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Zynga and the End of the Beginning
by Tadhg Kelly on 12/18/09 07:45:00 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.



Where two years ago everyone was talking about 'casual' games, now they're all talking about 'social' games. Key developers have recently attracted some very big numbers. This article is not really about Zynga itself, but rather examining what underpins their business model, the likely threats to which it must adapt and how Zynga – as standard bearer of the social game community – will likely fare in the coming year.  As Zynga goes, so the rest of the social game market tends to follow. 

The first thing to say is that the people running Zynga are both very smart and competitive. They have streaked ahead of all of their competition by applying a relatively simple strategy of picking up on gaming trends, copying them quickly and then maximising every avenue of Facebook to spread their message thoroughly. Zynga currently has 4 times as many monthly active players in their games as their next closest rival. To look at the distribution of players on an chart, you would be forgiven for thinking that there was an error in the metric reportage, such is the disparity. 

It's also important to understand something about 'social games': Most of them are not social. They tend to be single or multi-player games that use social networks (mostly Facebook) as an easy way to drive player adoption. What the industry is calling 'social games' are more accurately described as 'viral games'. 

The focus of most viral game developers is maximising trends. Trends rise and fall quickly in response to player boredom, retention is king, and developers spend much of their time reminding players to play, to invite their friends, to post stories from the game to their profiles, and other activity designed essentially to not let the player forget to come and play. Viral gaming relies a lot on ways to grab or nudge players’ attention. Like any third party game publisher they are reliant on the benevolence of their platform holders (primarily Facebook) and the market conditions that their platform has engendered. 

This has resulted in predominantly short-term thinking. Viral game development is a battleground of very simple and usually cloned games, interruption marketing tactics, push-to-the-limit tactics to jog players into returning to play, and a lot of scrambling to be on the next trends as fast as possible. Viral game developers, such as Zynga, have little or no commitment to developing deep or rich game experiences because the market has not really rewarded that kind of activity. However that lack of depth is precisely the reason why viral gaming is showing signs of weakness typical in any runaway success. 

Zynga this week received investment of $180m from DST, a Russian venture capital firm (which also owns a small share of Facebook itself), and this signals the end of something and the beginning of something else. The big question is this: Is it the beginning of the end? Or is it the end of the beginning?


Product Differentiation (or Lack Thereof)

“Let me point out to you guys: There’s got to be some reason why FarmVille has grown to 28 million daily active players and the next one, Farm Town, has five million and is not growing, right? If all that we were doing is everyone was copying each other then why is it that some are growing and some aren’t?”

Mark Pincus in a recent television interview on MSNBC’s “Press:Here”

What’s interesting about Zynga and their competitors is that there is almost no differentiation between their games. This has happened gradually over time, with companies originally starting out with their own unique rosters of games and slowly amalgamating their catalogues to the point that they are carbon copies of each other. Whether poker, pets, fish tanks, farms, or mafia simulators, each game type is replicated almost identically. 

There are some subtle variations, but they don’t really amount to anything of significance. There are no viral game developers that have next-generation or revolutionary game designs that they alone wield. Mark Pincus’s quote above suggests that Zynga’s games must have an inherent difference that other similar games do not but they really don’t. 

Secondly, all of the main developers have a “social bar”, which is the technical term for a set of links displayed above or beside each game to cross-promote players into other games. All the major developers have such a system in place, usually at top of each game page or (in Playfish’s case) to the left.

So that means the only real differences between the viral developers are: 

  • Advertising strategy
  • Their willingness to exploit Facebook’s virality features
  • Ability to cross-promote within games.
  • Quality of internal metrics

So the secret to Zynga’s success, and the model that all the other developers practise to a lesser degree, is as simple as this:  

  1. Spend heavily on on-platform advertising to acquire players.
  2. Exploit Facebook’s virality features as much as possible. Zynga’s games are very aggressive in this regard. They push notifications, invites, reminders and requests more than any other game developers. 
  3. Reward players based on attention rather than challenge. With the possible exception of Poker, all Zynga’s games aren’t at all challenging but rather are a build-and-wait simulation model.
  4. Use metrics in as Darwinian a fashion as possible to root out what works and what doesn’t as fast as possible. Zynga, unlike many developers, actively kills applications or change them quickly depending on what the market is telling them. 

