Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
arrowPress Releases
August 20, 2014
PR Newswire
View All
View All     Submit Event

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Snobbish, Arrogant and Elitist - Why Attitudes to Zynga Suck
by Nicholas Lovell on 09/08/10 09:20:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


I read this article from SF Weekly on Zynga’s business practices with increasing anger. My bile rose and rose, and not for the reasons you think.

My Farmville farm. Yesterday.

The article claimed to be an exposé on Zynga’s dodgy business practices: copying other people’s games, disdaining innovation, being strongly focused on the bottom line.

All fair comments. All written about before (see, for example, Why suing your rivals makes good business sense, or Zynga CEO Mark Pincus: "I Did Every Horrible Thing In The Book Just To Get Revenues")

But that’s not what made me angry.

It was the sneering attitude to social games that pervaded the story.

Snobbish, elitist and wrong

Author Peter Jamison talks about Zynga’s “inane forms of entertainment” and its “brand of simplistic entertainment”. He says:

“At a time when traditional "console" videogames — the kind bought in a store and played on a computer or entertainment system such as a Sony PlayStation — aspire to be classified as works of art, it might seem odd that such confections as FarmVille enjoy widespread attention and financial success. In 2007, for example, publisher 2K Games released a spellbinding console game, Bioshock, in which players make difficult ethical decisions in an underwater city-state founded on the libertarian ideals of Ayn Rand.

Next to such immersing products, Zynga's games look cretinous.”

The snobbish arrogance in this statement makes me almost speechless with anger.

It might seem odd…

it might seem odd that over 233 million people enjoy Zynga’s games every month*.

It might seem odd that Farmville (despite its waning popularity) was played last month by five times as many people as have *ever* played Modern Warfare 2.

It might seem odd that 55% of gamers on Facebook are women. That 79% of them are over 30.**

It might seem odd that amongst Facebook gamers, a third log on every day just to play an “inane form of entertainment”. A further third log on multiple times a day to play.

It might seem odd that a third of gamers have never played another game before discovering Facebook games.

You know what I think. I think that making incredibly expensive, hard-to-play games that require proprietary hardware and prior experience to enjoy is a dumb way of providing gaming entertainment to a global audience.

It works for some. It doesn’t work for all.

Zynga (and Playfish and Playdom and 6Waves and Crowdstar) have found ways to make games that appeal to a broader cross-section of society than traditional approaches have ever done. They have done more to make games mass-market than anyone other than Nintendo. They are the true mass-market of gaming.

And this article sees no merit in their achievements.

I think that attitude sucks.

When will gamers grow up

Multi-million dollar development budget games have a place in the market. So do casual, accessible, browser games that appeal to a different demographic.

The gamers are saying it: 233 million people are playing Zynga’s games alone

The products are saying it: Facebook games get more users than any traditional games title.

The revenues are saying it: Zynga is making perhaps as much as $500 million a year from social games.

So when will gamers stop sneering, stop hiding behind their bleating “but Farmville isn’t a game” and start realising that Zynga have done something that traditional games have never done.

They have made gaming something for everyone. Isn’t it time we applauded that?

This post originally appeared on GAMESbrief.

* This figure is the aggregate for all Zynga’s games and is not de-duplicated. People playing multiple games are double counted, so the actual figure is probably lower than this.

** These points come from PopCap’s research into social gamers. See

Related Jobs

Nordeus — Belgrade, Serbia

Senior Game Designer
CCP — Newcastle, England, United Kingdom

Senior VFX artist
ZeniMax Online Studios
ZeniMax Online Studios — Austin, Texas, United States

Business Intelligence Analyst
InnoGames GmbH
InnoGames GmbH — Hamburg, Germany

Software Developer Analytics / Big Data (m/f)


Jeffrey Ollendorf
profile image
I agree with you, but it's not just us gamers that have this sort of "it's popular, so it sucks" mentality, though it certainly seems to be more so with us that with other groups.

Most hard-core gamers, I will admit (myself being one), are still nerds, geeks, what have you. Having found a little secret clubhouse of gamer-dom to call their own, they're not very happy about having to share it with the Average Joes who may or may not have scorned them.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
I think there's two ways to look at it Nick:

The first is to laud them for having managed to build something. Zynga have the attitude of a web company, much like Google or Facebook, and so they are very concerned with clicks, performance and page views. They understand that their business is an attention-span business, so they spend a huge amount to acquire and hold that attention. That's by no means easy.

Second is to label them as cretins. Like it or not, the strategy of copying all their success from other games and essentially just play a marketing game is pretty dismal behaviour. While it is arguable that that happens in all forms of gaming, the very fact that Zynga has been so successful at it is a fair point of contention, legal or otherwise.

The real questions are these: If you want to laud them for their success, what exactly is it that you want to laud? Just because they are in the games business, and successful, does that mean they should be automatically lauded?

Would you apply the same thinking to casinos? Casinos make some of the largest amounts of money on Earth from games, and they too are all about capturing attention span after all. Does this mean that they should be our heroes? Or is there something to the idea that creative value actually matters?

I think there is. The difference, and the reason for the snobbishness, is that while it's a hard task to capture attention on a scale - and good luck to any who can - what you are then doing with that attention matters a great deal. Are you creating value or extracting it? Are you using that attention to do something that is better for mankind, or simply making coin?

To some the distinction doesn't matter, but to plenty it does and in the long run it is what breeds customer loyalty. When your games are the same as everyone's, and all you really have is distribution tactics to find attention, and deep pockets, then there's no real reason to stay loyal. The difference between Nintendo and Zynga is thus that Nintendo creates a lot of value through original content in the mainstream, whereas Zynga are so far sitting behind the curve and relying on other companies to do their innovation for them.

Cash cow businesses don't tend to last forever because they eventually get out-innovated. Many a web-business such as Myspace and Yahoo has made the mistake of thinking it's all about the money rather than the value, and they've eventually been undone by nicer competition that users felt a greater inclination toward being loyal (Facebook and Google) and won out in the long term.

