October’s edition of GameInformer had an interesting article about Zynga. For those who aren’t addicted to Facebook gaming, Zynga produces some of the most popular in-browser social networking games out there. FarmVille, Mafia Wars & Vampire Wars are just a few of their more lucrative properties. According to the article, in 2010 Zynga boasted a revenue of $850 million — almost as much as EA & Activision combined. Why has Zynga been so successful, & what does this mean for gaming?
I can think of several reason Zynga has been so successful. One is that the games have massive appeal to the casual, social networking obsessed crowd. None of them are particularly difficult to play. Most of them are either text-based or point-&-click style. It doesn’t require coordination, strategy or skill to play most of the games. Also, if you consider the amount of time some people spend on Facebook everyday, it’s not surprising how much time is spent on these games. I know coworkers who sign on to Facebook as soon as they get in & keep it up the whole eight hours. Of course they’re not always actively playing, but most of the games continue to run even when you’re not playing them. Money still accumulates & crops still grow even when you’re not on.
The second reason for Zynga’s success plays into the first. Essentially, Zynga games are free. You don’t have to pay to play them. Most items are available for free. But if you want the super uber weapon or just can’t wait for your crops to mature, well now that will cost you! These games are insidious. The best items & premium content requires you to pay money. It’s all about the microtransaction. Rather than paying a monthly fee, it lets people choose what they want to pay for. According to the GameInformer article, only 10% of social network gamers spend money on these games, which only a further 2% spending over $25 per month (the slang for these users are “whales”). That may not sound like a lot, but let’s do some math:
Currently the most popular Facebook game is Zynga’s CityVille. It has 14 million daily active users.
14 million x 2% = 280,000 whales per day x 25 = $7 million in 1 day
That’s purely hypothetical, of course, assuming all whales spend their money on the same day. But it shows how it can add up fast.
That’s not to say Zynga doesn’t have its share of discontent. Most people who call themselves gamers turn their noses up to Zynga games. (Read my “Snobby Gamers?” article for more on the casual gaming debate.) They don’t consider them real games. They’re just ways to suck up time & money.
More than a few people have pointed out that Zynga’s games are just rehashes. Same game, different skin. Look at Mafia Wars & Vampire Wars. They’re essentially the same game, just with different names. Of course, that’s part of the reason for Zynga’s success. They have a game to appeal to just about everyone. But worse yet is the accusations of copying competitors. Any time a successful game is created, Zynga isn’t far behind with their own version. Farm Town to FarmVille, Restuarant City to Cafe World, etc. In fact, Zynga settled out of court with developer Psycho Monkey over copying Mob Wars into Mafia Wars. The GameInformer article has a lovely quote in the beginning, from Zynga founder & CEO Mark Pincus, “I don’t f-ing want innovation. You’re not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do & do it until you get their numbers.” Charming…
So what does this mean for gaming? As much as we’d like to think developers are in it to make quality games, the video game market is all about making money. And you’d better believe other companies have noticed Zynga’s success. EA alone has had several executives join the Zynga company. There’s a lot of money to be had, & other companies are trying to follow Zynga’s example. Massively Multiplayer Online games are most likely to see this. The super hero MMO City of Heroes has already implemented this free-to-play strategy. Like most MMO’s, City of Heroes requires a monthly subscription fee to play. However, in June of this year they announced the City of Heroes: Freedom subscription model. This allows players free access to the game… within limits. Some — presumably the best — content will be withheld unless they want to sign up for VIP status, which is a monthly fee. Expect more games to start following suit.
What’s my opinion on the matter? To answer that I must first state that I’m not a big social network fan. It was long after Facebook started that my friends convinced (i.e. harrassed) me into getting a Facebook account. Call me old-fashioned, but if I want to talk to my friends, I’ll just call them. Plus, since I work the midnight shift, almost none of my friends are on when I am. But I have played several different Facebook games. Of the Zynga franchise, I’ve played Treasure Isle, Vampire Wars & YoVille. For a while I played Vampire Wars almost obsessively, & even spent money on extra content. Until I stopped & asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?” Why pay for special content that in the end won’t amount to anything when I could be saving my money for real games? So I gave away most of my items to my clanmates & de-friended most of them (with proper warning, of course). On the plus side, I now have more money & cut my friends list to 1/6 of what it used to be.
So in general I’m not a fan of Zynga or any Facebook games. I’ve blocked most of them because I get tired of getting requests to farm a friend’s crops.
I have mixed feelings about this trend toward microtransactions. On the one hand, I think it’s a good idea. It sounds like a viable strategy for MMO’s. Let people play the game for free & just pay for the extra content they want. Why charge someone who only plays the game once a week the same price as an avid fan who’s on several hours a day? However, I also feel that this will decrease the quality of future games & content. People will be nickled & dimed to death. You get the bare content for free, then have to pay for all the actual fun stuff. Plus, it seems to go against the basic idea of MMO’s. The best equipment & whatnot should go to gamers with the most dedication & skill, not the ones with the most money.
I have the same problem with microtransactions that I do with DLC’s sometimes. If I spend $60+ for a game, why should I pay more for content that should’ve come included with the original game? Sometimes I feel that developers rush a game out half-finished because they know they can charge me extra for “new” content later.
Overall, I fear that this attitude focusing on money will make the game industry as a whole suffer. It’s hard enough to find publishers willing to take a chance on something new rather than cranking out the same dribble they know people will buy over & over without them trying to blatantly copy a game just to steal each other’s cash.
Article cited: “Free to Pay,” by Matthew Kato, GameInformer issue 222, pg 27