Zynga has way more players than their competitors because they spend more to get them, and when they have them they constantly remind and reward returning behaviour, and lastly kill any channels that just aren’t working. 

It’s a very un-subtle strategy but entirely appropriate for the landscape and the platform that Facebook created, and the only reason that Playdom and Playfish have not kept pace is smaller or no advertising spend and an unwillingness to exploit virality to its fullest. Zynga are simply more competitive and they use what amounts to a very successful ad-spam strategy to buy player attention in any way that they can.

But Zynga’s model can only continue to work under these conditions:

  1. If Facebook doesn’t significantly change the platform
  2. If player growth remains constant
  3. If advertising remains effective
  4. If game quality remains equivalent
  5. If trends remain easily copied

Kick enough of those legs out from under the Zynga table and they – and their competitors who have the same mindset that they do – could well be in for some tough times. It just so happens that this is exactly what’s about to happen. 


Changes: Opting In vs. Opting Out

There are two important parts to building any successful viral application: It has to spread and it has to be retained. Spreading without retention is the typical path of quiz applications and strictly casual games. They tend to fly up the charts and subsequently decline just as quickly. On the other hand, applications that don’t spread but retain well tend to be boutique games like Battle Stations, Vikings of Thule or Tennis Mania which have small and loyal audiences but are unlikely to ever be blockbusters. 

Getting an application to spread requires novelty and is fashion-driven. There’s no point making a farm game these days because everyone is sick of farm games and a new entrant will find it hard to spread. Playfish’s Country Story only has 10% of the audience size of FarmVille and is in decline, and their Poker Rivals game is performing very poorly in the engagement stakes (9% DAU to MAU compared to Zynga’s steady 24%). Both simply came way too late to the party, and I suspect their forthcoming Mafia game will not go far either. 

Getting an application to spread also requires interruption. Zynga have demonstrated with Café World, Fish Ville and now Pet Ville an uncanny ability to build millions of players in only a few days. How? They cross-promote from other games and buy large blocks of advertising to spread the word. This works best in the current environment if you have the money to do it.

Retention is then the prime opportunity to monetise, but also a major source of sustained growth. The prime techniques for achieving high retention are:

  1. Notifications to players, which appear mixed in with notifications about discussions they are having with friends on Facebook, tagged photos and other items. So players cannot fully ignore them. Notifications from specific applications can be blocked but many Facebook players don’t really know how to do that. 
  2. Requests from players. Players can send requests from inside applications to one another. It is unclear whether this behaviour is entirely player-controlled. Requests also appear all within a mix of other kinds of requests (like event invites and friend requests). They too can be blocked if a player knows how.
  3. Stream publishing. Some casual games push high scores to Facebook profiles (this is actually quite effective for short periods of time) and others publish more rounded game stories. The Facebook implementation tends to reward a default behaviour of choosing to publish because it involves a pop-up dialog and two buttons, one coloured (publish) and the other grey (skip).  
  4. Bookmarks. Players can bookmark a favoured application so that it becomes easy to access from the Bookmarks bar.
  5. Fan updates. Applications can be ‘fanned’ by players. Becoming a fan of an application gives that application the ability to send messages to the Updates part of a player’s Inbox, and also subscribes them to the applications stream publishes, just like Facebook Pages.
  6. Messaging. A recent addition is allowing players to directly message each other from inside other applications and have that go into the player’s Inbox rather than as Requests. 
  7. Invites. Inviting your friends to play a game. Invites are among the oldest and most controlled mechanism to date because many early developers abused them when the Facebook Platform first launched. Some games use mechanics in which players must have a certain number of ‘neighbours’ in order to progress in the game. This is tantamount to making players invite their friends to play. It also causes strangers to add each other as friends just to gain game advantage.
  8. E-mail. Also a recent addition, developers can request players’ e-mail addresses as a way to further contact them.

Most of these systems are based around an opt-out structure. A player can choose to block them but in the majority of cases the players are more likely to simply ignore or put up with them rather than actively deal with them. That may lead developers to think that that is fine, but when opt-in systems are over-used to remind players, they leave a sense of poor experience and a feeling of being the victim of spam. And that reflects badly on Facebook itself.