The question for Zynga, indeed all the social game publishers, remains as it did a year ago: What are you going to do to really up your value and create something that people love rather than just play because it's there.

Matthieu Poujade
profile image
Wow, you mad, bro?

Seriously, you may want to take a look outside our industry for a little bit:

People who have invested a lot of time and dedication into [activity X] look down on people who have invested less in the same activity. By definition, a "gamer" will look down Farmville, because it looks like a dumbed-down version of what is dear to him / her. Pardon me, because it actually IS a dumbed-down version of a game. Yes, it is successful. And as Slade stated better than I could: criticizing something successful doesn't make you arrogant, it makes you interesting.

Here is a little trip out of our corner of the woods:

Ask fashion designers what they think of H&M.

Ask a lifelong carpenter what he/she thinks of Ikea.

Ask Ridley Scott what he thinks of Big Brother, or whatever TV bullshit you see around.

Boy I wish you could ask Mozart what he thinks of Celine Dion or Britney Spears...

Achievement Unlocked! You have just discovered a fragment of the human psyche! 10 points.

John Neumann
profile image
I'm not a lifelong carpenter and I can tell you what I think of Ikea.

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
It's not a dumbed-down version of a game: it's a different type of game. And I applaud differences.

Christopher Braithwaite
profile image
The thing is though, despite the famous cretinism and profiteering of Zynga, FarmVille is actually a good game. People are getting *something* from the game or they wouldn't play it, and it seems to be this fact that bothers the traditional game community. Like a man in a movie once said, "Deserve's got nothin' to do with it." Zynga may not deserve the megahit they have with FarmVille because of their unscrupulous business practices and cynical attitude to their customers, but nevertheless they have created a game that people enjoy. Criticism of FarmVille is basically the art argument turned inside out as "core" gamers become Roger Ebert.

Matthieu Poujade
profile image
"Criticism of FarmVille is basically the art argument turned inside out as "core" gamers become Roger Ebert."

Excellent analogy imho.

[User Banned]
profile image
This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

John Neumann
profile image
This argument is absurd. People, especially me, do not hate Zynga because it's popular, so bringing up it's popularity has nothing to do with it. You're entire stance on this is "it's popular, people like it, and it makes money, so it MUST be good, and you're all ignorant for not selling out like me." I, personally hate it because it's pure garbage. Just because a massive amount of people play or like something, doesn't mean it's good. People are idiots, that's a well known fact. Look at the popular music industry. I don't hate Zynga because of it's popularity, I hate it because they're doing their part to devalue the industry, just like the coporate atmosphere does for every other company.

The fact that these games are called "social" games is an incorrect term as well. I have more social interaction with my friends playing Smash Brothers, than this trash. Interacting with other people in Farm Ville for instance, is simply just bugging the hell out of people that don't really like you anyway with "send me a plank" ads.

By the way, I'm not an elitist, or a snob. Or maybe I am, but I'm cleverly disguised as a struggling game designer that can barely put food on the table. I would be more than happy to have more than 10 people play my games, but of course good art has nothing to do with popularity.

Jacob Pederson
profile image
Agreed. The reason I don't play Facebook games is the same reason I don't own a television. My free time is valuable to me. I spend it as best I can in art created with love and passion, not in formulaic market driven junk flying out of sweatshops and assembly lines.

One day I was watching a Billy Mays commercial, and thought, cripes, what kind of an idiot exposes themselves to this crap! Zynga is no different.

Mike Weldon
profile image
Popularity does not equate to quality. They don't teach that in marketing school. There are lots of ways to separate people from their money. Farmville is just the latest popular scam. The fact that people refer to it as a game is insulting to people who make games for a living, and aren't necessarily looking to make a quick buck. The fact that you bought into it says more about you than about the rest of us "arrogant snobs".

McDonalds makes something for everyone too. I bet you don't eat there everyday though, you arrogant elitist!

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
Thanks to those who tried to make this a more rational argument.

I'm not saying that you ought to like these games. Really, I'm not. But to deny that they are entertaining, well-crafted games seems absurd to me.

I play games and have done for years. I'm currently playing an uber-geeky indie MMO called Darkwind. I finished Dragon Age: Origins. Earlier in the year, I spent three months playing Farmville.

My point is that to call these games inane or cretinous is to ignore the fact that they bring fun and entertainment to hundreds of millions of people.

I even said there is room for both types of gaming "Multi-million dollar development budget games have a place in the market. So do casual, accessible, browser games that appeal to a different demographic."

But the elite, arrogant snobs seem to prefer to argue that there shouldn't be a place for this type of game. And I disagree.

John Trauger
profile image
The core issue when it comes to criticism of Zynga is whether the criticism is on the merits or just on the level epithet. Calling Farmville an "inane forms of entertainment", is just an epithet. It's not necessarily elitist but is certainly xenophobic or prejudiced.

If you say Farmville isn't a game, you'd better be able to back that up with a definition of "game" that includes "Bejeweled" and somehow excludes Farmville. If you can't come up with one, we're back at the playground mentality of beating up on the new kid.

Zynga is marketing casual games with social and microtransaction hooks. At the moment, they're the new PopCap games. Play their games long enough to crib notes (because everybody does that) and move on. Bash them without ever looking at them you miss what they do right.

Luis Guimaraes
profile image
Some rational point in the middle of all this insanity.

I don't bother playing facebook games, nor even play any kind of MMO since MU Online. Just not worth my time, I don't get any fun and have no interest inplaying such games.

And that's has nothing to say they suck or aren't games.

I look at every kind of game as a developer, thinking about how to make my move, the same way Zinga, Blizzard and Valve did theirs...

Luis Blondet
profile image

"They have made gaming something for everyone. Isn’t it time we applauded that?"

