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Riding The 'Draw Something' Roller Coaster

Draw Something's creator pushes back against claims about the game's collapse. Plus: the limits of branding, living at the mercy of Facebook, and the saddest request the company has ever received.

Posted on February 19, 2013, at 9:11 a.m. ET

Draw Something, the Pictionary-style social online game, went from being the number one social game of all time — with 50 million downloads in 50 days — to a cautionary tale about fleeting Facebook fame. But not before Dan Porter, the creator of the game, was able to sell it to Zynga for $180 million in March of last year.

Porter has described himself as an outsider to the gaming world, and admits he is an awful drawer. His favorite Draw Something words, he says, are simple ones like "moustache" and "glasses."

But he is business savvy and pop-culture-obsessed. He was the President of Teach for America at age 27, started the Virgin U.S. music festivals while at Virgin U.S.A., and while at TicketWeb, lead the company's $35 million sale to Ticketmaster. It's been one full year since he created Draw Something at what was then OMGPOP, a struggling game company.

Porter spoke with Buzzfeed about his game.

What have you learned from working with Zynga.

People rag on Zynga for not having originality in some of their games or for not being first with games. People don't understand how hard it is to maintain a game as a service.

A game's service team is as big as the team who built it. It is little things like how regularly you release content, and having more power to dive into the data and understand people's patterns of how often they play and how many people they invite to play. We run this game that, a year later, still has millions of users.

But you lost five million users in the month after you were bought by Zynga.

There was an out of control meme that was not accurate. They had incomplete information based on data people could get from connected Facebook users. Half our users didn't use Facebook, largely because as the game spread, there were many older and younger users.

You still lost a lot of users.

Our game was at its peak perhaps the most popular social game ever. It was basically a major frenzy. It is impossible to sustain that. You almost get a pile on effect because people want to join to see what is going on and not all of them will stay.

It's like the number of people who were watching Gangnam Style videos, versus now, when it has kind of tailed off. So we had to go from a manic point to a settling point. The irony is that the point at which it settled is still a very very large number.

Facebook data suggesting user loss after OMGPOP was bought by Zynga:

Porter points out that Facebook's numbers didn't tell the whole story.

Porter points out that Facebook's numbers didn't tell the whole story.

There has been controversy about the new advertisement model where brands are used as words. How was the decision to do that made?

Originally we put brands in the game because they are a part of pop culture and the everyday life. It wasn't like overly conscious or really by design. And then we were like, "holy smokes, millions of people are drawing the Nike swoosh and the Coke logo. Man, we are such idiots, we should figure out how to get paid for that." So we reached out to ones that made sense and are iconic and fun.

Were you concerned that people would be upset about being bombarded by ads?

I was a little concerned with that. I agree with you personally that there is advertising everywhere and people are always trying to message you and you always have to try to steel yourself against it. But the reality was people love riffing on the brands that resonate with them. We would test them and they would always be among the most popular things drawn.

It is so low key in the game. There is no messaging that comes along with it. The players have total creative control over it. They could integrate the brand with their drawings and just like they do in their life. It is not seen as marketing. At the end of the day it isn't the biggest revenue source for the game, so there is a lot of flexibility.

Is there anywhere you would draw the line?

You wont see anything that isn't fun, like pharmaceutical companies. I think oil companies and cigarette companies would really upset people.

What about regular words? Are there any that are off limits?

In the early days we were perhaps more risqué. At that time we thought we were kinda making the game for ourselves and didn't realize how broad or mass market it was going to be. That's where you the world of double entendres come in, like booty, which someone could also think is pirate's booty. There are no hard and fast rules, I think it is just a question of good judgment really.

How do you pick which pop culture elements to use?

First and foremost there is always a good visual component. Kanye is always awesome because of you can do those glasses, even if he doesn't wear them anymore. Beiber's got the hair.

Even for someone who draws stick figures, what is going on around the world... we can leverage. We spend a lot of time on Twitter. Anything big on YouTube will be a no brainer. Sometimes the things are just too hard to draw, like a celebrity who doesn't have anything iconic about them, or a phrase. It is a game that has to be created and run by people who love pop culture.

Any new words?

We just put in a bunch for Academy Awards. Movies are great. Lincoln is great because the beard is so iconic, Django is a little harder, Zero Dark Thirty is even harder than that. But they are all visual in nature.

What's the process like?

I imagine it is like a writers' meeting for the Daily Show. It kind of started out as just brainstorming. We have a lot of data on what gets chosen or not since when people get three words to draw they only chose one of them. You start to learn what ideas don't work and get a really good instinct and go with that.

Any ideas that you tried that tanked?

Country western stars. At first, I was putting in Hip Hop because that is what I listen to. When it got bigger, we had to look at every genre of music and try different artists. So we put in more country western stars, but then no one chose them. Top five failures were tofu, Brooklyn, Nirvana, goat, and Bowie.

Draw something is played in 190 countries and translated into 13 languages. Do cultural references carry into other countries?

Half our users are international. So we have a team in San Francisco that goes and figures out who all the celebs and movies and TV shows are big in other countries and puts them in that language.

Some users were concerned by the new feature on the app that asks for permission to read and send SMS messages. Do you ever look at users communications to pick words?

We never do that. That isn't even in the realm of possibility. I don't look at chats in the games. We are super privacy concerned. The only thing we see is how many coins you have. We keep a database of drawings for people but we don't get access to any of that stuff.

Do you ever share images from the database?

We had a weird thing where a guy basically emailed us and said, "I used to play it with my brother and he died and I was wondering if you keep log of drawings because I would love to have them for sentimental reasons." We don't share them but in that case we made sure he got them.

That is a pretty intense story.

It was cool to be able to do that, but also just cool that he asked. I don't think he would have asked if we would send him all his brother's high scores. It was a little bit awesome, not like it's awesome dude, but I was awed by [there being] such a connection it. It is bigger than anything I could ever imagine.

Was it shellshock going from such a such a small company, and before that nonprofit organizations, to Zynga?

It wasn't a shock. I have definitely done lot of things in my career. I was president of Teach for America when I was 27 years old, onstage shaking hands with Bill Clinton. I worked with Richard Branson and hung out with him. I love new experiences. It is only a shock when it gets boring and I want to stop learning about it.