Facebook’s solution is to replace most of these opt-out systems with opt-in equivalents. They are allowing players to have much more control over whether applications gain permission to contact them at all, which means that applications cannot spam their way to success. This change, combined with another update of the Facebook home page design, is really very significant. Going back to the list above, here’s what’s changing:

  1. Third party applications are no longer getting access to notifications. Instead a new system called ‘Counters’ will allow applications to remind players to come back and play, but with two restrictions: The material that may be posted is more restricted than before, and players must bookmark an application before it can send them counters. This change is extremely important because notifications were essentially a free advertising channel for developers like Zynga. Tying counters to bookmarks means that applications will have to work hard to be bookmarked. This is why most viral games are very prominently encouraging players to bookmark at the moment. 
  2. It is unclear at this time if requests will be similarly policed. At the moment it seems not, but it is likely that some developers will over-use them – as they did with notifications – and force Facebook to take action. 
  3. Stream publishing remains but with one big caveat: Applications must contain explicit options for players to publish before they hit the publishing dialog. This is will kill an awful lot of needless publishing from players. 
  4. Bookmarks will be improved. It looks like they will become more visible and more will be allowed. 
  5. Fanning is unchanged. As with Bookmarks, every app is encouraging players to become fans. The up-take on this seems to be around 10% of the monthly active players. Most applications do not yet use the Updates feature of Fan Pages, so it remains to be seen whether players start de-fanning applications that do, or whether they embrace that kind of communication. 
  6. Messaging is an addition to help developers because of the departure of notifications. Messages have to be explicit and have restrictions of only one-player-to-one-player however, so they won’t be mass-spam devices. 
  7. Invites remain but are even more constrained. Applications are no longer permitted to use them as the default entry screen for players. Players must choose to invite rather than be cajoled into doing so. Gating is being banned. 
  8. E-mail, like messaging, is being offered as a salve to developers concerned by the loss of notifications. I personally suspect that developers who use e-mail like their own personal spam-advertising mailing list are going to quickly discover that e-mail is totally ineffective for that kind of conversation.

Additionally, Facebook have promised to step up their compliance policing significantly to make sure that developers are not breaking the rules, and banning applications that do either until they are made compliant or permanently. 

 So for Zynga the real issue here is that they cannot really nudge players to return to applications nearly as easily as they used to. This is a big problem because they, and their competitors, are not sitting on catalogues of games which are good enough that they naturally encourage players to return and play them of their own accord. 

Viral gaming up until this point has largely been a game of distribution plays rather than content plays, which is why the developers don’t really spend a lot of time on the depth of their games. In online gaming such as massive multiplayer games or first-person shooters players do not need nudging to come back and play again and again because the experience of playing is so good that they choose to return. No Facebook game comes anywhere close to offering that. They are closer to idle distractions. 

Games of that nature simply do not register significantly with players and opting-in to receive information from any kind of product or service tends to make players much choosier about who can contact them than opting-out does. 


Population: The End of Endless Growth and the Rise of Veterans

Facebook continues to blow away the competition in country after country, adding 0.5m players a day across the world, many of them game players. Mark Pincus has called this a social revolution based on a new spirit of playing together, of finding new friends and new connections, making new shared memories, building social connections and so on. All of these are laudable statements, but most of them are fantasy. Players don't, on the whole, play Mafia Wars in a social fashion, nor do they play Restaurant City in the mould of family board games. Viral gaming’s success is much easier to explain: 

It's new.

What Facebook enables is the introduction of web gaming to normal people for the first time. This is why relatively ordinary game concepts like poker, virtual pet simulators, farming games and simple role-playing games have managed to penetrate so far. Taken in context, they're all as brand new as the equally simple Wii Sports was when Wii first launched. In any completely new game environment, unsophisticated games tend to rule the roost because players spend time being delighted by the strangeness of it all. 

The problem is that delight fades, and nothing stays new forever. Novice players start to develop expectations, and become veterans. This effect applies equally to hardcore gamers, poker players, casual gaming housewives or any segment of game players except young children. 