Zynga hasn't made anything. They haven't broken any new ground. They haven't innovated anything. They got where they are at by copying the ideas of the other innovative developers. YoVille is your typical 3-D chat and the only reason it took off is because there was no such thing on FaceBook. Copying an idea and putting it somewhere were it doesn't exist is not innovation. It may be clever. It may be strategic. But it is not innovative at all. Mafia Wars was the second rocket booster that helped propel Zynga, a game structure completely copied from Mob Wars. They just got lucky because they did the right thing (spam, flood Notifications, copy games from others and cross promote) at the right time, so no, no one should be applauded for winning the lottery.

Also, the figure of 230+ million users is absurd and yes, you marked it with an asterisk with the correction but not later on. Zynga games are DESIGNED TO CREATE CLONERS in order to inflate their numbers in order to fool investors into thinking they are this big, huge phenomenon when the fact is that each player plays multiple Zynga games plus THEIR OWN CLONES do the same.

Zynga is really good at one thing, though, and that is to deceive and trick millions of people as well as influential investors, and that, Nicholas, does truly SUCK.

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
I don't entirely believe in luck. Playfish and Playdom were doing similar things (arguably with more innovation), but not with as much success.

Betamax was a better video cassette than VHS

Some would argue that Macs are better computers than PCs

I doubt very much that Zynga were lucky. There were very, very clever.

But I agree they didn't make innovative games. They just made them better, more aggressively and better marketed than everyone else.

So I can understand why everyone is pissed off them. But not at the snobbery aimed at Facebook games.

Luis Blondet
profile image
Zynga didn't make most of their games better, they just used the Mirror Strategy and Copy-N-Paste their way to success in a time were they could exploit the market. They currently still ride in the wave of their early exploitations and scamming.

Zynga was very lucky. Lucky that they had way more opportunity to spam and scam their way to success in a time were these types of games was new. The only thing Zynga did over their larger size competition was to be lower, scummier and more cunning, something not to be admired by any decent person.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Actually what marks the main difference between Zynga and Playdom, Playfish etc is not cloning (they all do it). It was at one point an overuse of so-called viral channels.

But it's not that either now as all those channels have been shut down. It's simply advertising strategy. Zynga advertises on Facebook to an enormous degree. That advertising drives clicks, which drive installs, and in turn capture many more users. The other players in the market do not, or cannot advertise nearly as much as Zynga so they do not see the same effects. It's a simple numbers game.

Zynga don't make better games than any of the other developers on Facebook. That is an assumption that a lot of people in the business community make ("They must be doing SOMETHING right") along the lines of them having a secret sauce that nobody else has. A cursory examination of their games exposes this fiction pretty quickly however.

What they are very smart at is marketing, advertising and a willingness to play ball hard. Facebook is an environment which thrives on attention economy, and what Zynga seems to get is that buying more attention, or virally acquiring it, is what it's all about. This is why they have been going around finding big investment numbers from DST and Google and so on: It fuels the marketing operation which, in turn, fuels the monetisation engine.

Nicholas Lovell
profile image

I don't think I agree with you. I believe that Zynga does have a secret sauce. But it's about conversion and ARPU.

If, say, the lifetime value of Zynga user is $10.00, and the lifetime value of a user of the nearest competitor is $9.00, then Zynga can (and should) spend $9.50 on acquiring users - each user is marginally profitable for Zynga, but would be marginally loss-making for its competitors.

My best guess (and it is a guess) is that Zynga's secret is not in its attention; it's in its conversion rates.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Zynga plays in the same pen as every other Facebook developer. That means that they are bound by the same sort of rules, and also the same problems of attracting attention. A lot of the replacement mechanisms like Counters and the Games dashboard, for example, are pretty ineffective in gaining traffic. There are rules over publishing. Notifications are long gone. And so on.

And you yourself have noted that they are in fact copying everyone's games. As indeed are everyone else to them. Don't you think it reasonable that if they had stumbled onto some magic mechanic or levelling structure (which are what drive retention) that every other developer would have copied the hell out of it a long time ago and - as a result - we'd have several equivalently-sized developers in Facebook rather than one dominator and several stunties?

Zynga aren't Wolfram Alpha and they don't have Google-calibre PHDs on staff figuring this stuff out with massive algorithms. They're a quickly-grown company on a streak that know how to market. And they make that streak last by simply finding out as many ways as possible (legit or otherwise) to grab user attention. Facebook's environment obliges them to do this via advertising now, and they do it in spades. It's a basic sales operation with scale and performance metrics.

In short, a "secret sauce" is no kind of answer. You might as well be assigning their success to divination or voodoo. I see this thinking a lot and what it is is irrational exuberance: If company X is doing extremely well over everyone else then there must be a reason. It can't be simple or everyone else would have done it. Therefore it must be magic.

The exact same thing applies to every starry-eyed web company you or I can think of, be it Google, Twitter or Facebook. They don't have magic sauce on their side, what they have is great marketing.

Are you familiar with the story of swapping Yahoo and Google results to look like each other, to assess their impact? It's very revealing. Basically, someone ran a test that presented Google results in a Yahoo frame and Yahoo results in a Google frame and asked users which they liked best. They responded that they liked the "Google" results best, indicating that Google's technology and algorithm (their secret sauce) play very little part in how users actually react to their product. What they actually like is the clean page.

Zynga succeeds by advertising to an enormous degree to overcome the attention problem created by the sparse and Notification-less Facebook home page. That's their only sauce: They spend more.

Everything else they do is quickly co-opted by other developers, and they do likewise with their competitors, so the games are entirely equivalent. In a world where games between developers are literally interchangeable, the business strategy applied by each is the only logical analysis that makes any sense without invoking voodoo.

Jake Akemann
profile image
Great article! Ironic that most of the responses exemplify the title...

