interviewer: “A break, good. And…”

Me: “And the synchronous gameplay is rather refreshing, because, unlike, say, with Words With Friends, where you’re pinged constantly with notifications that your friend placed a letter, you can have larger chunks of focused social gaming.”

Interviewer: “Can you just say something about it being a fun way to take a break from class or work?”

I obliged. After I was done answering that question to his specifications, I gave myself a little mental pep talk. Okay, Jason, just give the guy what he wants: 10-17 second soundbites. You can save your sophistry for lengthy editorials.

Next question.

Interviewer: How many of your friends play Draw Something?

Me: I’d guess that a good percentage of my friends have downloaded the app and played it at least once. Maybe 20 percent of my friends play Draw Something regularly.

Interviewer: So, a lot of people you know play Draw Something.

[Camera turns to me. The interviewer looks at me intently.)

Me: Yeah, I’d say that a lot of my friends play Draw Something.

Interviewer: Is Draw Something growing in popularity in the United States?

Me: Uh… Can we go off-camera for a moment?

[Camera stops recording.]

Now, the details of this particular exchange between myself and the interviewer are lost to me. They were lost as soon as I was done with the interview and scribbled down notes and recorded a voice memo so I can get the details right for this story. All I remember is that what transpired consisted of fast talking and linguistic acrobatics. I ended up answering the question with the following, all with a straight face and in a friendly tone. I felt really gross after saying this:

Me: I would say that Draw Something is growing more popular by the week.

Next question.

Interviewer: So, what’re some of the most popular social apps in America?

Me: In the US, the big social networks like Facebook and Twitter; photo and video sharing apps like Instagram and SocialCam; social games like Draw Something, and solo games like Angry Birds are our most popular apps.

I thought I was being very generous to Draw Something by putting it on the same plane as Facebook, Twitter, and Angry Birds.

One more time.

Interviewer: So, what’re some of the most popular apps in America?

I basically gave the same answer. I noticed the second time he asked the question, he omitted the word “social.” Now he was asking me to make claims about all apps in the ecosystem, but to be fair, social networks, media sharing services, and games rank among the most popular apps across the Android and iOS platforms, so I wasn’t lying.

Once more.

[off camera]

Interviewer: This time, the first thing you say should be Draw Something. Mention Facebook and Twitter, too.

[The red Recording light comes on.]

Interviewer: So, what’re some of the most popular apps in the US.

Me: Good question. Draw Something, Facebook, and Twitter are the most popular apps.

[Camera stops recording.]

Interviewer: Good.

The final question, about the appeal of Draw Something over Angry Birds, was answered with equal aplomb. Since Draw Something is a social game, (and this whole interview had been about social apps and interaction) I played right into the hands of my interviewer, saying that playing Angry Birds can be somewhat lonely and frustrating, whereas Draw Something was engaging because of its social aspects, and that the game’s design didn’t require precision like Angry Birds does.

He had me sign a release and include my email address. I asked him to send me an email containing a link to the final story, whether or not I’m in it. He never emailed me back, and I didn’t get his name. Despite all my searching and even enlisting a Japanese friend to dig through un-translated search results looking for a link to the video, nothing came up.

I walked back to my family, who were standing on the opposite side of the street. My sister told me she got some pictures when they first started. My head was spinning. I took out my notebook and wrote frantically, trying to get down the chronology of the conversation. I recorded a voice memo on my iPhone, and then we proceeded to eat noodles and visit some very nice temples and shrines.

But the moment I signed that release, I knew something smelled fishy about the interview, about how my comments were spun in Draw Something’s favor. I didn’t stay around long enough to watch them interview anyone else. I wondered whether their strategy was to target Americans for these interviews, because, as my interviewer mentioned offhand before one of the questions, “Draw Something is not very popular in Japan.”

There had to be a reason why the interviewer asked questions in such a leading manner. And so as soon as I got back to civilization (read: “an internet connection”) I did some basic research which uncovered several potential conflicts of interest between TV Asahi, OMGPOP, Zynga, and the venture capital firm with investments in all of them. Cue the dramatic music.