Viral game developers behave as though there is an endless supply of novices, but of course there isn’t. More accurately, there is due to population renewal, but the replacement rate of veterans with novices in stable markets is usually a lot lower than we’re currently seeing in the Facebook market, and that’s all because of Facebook’s meteoric growth. 

Games Workshop, Nintendo, Mattel and Hasbro are examples of companies that have figured out how to manage a stable, renewing population of players. They've done so by finding or developing great, lasting games that build reputations that spread across the generations by encouraging veterans to initiate new novices.  

Zynga’s games are not being built with renewal in mind. They are experiences built to appeal to novices and they inherently assume that novices are all there is. So they are simple to play, undemanding, lack challenge or consequence, and rely on time-oriented tasks. They may not realise it but Zynga, Playdom and Playfish (and others) are quietly educating millions of novices to expect more and then not delivering it to them. 

Facebook's growth rate is slowing down. It will likely hit 400m players by next March but may well never reach 500m players. So the number of novices who are impressed by very simple applications is going to fall and the number of expectant veterans will rise. The veteran mindset is more demanding, sophisticated and selective.

Veterans diversify. They have less interest in playing what everyone else is playing and more interest in playing the perfect game for them. This is fatal for a market in which the content is completely undifferentiated, as viral gaming is. Game developers relying on mass audiences will increasingly find it difficult to compete with identikit software. Veterans will feel that they have already played such games to death. They will want something more. 

Veterans are also choosy sharers: When people first started to use Youtube they used to share every video they discovered. Now, Youtube users and their peers have become used to the everyday Candid Camera clips that litter Youtube, and so they want video that is worth their attention. What was fun at the novice level is boring to the veteran. Novices are thus most likely to share gaming content to all of their friends where veterans will only do so selectively. 

Veterans share as a means of expression and identity. What you share says something about who you are, and so the risk of bad sharing is that of damaged reputation. Few veterans want a reputation as a spammer. So they no longer pass on every Youtube clip that comes their way to all of their friends. Instead they share selectively to groups and individuals that they think will really like the shared item. It takes a Susan Boyle moment to overcome that kind of filtering.


Advertising: The Saturation Problem

Zynga has assembled the largest player base of any viral developer partly through acquiring customers via on-platform advertising. Reportedly they have spent at least $50m doing so. In most contexts online advertising is ineffective and the Facebook environment has stayed true to form. Zynga overcome this with sheer spending power: Even the most ineffective advertising does get at least some engagement, even if it is only 1%. 

Online advertising tends to attract novices who don’t easily distinguish between platform and advert and tend to be more trusting. Veterans tend to unconsciously filter adverts away from their attention unless they are well targeted and personally relevant. As a result, entertainment (such as games) is particularly difficult to sell purely through advertising unless you plan to use mass advertising at a colossal scale (as Hollywood has proven).

Products generally appeal to players on the basis of solving a problem. This usually means a functional problem or a lifestyle problem, everything from fashionable socks to cheap flights to New York. This means that they can target and establish personal relevance based on like-for-like data. Google have made a fortune with text-matching advertisements for products and blogs by realising this, and Facebook’s own advertising is best at micro-targeting advertisements based on profile information about location, interests and etc that users have entered. So the loop of successful online products and services is finding a problem that some people need to have solved, solving it for them, and then telling them about that. 

Games (and movies, books, music, etc) don't solve problems. They may, in retrospect, help solve a problem that the player never knew they had, but players don't start looking for entertainment in a problem-solving mindset. An interest in some subjects may help you target advertisements with partial success in targeting, but for most games that really doesn’t translate into anything meaningfully useful. Like-for-like data usually translates into boredom. To be entertained, a customer needs to be surprised.

Entertainment must take us somewhere new or we quickly lose interest. This means a compelling and different story is essential, a lot of attention from media helps, and you need an advertisement or message that will punch through to people based on mass interest with enough of a budget to make it stick. It also means that an increasingly veteran audience will be less likely to pay attention. So Zynga will have to spend more to acquire them, which leads to a cycle of further saturation, lack of interest and lowering ad engagement. This is why Zynga’s recent investment haul of $180m makes sense. They need the money to market like they’ve never marketed before. 