This argument reminds me much of the Twilight/HarryPotter/DaVinciCode debates I've been hearing the last few years. People who consider themselves active readers are mostly infuriated because these three books are heralded as "masterfully written" when in fact most of their audience had never read anything else and are simply jumping on a popular bandwagon.

The difference I see here... Do people who play farmville even consider farmville a game? The lingo I usually hear is "facebook game", as if the "facebook" part is important. I don't especially like farmville, but it has never really bothered me because the game itself isn't encroaching on the rest of the industry. They are very much wedging themselves into a completely different audience.

When facebook games spread to consoles I think there might be room for alarm, but something tells me it will be the other way around.

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
I'd love to see Facebook games (free-to-play, virtual goods led, light touch, regular check in) spread to consoles.

And I think they will.

Luis Blondet
profile image
If you play with it, it's a game. There! :P

Daniel Kromand
profile image
And when is it 'playing'?

Damir Slogar
profile image
Nicholas, I don't think you are understanding the math behind the DAU/MAU metrics. There are no 233 million people playing Zynga games.

1. MAU not equals to number of people playing the game

2. 230M MAU is combined from 52 games that Zynga has on the facebook. Many people are playing more than one.

3. Many people have 2nd or 3rd account, many of them dozens.

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
I understand that, damir. I even made a footnote about it to avoid this criticism. At its height, Farmville had 84 million MAUs. Therefore at the very least, Zynga had 84 million MAUs. Sure, it's flawed, but there is no doubt that more people have played Farmville than pretty well any game since Solitaire.

John Trauger
profile image
I was honestly not aware of this "scam" side of social gaming. Makes criticisms much more legitimat.e Thanks, Slade.

Not sure I'd agree that it's "gloified pachinko" though.

Farmville, you have the tools to paint a farm picture, you have the ability to help your friends. Nobody an mess with your farm and you get bragging rights as you drive your level up. Forgetting the whole "scam" thing and focusing on Farmville gameplay, it's got more going on than Tetris. It's something close to a free-to-play "casual" mmo. It's big problems are, like MMOs the Inevitable Grind and the fact that it wants to spam its players' wall with every tirvial accomplishment farmville can dream up.

Stephen Chin
profile image
Regardless, it will be interesting when the social/casual generation ages up in about ten to twenty years to replace the Golden and Silver Age of gamers and industry members. :)

Adam Bishop
profile image
I think we should be careful before coming to the conclusion that just because lots of people do something that means that it's worthy of praise. Not in the sense that "my taste is better than your taste" or something like that, but in the sense that people frequently engage in behaviours that are destructive or exploitative, and I don't think we should look on that kindly. Lots of people use crack cocaine; would the author of this piece argue that therefore we should applaud crack dealers?

We need to look deeper. "How many people play Zynga games?" doesn't tell us much that's useful. We need to be asking better questions like "What is it about Zynga games that draws people to them?" and "What kind of experiences are these games providing their players?" Maybe the end result of those conversations is that we find good reasons to praise Zynga, but the fact that they've drawn a lot of people in isn't good enough justification on its own.

Daniel Kromand
profile image
I think that the point of this article was to say "since a lot of people are playing these games, there is a good chance that they are doing something right about retaining costumers. Maybe we should look into that".

I completely agree that it would be a good idea to spend some time understanding the social mechanics.

Matthieu Poujade
profile image
I disagree, Daniel. The point of this article is that "elitist" attitude to Zynga sucks. The point is not "we should derive best practices from Zynga's customer acquisition and retention strategies".

The reason why the author is generating such a high amount of comments is because he is basically calling out gamers on their sneering attitude to mass-market so-called social games.

If the point was: "Zynga knows a thing or two about marketing", nobody would give a crap about the article.

Which is why the article is clever in the first place: it stimulates comments. I, for one, happen to feel that I am on the other side of the argument, because I want to encourage game developers to make amazing game experiences, not to apply known recipes so that marketing geniuses can claim they have bravely led a revolution in gaming.

The revolution is not in gaming. The revolution is in business.

Daniel Kromand
profile image
But I don't believe that it is all marketing: That only gets the player to land on the page. You still need strong social mechanics to keep players coming back. And I too see it as elitist if you don't acknowledge the value of that type of design.

Also, I think it is increasingly difficult to separate mainstream gaming with business practices. You might not enjoy the development, but then there are indie-developers that cater to your taste. I sometimes prefer art cinema, but that does mean that I criticize Michael Bay for making 'splosion-movies: Different markets, different games.

Daniel Kromand
profile image
[sorry, I double-posted and now I can't delete the second reply]

Joseph North
profile image
As a future hopeful in game development, I'm personally more interested in what context or level we should classify Zynga games as. There are those who would call the games made by them cash-in clones

and ripoff's of better more thought out games, but they are still games. I mean should we compare Zynga games at the same level of educational games that reside on the Vtech? Or should they be considered the

modern day arcade games of the 80's and 90's?

Because if it's the former than any game that resides on face book could fall under the same category as the example above. Making face book the potential vtech counterpart of the internet. If we associate Zynga

with the later then our gamer perception of what a game is might be slanted. At least that how I see it.

Pete Moretta
profile image
perhaps it been mentioned but i just saw that they dramatized the facebook start up into a silver screen movie. lol. so let me ask y'all... where would facebook be without zynga? hmm...

Tom Dazed
profile image
For me, farmville is on a level of the ringtone scams in the 90s and the fishingmails in the 00s. Screwing people over with tech they use but cant handle. I just feel sorry for the people who fall for it. But they had it comming anyway. Better know the shit you use daily.

Carlo Delallana
profile image
Just pulled this quote from the SFWeekly article:

"I don't f**king want innovation," the ex-employee recalls Pincus saying. "You're not smarter than your competitor. Just copy what they do and do it until you get their numbers."

So hard for me to reconcile the fact that Bryan Reynolds works there.

I can understand why there's a degree of vitriol in the article. Their attitude toward game development is a reflection of how they see their customers.