[youtube id=”JfCOUaW3jrI” width=”600″ height=”350″]

SoftBank Capital is an independent venture capital firm focused on early stage high growth technology based businesses benefiting from the rapid deployment and adoption of broadband and mobile technologies, according to its CrunchBase profile. Its corporate web page proudly proclaims that it makes “Investments that connect people, devices & the world.”

More from its CrunchBase profile:

They are a team of experienced entrepreneurs and investors who take a hands-on-approach to investing in order to help each portfolio company achieve its potential.

SoftBank Capital offers entrepreneurs and their management teams valuable experience and resources, including their close association with SoftBank Corporation in Japan.

The aforementioned SoftBank Corporation is a sprawling telecommunications and internet company with a market capitalization of around $20 billion. It’s SoftBank Mobile division is the distributor of iPhones and iPads in Japan, and the corporation owns a controlling stake in Yahoo Japan.

SoftBank’s investment arm, SoftBank Capital, has made significant investments in OMGPOP, Zynga, and TV Asahi. In June 2010, SoftBank Capital invested $147 million alongside Google for Zynga’s massive $300 million Series B round. SoftBank Capital was part of the $10.1 million Series B-1 round OMGPOP closed in January of this year, just two months before the maker of Draw Something was acquired by Zynga. And all the way back in 1996, SoftBank partnered with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation –which has a history of somewhat dodgy behavior and questionable ethical practices – to buy into TV Asahi, a camera crew from which asked me leading questions about other SoftBank Capital companies.

A chart of Draw Something's daily active user statistics

With recent news about Draw Something losing 5 million users a month after the Zynga acquisition, a fact which came to light after the interview, it’s not hard to draw some (somewhat speculative) conclusions about why the interview seemed so strange. Much of the almost $150 million Zynga got from SoftBank in 2010 was earmarked for international expansion, especially into Asia where it purchased Beijing-based social game developer XPD Media in May 2010, among other small talent acquisitions in Asia.

Draw Something needs to expand its user base to remain a viable commercial endeavor. Such is the nature of products with an emphasis on “social” anything.

It would be in SoftBank’s strategic interest, as an investor in the companies – which have produced the fastest-selling mobile games such as Draw Something and fabulously profitable ones like Farmville – to take advantage of its position as the exclusive distributor of iDevices in a potentially huge and largely untapped social gaming market like Japan. Its in SoftBank’s interest to leverage its media assets, like TV Asahi, to do a news story about the wildly-popular-in-America social game Draw Something.

My “man on the street” interview, in which I was encouraged to say that Draw Something is a better game than any from the Angry Birds franchise – Zynga’s primary competitor with four of its titles in the Top 50 games in the Japanese iOS App Store – occurred within 48 hours of Draw Something’s tepid April 26th launch on the Japanese App Store.

That there was some clever public relations engineering going on is obvious. To me, at least, all signs point to some collusion between SoftBank-funded companies to put Draw Something in as positive a light as possible for Japanese audiences. I do not know whether any highers-up at SoftBank are responsible for orchestrating this. I would love to know, but looking at the situation pragmatically, it’s in no one’s interest to admit to collusion.

Writer’s Conclusions

What’s the moral of this story? Two related things.

First, public relations representatives do more to control the media than governments, at least in countries with liberal press freedom laws. Chances are, the guy who interviewed me did not care about Draw Something in particular. Not one iota. Someone convinced him to care about the Draw Something story, enough to act all enthusiastic while he was interviewing me, and enough to make me “twist” or “refine” (whatever word feels best to you) my language to fit the storyline, which is that Draw Something is awesome and popular in America. Someone had to give him that storyline. The narrative arc was his to populate. But he didn’t write the story – it was already there for him – he added details to make it seem real.

The second takeaway I have is a much broader critique of my field. Tech journalists often make mountains out of molehills. The business of technology is less an industry than an idea which thrives on progress and positivity. New things are more efficient, cheaper, harder, better, faster, and stronger. New products must be more than their predecessors and current industry peers. The human brain responds to the prospect of more. And this is perhaps the only explanation for the interviewer getting off (kind of) scott free. It could be the case that he was trying to make my statements more positive and my claims more significant, because this tendency toward hyperbole is what tech journalists need to make their story good.

Stories with the premise of “Hey! Let’s talk about Draw Something!” aren’t good ones. They’re the sort of fluff which crowd out more significant stories and easily obscure those some would rather want obscured.