That strategy will eventually fail, however, because the games being advertised are still shallow. Zynga may well get into more interesting marketing messaging (such as big competitions) but veterans eventually realise that these are just more tricks, and so will only interact as far as is necessary to obtain their bribe or just ignore them completely if they feel the bribes are not worth it. 

The only real way out of this saturation problem lies in smaller-scale, sexier and more remarkable development,  slower building of true fan-bases and building self-marketing software. This is very different from the trend-hopping, advertising-and-trick-sharing poor-software-quality strategy which viral developers have thus far employed.

Such an approach does not require deep marketing pockets and has been proven to work in the online game space before (EVE Online, Runescape, Puzzle Pirates, for example) but it’s a completely different way of approaching the whole market based on doing something different rather than copying everyone else. One for which I think none of the currently big developers really have the patience. 


Equivalent Quality: The Problem with Formulaic Thinking

All the excitement over Facebook and Zynga reminds me of the Atari era:

When Atari invented Pong they realised that they were onto a good thing. They quickly established a platform that players really liked and proceeded to open the doors to other developers. Initially there were some good and interesting games but, as Atari's platform matured, poor quality software became a problem. 

Novices who were impressed that they could play Pong in their living room morphed into veterans who got tired of Pong clones. The nascent game industry, high on the quick fortunes that it was making, didn't handle this at all well and continued to simply churn out product to cash in on trends. Deals were struck, games became an easy secondary revenue stream for the movie industry, and the publishers and the platform owners focused on extracting value rather than creating it. 

An over-saturation of bad product led to a crash because the companies involved in the boom were convinced that games were a digital form of fast food. During certain periods in the history of gaming platforms, some companies have stumbled onto a way to churn content toward undemanding players and reap rewards for a period of time. 

They get into the mindset that content is a “special sauce” and distribution is what really matters. And so the whole point of the games industry becomes the inventing and copying of digital Big Macs, Chickens Royale and a Fillets o Fish and shoving it down as many throats as possible before the other guy does. Competitors prefer to let each other do the heavy lifting of inventing, jump on the most promising trends with their own versions, and then really rely on distribution and marketing to win through. 

A fast food formula consists of several elements:

  1. Broad appeal. 
  2. A key game mode. 
  3. A mechanism to monetise players. 
  4. A return path. 

In viral games these correspond to:

  1. Simple concept games. Run a farm. Feed your fish. Play Poker. 
  2. The role-playing mode. All successful viral games incorporate role-playing levels and experience points, which give players goals to work toward. 
  3. The mechanism is virtual currency. 
  4. And the return path is reminders, notifications, etc. 

When you have this in place you simply crank the handle. There's just one small problem: games are not fast food. 

Consumers never get bored of hamburgers because they have a biological urge to eat and – provided they don't overdo it – they will always enjoy a familiar taste of a burger. Consumers may find that they prefer a burger from one chain over another and switch brands, but they often stick to the one they know best, so the reach of the distribution chain is what really matters. 

Players do, however, get bored of Pong. Even if they utterly love the game for a time, 99% of players eventually get bored of Pong. They get bored of clones of Pong too. They don't just switch from one Pong clone another. Instead they start to look for more from Pong-type games, driving their expectations, and - when Pong has nothing else to give, they stop playing the Pong genre. 

Player boredom is not easily solved. In the short term it can be achieved by instituting a few tweaks in a successful game or genre, running competitions to attract re-engagement, or other similar behaviour. However veterans eventually get wise to that kind of behaviour. Continuous development and expansion tend to work better, which are key advantages of online games over retail games, but they too have limits if the core of the game is essentially thin. 

Players also do not have to play games. That's what Atari discovered too late: Players simply stopped buying into the platform at all. They got bored of being served the same few games in different packaging and moved on. As with Atari, the risk to Zynga is the fallacy of thinking that equivalent quality is just fine because it assumes that players are always looking to play. They're not. 

Novice players are currently consuming all sorts of games on Facebook because they are new. The software quality of viral games is generally low but players don't seem to care for the moment. So in response, all of the major developers are simply serving the same five or six games in different packaging and they are all scrambling like crazy playing the distribution game, much like fast food chains do with their beef, chicken and fish sandwiches. 