When Pincus says "I don't want innovation", he's saying that the customer doesn't want innovation.

When Pincus drives developers to copy game ideas from existing tiles, he's saying that customers will not know the difference. They can be herded like sheep and monetized.

I think the casual game industry has made many positive strides, opening up gaming to a new and/or ignored audience. But its ultimately how we as an industry see and treat our audience that will signal long term success or a crash once our players finally get bored and move on....or worse...when players realize that they are not getting any value from their experience and are essentially being recruited as viral marketing tools.

Edit: notice something odd about FarmVille? I can't find a link that tells me who the developers are on the game. For such a successful title I would hope that the devs on the game actually get their names out there...seems like the case for most social games.

John Yoo
profile image
Wow, Nicholas seems to be the only voice of reason on this thread. I applaud Nicholas for trying to break barriers by writing this article but trying to change engrained preconceived beliefs is like trying to change a Republican to be a Democrat...extremely difficult. It's a noble attempt but attempting to get hardcore gamers to find merit in casual games is the equivalent of trying to get the hot girl who loves Facebook games to think hardcore gamers aren't dorks.

Chad Wagner
profile image
This reminds me of the "Rumble Massage" period of XNA Indie Games. (

The backlash was strong from honest developers working hard to make products they knew would never be able to compete with the ($60,000+ in 2009) app that consisted of a single API call. Few would say: "It's time we recognized the genius of Rumble Massage. We should stop being so critical, and learn lessons from how he tapped in to a heretofor unreachable audience..."

Note: the article is predominantly about Zynga's practice of ripping off other ideas -- so the author is really asserting that Zynga is a Rumble Massage clone manufacturer. I wonder where the ire comes from?

I think we're still dealing with the strange new world of PopCap, Hidden Picture, Casual Games, Rumble Massage, and Zynga. Remember the infamous "Zits and Giggles?"

Sometimes people buy things they really shouldn't. Often times the fad blows over, though. In time.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
The other thing that needs to be dealt with carefully is that social games are free to play. When comparing the difference between how many people have played Game X vs Game Y, a free game vs paid game comparison is pretty unfair. Of course anything free will usually outstrip anything paid by a geometric amount:

If Facebook were not free, how many users do you think it would get? Exactly.

If World of Warcraft were free, don't you think it would hit 100m users a month? I think it would. Easily.

So Farmville, to take an example, has 62m MAU (which means people who at one point clicked into the game in the last month). Typically 3-5% of MAUs in any one month actually make purchases of $5 or more though. So Farmville's *paying* users are somewhere on the order of 1.8-3m at $5/m or so. Whereas World of Warcraft's *paying* users are, what, 11m at $10?

And that is, I think, how this needs to be looked at. Billions of web users play free games all the time. If you go onto any casual web portal, they have millions of users sloshing about playing their free games on a constant basis. The true test of worth is *paying* users.

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
Not true, on two levels.

First (and pedantically), half of WoW's users are in China and pay much less.

Secondly, a number of companies (many of which are not on Facebook, I admit) have made it clear that they make their revenues from a small number of high spenders. It's not about getting 5% to spend $5. It's about getting 0.5% to spend $50 or more (sometimes much more).

es/ and

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Sure, sure, it's all about finding so-called "whales". A variety of f2p MMOs have the same thinking. It's nowhere near 0.5% of MAU spending that $50 amount however. That's one in every 200 users spending $50 a month on virtual tractors and so forth? No chance. Reasonable estimates suggest that actual numbers of whales is closer to 1 in a 1,000.

The other side of the "whale" business is a bit murkier though which is that a "whale" may well be another word for a compulsive addict. There's a story of how Zynga refused a refund to a woman whose daughter had borrowed/stolen her credit card and charged $1,000 worth of Farmville purchases, for instance.

In otherwords, the ethics of what amounts to feeding compulsive behaviour, as with all forms of entertainment, is something that f2p gaming is beginning to unveil and it's not easily answered. Poker sites are dealing with this exact issue also, because ultimately some people are not capable of making clear choices when it comes to gaming and money.

So the question is whether hunting "whales" is really the right thing to be doing, and it is another reason for the elitism that you're talking about. In the end of the day, the high-brow games business doesn't chase after its customers looking for whales because it would receive a legal drubbing if it did, but the web gaming industry has so far managed to do so unnoticed.

You might find this opinion piece interesting in that regard:

(On WOW btw, I took broad account of that. The US subs price of WoW is $15 per month, not $10)

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
The ethical issue is a very valid one.

But here's the questions. Nine Inch Nails released their last album with two versions on the same day. One was a collector's edition for $300, only 2,500 made, another was free. That is offering something of value to true fans. No one complains.

I believe that F2P games can do exactly the same: allow those people who want to freeload to freeload (and I am a big proponent of supporting and encouraging freeloaders) and allow those who have a stronger attachment to the game to spend more.

You can always quote addict stories (and I can just as easily quote ones about the core games industry). But personally, I am all in favour of ending one-price-fits-all pricing to enable dynamic pricing driven by personal preferences.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
You can also add to this the price of concert tickets and exclusive gigs and so on, I know.

Is gaming different? Actually, in some ways it is. Gambling is a recognised addiction and costs some people many thousands of dollars (and their lives, marriages, health, etc) because that dopamine kick that you get from winning or nearly-winning (this is the most compulsive release apparently) is in all ways identical to a drug.

The differences between that and the NiN collector set are:

1. Connection -> The customer is buying into the social network of NiN fans as a part of the experience. At whatever level they're transacting it seems like they are getting more over the long term because of the community and the connection to the artist than the actual money allows for. You see the same effect with game forums (I know you dismissed them in your talk, but I think you're missing out on something here) for companies like Introversion, where their users just want to be close to these cool guys whose work enlightens their lives.

