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For being the $500 million alpha dog of social gaming

Mark Pincus has grown into a remarkably effective CEO. PACK LEADER Photographs by: Art Streiber

“Hey, can we go in here?” Mark Pincus, Zynga’s founder and CEO, has abruptly stopped walking and is looking around for an answer. Who is he asking? He is the boss. Pincus has been leading me through the San Francisco company’s colorful, dog-friendly Potrero Hill headquarters at a brisk trot, showing off the huddles of engineers and designers who self-assemble into the 13 “studios” that run Zynga’s 11 insanely popular online games. So far, not one person has seemed remotely startled when their boss appears at their elbow and excitedly prompts them to show a perfect stranger their work, or, for that matter, to introduce their actual dog.

As we stand in the hall contemplating our next move, Pincus jukes left, circles back, and takes me around to the still-under-construction CityVille. “This is our next big bet,” he says. A drive-by engineer chimes in, “Actually, it’s live.” Pincus pauses for a barely perceptible second. “CityVille? Live?” Well, parts of it, but yeah. Pincus nods. Okay, cool. No all-hands primal screams or commemorative Lucite tombstones? Pincus grins at me. “Mark literally bangs a gong when a new product launches,” he says, gesturing south, in the general direction of Silicon Valley and referring to that other Mark, the one who runs Facebook. “I tell people [to] just go when they’re ready.”

Pincus and Zynga’s aggressive embrace of lightweight and addictive social gaming has turned the company into a leviathan of fun, attracting 300 million people a month to play its titles. Known as “casual games,” they are colorful alternate universes in which people, and their friends, raise avatar families in FrontierVille and crops in FarmVille. Those users spend real money to buy virtual goods to fill their imaginary places, stuffing the company’s real-world coffers to the tune of an estimated $500 million in 2010. In late December, one month after it debuted, City-Ville (think SimCity with a Garanimals vibe) became Zynga’s most popular game, with 84.2 million active monthly users, according to market analyst AppData. It is the fastest-growing app and social game on Facebook. Moreover, it is the fastest-growing game in history.

It is also a validation of Pincus’s exceptional entrepreneurial vision, one that few people saw coming. In 2006, when he and his cofounders developed the concept for an asynchronous online game you could play with your real-world friends, the idea was exotic and untested. And the distribution plan–hitch a ride on the backs of the still-evolving Facebook and MySpace–seemed equally risky. “Mark went up and down Sand Hill Road and didn’t get the deal he wanted,” recalls Fred Wilson, the New York–based venture capitalist who has invested in and with Pincus since 1995, including an early-stage stake in Zynga. “He said, ‘They all tell me that I have no expertise in gaming.’