When developers assume that the task at hand is to simply get their version of a game in front of a player’s eyeballs before the competition and that quality doesn’t really matter, they are flirting with disaster. Viral game developers really do seem to believe that the only way for the adoption and profit graph to go is up because players are always looking to play.

Economists call that kind of thinking "irrational exuberance".

There is also no guarantee that a player will simply change and play a different game. A lot of the Zynga strategy seems to revolve around pushing players from one game into another and betting on this being an eternally repeatable process. By convincing themselves that the game business is all just a matter of winning at distribution, developers forget to create real value. They assume that equivalent value among their peers is enough because players are unable to go elsewhere.

They are, of course, utterly wrong. There really is nothing stopping players from simply going elsewhere to be entertained because the Facebook audience is not a captive audience. 


Bucking Trends: When Someone Makes a Great Game that is Hard to Clone

The other risk is the developer who creates a game that can’t be easily copied. Part of why the fast food model is so compelling is the assumption that the equivalent quality will remain more or less as-is and that any new games that come along can be fairly easily copied. In the Atari era this was true because the platform had hard physical limits on what it could achieve, both internally in the silicon and externally in the one-button joystick. The Facebook platform is far less constrained. 

Role-playing games are among the easiest of all games to copy. The role-playing game mechanic is incredibly simple at heart: A player is simply set a series of goals and a number of activities to reach that goal, and the rest of it is just time.

World of Warcraft players call this “grinding”. In games like World of Warcraft and EVE Online, grinding has a purpose: The character that you build or the spaceship that you’ve bought is intended to be used to overcome a tough challenge like a quest or a space battle. On the other hand, in FarmVille grinding is essentially all there is. You work your farm day and night assembling money to buy new stuff to put in your farm, which enables you to grind in different ways to earn more money to buy more stuff... and so on. 

The big difference between the Warcraft style of grinding and the FarmVille style of grinding is the need for game balance. Game balance in World of Warcraft is a horribly complex feat of engineering, testing and design which, even after seven years, Blizzard still obsessively correct and re-correct with every major release. On the other hand, FarmVille has no game balance at all. All that needs to be changed is a few quantities or timer lengths that players particularly complain about. It’s entirely up to the player how long they want to spend harvesting virtual wheat to buy a tractor after that. 

Grind-only role-playing games also consist of essentially one game mechanic: Acquire more stuff to unlock more stuff which, when acquired, will unlock even more stuff. Everything else is just customisation. Customisation is a bit important as it allows players to express their creative side, such as building their own unique farm, but customisation tends to become less interesting as a motivation once the novelty wears off. Anecdotally, many players in Restaurant City initially spend time laying out their dream restaurant until they realise that it is inefficient. So, eventually, all players end up creating sushi bars because they are the most efficient layout.

Games which require no real game balance combined with single-mechanic game structures are incredibly easy to study and copy. It took Zynga less than three months to ramp up Farm Ville after Farm Town appeared, less time to create Fish Ville after CrowdStar’s Happy Aquarium showed its appeal, and Mafia Wars likewise cannot have taken that long to ramp up. These games have since had further development in public but it’s the time it takes Zynga to go from a standing start to a first, reasonably playable, release that allows them to turn on the marketing machine and jump on forthcoming trends.

Even the one apparent exception to this observation, Poker, actually conforms to this rule. The only actual difference between Poker games on Facebook and other role-playing games is that they incorporate a slightly more complex resolution mechanic (the Poker playing). The goal is still much the same, i.e. acquiring levels and virtual stuff, and the game mechanic used to perform resolution is just Poker. Poker is completely generic and easy to clone. 