2. Property -> The customer has something treasured. At the end of the day, they have a thing that they will use (the CD) and treasure (the collectables) in some cases for many years or even hand down to their kids. Tangibility in that instance is significant, and it is the same behaviour as those who track down copies of Radiant Silvergun. Contrast that with social network games, where what you're buying are basically chips that let you play. They have a lack of property around them, are mostly expendable, and are constructed to get you to buy more chips eventually.

3. Frequency -> Trent Reznor may well put out a collector's set but he does so irregularly. He's not looking to find fans who want to buy a collector's set every month, nor building his business on finding that 1 in a 1000 fans who is so compulsive that they do that.

The argument I'm making, in short is that not all transactions are the same, and the value that they create is not the same either. The more I swim in the social game waters, the more I realise that many of these companies are really just casinos (in your talk, you mentioned whales and high rollers) and seems focused on mostly extracting value, whereas the business of the "elitist" games industry has often been about creating value.

Each is addictive, but in the extractors case their business model depends on essentially stringing addicts along for as long as possible. It is inherently seedy, like a lapdancing club trying to string customers along and get them to visit their "VIP rooms" to keep spending money.

Trent Reznor may well be an addictive presence also, but at least he's using that attraction for good. That is ultimately why many a "real" games fan dislikes Zynga etc so much.

Tom Dazed
profile image
^ this .... very hard! As I said before. It's a scam on people who don't know better. They take money and give no value back.

WoW for example gives back 24/7 ingame support in over 10 linguages, servers all over the world (low ping for everyone) and a lot of "free" new content every 3 months or so.

WoW works with addiction too, was hooked over 3 years. But at least, people get some hardware and manpower in return for their 15$. If my account gets hacked, I can be sure they can restore it, even years after it happend. Just insane backup times.

Anyway... Farmville = Scam ... because they take money for much less "software/support" then other companies give. They live of stupid people.

Jonathan Jennings
profile image
@ nicholas

well this argument I can somewhat agree with , I definitely don't understand why all games retail at $60 especially when I feel like some games doom themselves at that price. I would have been more than happy to pay $70 for red dead redemption at release,I would have probably picked up kane and lynch 2 at release for $50. my own perceived vlaue of those two games differs quite a bit. with that said that kind of pricing could also be disastrous. gamers already perceive certain developers and publishers as "greedy ". How much more will they when they see a new game in their favorite series costing $60 and a newer game from a lesser known developer fo $30? even if the quality is drastically different .

Social games work differently in that respect though, nearly all social games are free, if someone doesn't play a social game it will most likely be just because it doesn't appeal to them, I have numerous social games on my myspace account but i never stick with them for over a week except for the case of mafia wars which I was addicted to for 3 months. the perceived value of those games differed heavily and the item of comparison was time, not money like console games. when mafia wars asked for a $1 fee to level up faster I scoffed at the idea, even after 3 months of play.

I just feel like the perceived value between games for social games is not the same as i is for console games.

Tont Voles
profile image
3-5% is optimistic, particularly as you scale up to Farmville's population. It's not a linear relationship at all - Farmville's paying population *may* be 0.5% or less. Nobody actually knows and Zynga, to my knowledge, hasn't given the slightest hint of how much money it makes and how much it keeps.

Frank Arnot
profile image
I for one whole-heartedly agree with Nicholas.

As a console games developer of over 16 years, the advent of social games is the first time in a long time that I’ve been really fired up about making games.

However, trying to sell the idea of developing a social game back to the team and management was, and continues to be, an uphill challenge. But I for one want to take all my traditional dev experience and find ways to apply it to social (as well as learning from social at the same time).

The “simplistic” graphics and gameplay of these games belie the design and tech challenge that exist in creating a good social title – many of these games have a real charm. Sure, things are a little derivative at the moment but that happens in all industries. But the social games companies will innovate and the genre will spread. I can clearly see the potential of a social title integrated over multiple platforms: Facebook, mobile and console – allowing players to play regardless of whether they are at home, work, or on the move.

At the moment, social games may be a little like “games with training wheels” – they are after all, the first steps into gaming for many people. However, social games will evolve. Not only that but many of those social games players will lose the training wheels and move onto consoles or other casual titles. More people gaming worldwide whether it be social, casual or hard-core can only be a good thing for the industry as a whole, right?

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
+1, Frank. +1

Jonathan Jennings
profile image
I don't know if i agree with you frank, I certainly don't think social gaming is a stepping stone to creating a console/ pc gaming audience . for example my girlfriend is addicted to " sorority life" and my sister is in love with " cafe world" yet neither of them play console games. the motivations are veyr different and I feel like part of what makes social games such an addicting phenomena is that they are linked to a social website such as facebook. without that social factor I doubt many people would play the likes of farmville, not because it's not necessarily a good game but games like that thrive off encouraging players to indoctrinate their friends and colleagues. the rise and fall of social games will be linked to the rise and fall o the social network. Much like many people who have never used a computer except for the day to day work activity have flocked to facebook by the droves the same thing is happening with social gaming.

now I won't argue against it being a good thing because we're all gamers. I would argue if we can put down social games than technically chess player should be able to put down videogames as a whole. but they are very different structural-wise, developement-wise, and especially with the inclusion of social aspects. It will be interesting to see if and how this new type of gaming evolves.

Christopher Landry
profile image
I have no problem calling facebook games inane, because they are.

That the article would present it as being odd that bad games are popular is what confuses me.

P.S. I'm using "facebook games" to describe a certain group of games that all are currently following the simplistic design pattern of "no decisions, just time + pyramid schemes". Certainly I acknowledge that you could put better games onto facebook if you wanted to.

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Amusingly, this just popped up in my inbox:

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Gama could really do with some system that makes it easy to find new replies. The nested replies are great but it's hard to see when there are replies to those replies.

Maurício Gomes
profile image
I agree with that, last time I've read it had 50 posts, I am having a hard time figuring where the other 30 went.