So the big problem that Zynga has on the development front is a developer who comes along with a game that they can’t immediately decode and replicate. For example:

  1. Real-time or Turn-based strategy. It takes a lot of effort to make a desktop tower defence game that feels good, and likewise to make a turn-based strategy game that isn’t rubbish. Zynga used to have its own strategy game which performed poorly because it simply wasn’t very interesting, and it’s hard to just create a strategy game on spec.
  2. Physics-based games. A lot of Flash casual developers are getting very good at making action and physics based games, and some of these are starting to show up on Facebook. Physics is not easy to copy quickly because it takes a lot of time and testing to get the ‘feel’ factor right.
  3. Content-heavy games. Games with stories, puzzles, adventure elements, production values and so on are not that easy to just make.
  4. Hard simulation games. The difference between FarmVille and The Sims is massive and it’s all because Farm Ville has no deep rewards and little emergence whereas The Sims has a much more elaborate and emergent structure that keeps players interested for years.

With each of the four examples above, the key difference is time to market. FarmVille got to market in only 12-16 weeks, but a first-release copy of a great strategy game could easily take 28-36 weeks – probably more – to get anywhere near good. That's too late to jump on a trend, as Playfish's late entries in poker and farming show. 

The viral developers thus have a very big problem: They have little internal culture that rewards taking the time to do good game development, and so any new developers that come onto the scene that do will start to draw in veteran players in a way that the viral companies cannot easily match. Viral developers, being ultimately trend-hoppers, are no good as trend-setters. 

For example:

  • Vikings of Thule is attempting to create a role-playing game with complex combats that require active participation. It is currently very small and probably too niche to attract mass interest, but it is interesting.
  • Civilization, the famous strategy game, will be appearing on Facebook next year and is likely to prove a highly celebrated cross-over game. Civ has sophisticated and complicated game mechanics while at the same time being quite accessible. It stands a very good chance of changing many players’ expectations about what Facebook games can be.


Short Term / Long Term

Fundamentally the problem that Zynga has is that it has spent all of its time acquiring players and no time turning them into real fans. They’re only thinking short term, and have much the same attitude toward players as amusement arcades once did – extract value quickly and move on. As a result they are failing to do the most important thing that any internet-based company must do: 

Build a following. 

Entertainment is like dating. You should always strive to be sexy.  Sexiness is all about creativity, credibility, charisma and character. Sexy people are at the forefront. Sexy people have a sense of mission and identity that they have made their own. Sexy people are personal, interested and responsive. Sexy people flirt with you. They don't rip you off. They don't make you feel used. And in return, sexy people develop followings. Smart sexy people make you feel loved. Really smart sexy people continually reinvent themselves and still bring their original followers along for the ride.  

Viral game companies are not sexy. Their brands and core values are generic brands that nobody wants to date and values that are entirely based on commercialism of a short term opportunity. The only people who find viral game companies sexy are the investment community and startup news sites like Mashable because of the earnings and valuation speculation. 

To be sexy in games means going to the edges of mainstream experience and finding something that brings interested people along for the ride. Games Workshop has been at the edge of the board and war gaming industry for a long time by cleaving to a dark style and a compelling game world, and their audience is loyal enough to spend hundreds of pounds per year on lead figurines. Blizzard has been at the edge of videogames by laying down a stamp of "done when it's done" messaging to development and forming a distinctive character to every game they do. They've been so successful that World of Warcraft by itself is often held responsible for sucking all the money out of PC retail games. 

Zynga has no sex appeal. They make generic games with generic names (Restaurant/ Cafe/ Bistro/ Hospital/ Farm/ Monster Town/Ville /City /Village /Country / Story/ Wars) and un-ambitious vision. Their games are neither inherently memorable nor compelling. For most players, they’re just something to pass the time. 

Their challenge, therefore, is to take what they have learned so far and invest in the future. If Facebook are making deep changes to their platform and handing the opt-out power back to players, then Zynga cannot survive by just looking for another way to trick and spam players back into FarmVille. They need to take their $180m investment and use it to build a real following.

They could build a portal, independent from Facebook, or even a competing social network to become their own platform. Alternatively they could invest in larger, better games or more complex and complete virtual worlds. They could broaden out to smaller, more indie and creatively-oriented developers and become an aggregator or partner network. Such a strategy would result in better and more diverse content.

Realistically though, I think they plan to do none of those things. I think what they will actually do is spend the $180m on trying to replicate their previous viral success through increased advertising spend. Maybe Zynga can figure out a way to leverage Facebook’s own ads to target to players as reminders. That would be much more in-character for a company as competitive and in-the-now as Zynga has proven itself to be.