Matthieu Poujade
profile image
One thing on the topic of f2p that you guys seem to have overlooked (maybe on purpose, maybe not): one of the main reasons to go f2p is to rapidly get your player numbers to critical mass so that your service can be sustained, and eventually snowball.

Casual gaming has to be free to play, because games do not stand fundamentally stand out of the competition enough to ensure that critical mass is reached. Even a title like Bejeweled has had trouble with Facebook at first. And I'm sure we can agree that it is a hell of casual game to begin with.

On the topic of the numbers you mention, genre affects the proportion quite a bit. You will never see a 80-20 rule in Facebook gaming, but in other genres like f2p RTS or MMO you may, so I guess you're both right on that, but in different environments.

Yanko Oliveira
profile image
What i'm starting to see as a pattern here is that many people take criticism towards Zynga's business model as criticism towards social games as games. And it's not it!

I'm usually taken as the "hardcore gamer at heart that loathes social gaming" exactly because of the same mistake: i have absolutely nothing against social games, and i think there's a whole deal to learn from them - and i get really excited when i see a social game that i think that "clicks". I just happen to think Zynga's practices are something to be frowned upon, which makes me totally get the "internet rage" built around it.

It's the same thing that makes people mad at Activision's business stunts (like the InfWard decapitation), or at Ubisoft's DRM; it's about not being used to the industry that people learnt to "love and trust" treating people like sheep.

Social games have absolutely no reason to be bad (bad as in "treating customers like spamming botnets"), and the thing i see the most from people defending games like FarmVille and such is "well, i don't play it and i think it's pretty bad, but we gotta learn from it!", and that's exactly where i think the criticisms come into play: if there isn't a big enough criticism towards that kind of business model both from inside and outside the industry, there won't be anything to weight out the impressive numbers that seem to be the only argument to defend Zynga.

When people badmouth Zynga, it's about badmouthing Zynga (or any other giant as Slade Villena mentioned), and not about saying that social/casual games are not games. They are games, and they can be way better games if people concentrate more on iterating over them and making them better, and less on taking a quick buck.

Zak McCracken
profile image
“Next to such immersing products, Zynga's games look cretinous”

Having a kabazillion people playing your game doesn’t make it anymore immersive. McDonalds is not gourmet - calm down.

Roberta Davies
profile image
I was interested in the comment equating Facebook games with arcade games. Arcade games were designed to kill the player off in two to four minutes max, but with enough of a hook to persuade him to play again immediately. The whole object was to get coins pumped into the machine at a high and steady rate, and the games were shaped entirely to this end.

If we're talking in general terms about players being persuaded to part with money compulsively in return for small dribs of fleeting enjoyment, then arcades were just as guilty of this as Zynga.

Maybe Facebook is the 21st century's video arcade: a place for teens to hang out, chat, and mess around with games.

Reid Moran
profile image
are ppl seriously saying zynga is the only company that uses marketing to push its products? EVERY game publisher does.

along with metrics and user testing and spam etc etc etc.

zynga just innovated quicker easier and more seductive ways of doing this. is it the dark side? maybe. but you can not deny the fact that millions of ppl do continuously play these games after they've been bated in by the marketing.

that proves innovation in marketing and in user retention.

Ben Cousins
profile image
This comments thread serves as a great way of finding people in the games industry that I never, ever want to hire. Thanks for smoking these insects out of the woodwork Nicholas :)

John Trauger
profile image
Which side of the debate are you not hiring? :)

Ben Cousins
profile image

Tadhg Kelly
profile image
Good you cleared that up then :)

Adam Miller
profile image
I also read the SFWeekly article, and agree it was essentially biased against Zynga-type games without really being able to articulate why. That said, I agree with many of the comments here that essentially point out that Farmville and its ilk ARE rubbish, regardless.

Look, Farmville looks and plays like video slots or pachinko, also incredibly popular forms of entertainment (and yes, many older women enjoy them!). I don't think these things shouldn't exist, and I understand that while, say, Diablo is similar to Farmville in certain ways, it is actually difficult and therefor there is a barrier to entry.

But saying that Zynga found some magical creative formula for attracting a new audience is a bit like saying that Kesha found a new audience for music or that a book about cute kittens found a new audience for literature. No, Zynga made cheap -- albeit novel, for some -- entertainment, and profited accordingly. Slots and Farmville will always have their place, but they're not worth the sort of write-up and support you're giving them. I mean, you wouldn't write an article in support of slots.

Carlo Delallana
profile image
Well, I was able to turn $20 to $120 playing slots in Vegas a few weeks ago.

I would like to give a shout to the 25 cent Wheel of Fortune machine in "The Orleans" casino/hotel. You gave me some value for my gameplay experience.

Jonathan Jennings
profile image
lol excellent point about slots and social games Adam, I can just imagine the rave reviews for the "deal or no deal " slot machines .

Charles Stuard
profile image
Actually, those Deal or No Deal slot machines are awesome when they hit. The most fun "side game" in a slot machine I've ever played!

Jonathan Jennings
profile image
yeah...that was a bad example because deal or no deal is just family actually bought the game-dvd thing because we love the show it so much .... bad example.

Brandon Battersby
profile image
I don't really want to step on anyone's toes here. All the arguments are valid, with right and wrongs simply lying in the very abstract terms of ethics and success. I mean the only money Zynga makes is off of monetization.

What's preventing platform games from using this. X-box live market place makes you buy little accessories for your avatar, why can't these integrated markets sell new skins, weapons, mods, vehicles skins, for halo? Why doesn't Rockband, charge like 25 cents a downloadable song to add to your set list? Just curious if anyone has insight onto how that transition/cross-over is coming along.

When's face book going to release a game that has levels and ends?A personal friend of mine is developing a second version of his web-browser game in hopes of publishing on Facebook with new features to capitalize on monetization.

Sean Farrell
profile image
What really ticks me off is not the part that these "games" are valid or not or if Zynga and friends are nice business people. They are games no matter how you put it and is they are using valid business practices other companies also use. What ticks me really off is that these games are nothing new. There where "casual" games like for ever; Minesweeper being the most popular. Why where games frowned on for decades and suddenly they go mass market? The games did not change, hell the graphic did not change much either.

Tim Carter
profile image
The basic problem is that the existence of Zynga frames the investor mindset around games.

The harm caused by Zynga is that it forces game developers to conform to it, because the investors only see dollar signs. They don't get into games for the better reasons.

Samuel Batista
profile image
This is why we must never allow Zynga to dictate where the future of gaming is headed:

Please understand, what Zynga has done for the industry is unprecedented, they brought millions upon millions of new players that are willing to pay for virtual content. But how they exploit them for their dramatic success is saddening, sickening, and just plain greedy.

David Nisshagen
profile image
Thanks Nicholas - this comment section is quite entertaining!

There's plenty of room for both simple casual and complex core games (and everything in between) but converting the masses of social gamers into core gamers isn't going to happen.

My mother finally understand what I do for a living and we can actually play games together. But she wont ever buy any gaming hardware, care about polycount and framerates, or bother with a story in a game. If she wants a story, she'll read a book. She's a different type of audience with different motivations and there's hundreds of millions like her that have just been introduced to games. These games are different. Core games are not interesting in her world and they probably never will be.

What has made social games so successful imho, is simply that the successful companies are good at identifying and exploiting the needs and desires of the non-core gamer target audience. This is not easy or trivial - it is much more difficult then iterating on well proven mechanics like core games do. Zynga (and Playfish/Playdom/Crowdstar et al) should get a lot of cred for doing this.

Andrew Hohenstein
profile image
I guess that means anyone that criticizes Fox News is an elitist arse for saying it isn't real news.


No no no, it's not that there isn't anything wrong with their programming, it's these snobby people sneering at them that is the problem! Millions of people watch, enjoy, and get information from Fox News, why can't we just applaud News Corp for their success? Sure there's ethical issues, sure there's a lack of truth and originality, but look at these numbers! They must be doing something right!


Exploiting people's tendency to continue building something they've already spent time building up, and rewarding them for spreading the habit to others, does not equal any kind of genius that deserves appreciation. It's a festering sore on our society, bleeding people through advertisements for offers that Zygna know are scams, and that are intentionally designed to be difficult to decline (or rather, designed to be easy to accidentally accept).

profile image
I can sympathize with the SF Weekly article in that I feel it is unethical for a company to be a virtual drug pusher. The best games in the world challenge you to think (chess), to be physically fit (sports), to have fast reflexes (shooters) and timing (Rock Band), or to explore emotional depth (Shadow of the Colossus) and partake in a riveting story (Mass Effect); in these aspects games can offer value to users and to society.

I'm not about to claim that Farmville has none of these values, but Zynga (and by extension Facebook) is getting quite a reputation as a purveyor of meaningless games (similar to Candyland, Tic-Tac-Toe, and many MMOs) which suck away time and money leaving little to nothing in return.

In other words you can make a lot of money selling heroin, but that doesn't make it OK. As developers we should strive to do better, and if we do I'm sure players will pay us for it.

Nicholas Lovell
profile image
Unfortunately, I don't agree that the majority of game-players want "better". Nor, for that mater, that enough players will pay you if you strive for game-making excellence.

Sorry, I know it sucks, but I think it's the truth.

profile image
Don't drink the Kool-aid Nick, of course there is a huge market for gaming excellence. Case in point: Blizzard, Bungie, Valve, Infinity Ward (past), Naughty Dog, Capcom, Nintendo....the list goes on and on!

It's funny because as much as Zynga doesn't innovate in games, they do innovate very much with their business model. It won't be long before other devs come along to copy that model while also adding quality games to the mix and we will see what the facebook market is really capable of.

Altug Isigan
profile image
Back to the basics: Production-Distribution-Consumption is the chain you need to set up for financial success. Zynga's (which is the Production part in the chain) business model makes very good use of Facebook's distribution options and its customer base (Consumption). You make use of an already established "viral" marketing apparatus with an "in-built" (and growing) audience. And the best thing is: your distribution partner or "theatre" owner doesn't demand part of the profit that you make by using his apparatus. All you need to do is to make the best with the technology he is limiting you with, and the customer base that is in the reach of his medium.

Facebook, OTOH, knows that it needs fresh content for the very medium that it is. Without the constant flow of content, it would be like a console for which no company produces any games. As a console owner, what would you do with such a console? You would throw it away after a while because you want to have fun with that console, you want new stuff. Hence, back to another basic: all "hardware" needs "software"; media needs content, something that fills "air time", something that helps you maximizing the attention you get from customers out there. That's why you, as a Production company can use it for free, that's why you are provided with a FBML language and the whole Facebook SDE.

Facebooks need Zyngas and Zyngas need Facebooks. That's a well known symbiotic relationship between hardware/communication environment providers and content developers and you can observe it in the broadcasting industries, and the mobile phone industry, and the computer industry, and the game console industry.

Social games look like they're a success: 250 million players for Zynga alone! But maybe it points already at the limit of the Facebook medium and the Zyngaesque business models that it's "language" as a medium enables.

I admit that it surprises me to see my mom playing Farmville. But to be honest, I don't see anything to applaud about it. Because to me these games are a waste of time and I hate the way they sell their users to advertising companies etc (If it's free to use, *you* are the commodity. And no mom, I won't send you a banana tree.) But then, my mother never ever applauded when I played computer or console games. She just sweared at those who made them because she thought they're ruining my life :) And this alone makes this monolithic use of the "gamer" concept look very awkward. Zynga expands the gaming market? It depends on who your market (and it's enemy) is.

Altug Isigan
profile image
And no, not every new gamer that you attract means that the industry as a whole benefits from it. That's just how corporatist visions idealize the world of gaming.