Zynga’s coffers are deep, as are Playdom and Playfish’s, but at the heart of their model are some deep weaknesses that are going to let a lot of the air out of their Fast Food business models. The audience expectations are going to shift, the key factors enabling the business model likewise, and while it’s been a great short term success this year, viral gaming doesn’t seem to have any more easy wins left. 

Now comes the hard part. Diversification, experimentation and deep design breeding interesting ideas do not grow on trees and companies need to commit to them to see them through. Right now that’s not the Zynga way.  

Twelve months from now it will be the companies that have managed to diversify, build strong followings and create real value that will be the new darlings of the scene. Those that do not adapt will still be there but their story will be one of difficulty. As social games come to the end of their beginning, Zynga is increasingly look like an Atari-era publisher leading the charge but unlikely to capitalise in the longer term because they’re too busy thinking they’re in the burger business. 


(you can follow me @tiedtiger on Twitter) 

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Tim Carter
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Basically, at the end of the day, the "get the eyeballs" route is going to be revealed as a fad. It will burn itself out.

And when it does it's going to fall back on what it always has: quality game development.

George Damian
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Thanks for taking this opportunity to discuss this, I feel strongly about it and I take pleasure in learning about this topic. If possible, as you gain information, please add to this blog with new information. I have found it extremely useful.

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Thomas Nocera
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"Entertainment must take us somewhere new or we quickly lose interest. This means a compelling and different story is essential, a lot of attention from media helps..."

Precisely. After reading this thoughtful analysis of the Zynga game model, it makes me wonder about the wisdom of the VC firm that just bought in. Of course, the venture capital game, is a game unto itself. Apparently Zynga came up with a sufficiently compelling story - aided by a lot of media attention. It will be interesting to follow the this to see how the endgame plays out.

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

Adam Bishop
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Really interesting article, lots of great insights, but I wonder if Tadhg isn't ultimately being a bit optimistic about viral games washing out when what we would typically consider to be "better" games come along. I love the Civilization games, and Tadgh mentioned the upcoming Facebook version as potentially disrupting things, but I'm not convinced that kind of more complex gameplay is actually suited for a platform like Facebook. Let's look at notifications, for instance.

FarmVille will send a message to all of your friends that will say something like "A lonely sheep has wandered onto Larissa's farm. Join FarmVille to get your own sheep companion today!" Now, that's easy to get people into - it's an easy message to get across, and people love cute things.

But what about Civilization? When I talk to a friend about the game, we'll have a conversation something like this:

ME: Dude, I was playing Civ last night, and the Aztecs attacked me at Sparta again with 100 freaking tanks! I didn't think I was going to pull through, but man, I started calling in artillery from Athens and I pulled back all of my bombers that I was getting ready to attack the Chinese with, and somehow I managed to destroy every single one of those stupid Aztec tanks!

FRIEND: Agh, I hate Montezuma! I offered him philosophy and communism for free, and I still couldn't make him happy! It's like all he ever wants is to fight!

But as a Facebook app, it just boils down to this - "Adam has defended Sparta from an Aztec invasion. Join today to start your own civilization!" The viral marketing just doesn't get across the complexity at all.

Anatoly Ropotov
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Adam: try

Ilya Belyy
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Really good article.

Although, Zynga hired Brian Reynolds as a chief designer several months ago, so it's likely that it do have a deeper strategy title in development.

J. Y.
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Wow. It took a lot of thought to write 7,000 words of content in order to crap on a company that by all measures has been knocking the ball out of the park. Zynga is destroying its competition, is profitable (despite your claims that is needs all that VC money to advertise), and is currently leading the way into a brand new category that has yet to mature.

On the one hand you notice that Zynga is ruthless at building content and killing the things that don't work but you simultaneously bash them for their "irrational exuberance" in the belief that they can crap on their customers repeatedly and without consequence. These two portrayals of the organization are at complete odds with one another--either they are constantly adapting in order to find the right formula to generate revenue, or they are not. People are currently voting with their wallets and with Zynga generating somewhere north of $250m annually, a lot of people seem to disagree with your subjective and non-qualitative conclusions.

As Ilya points out, making strategic hires, like Brian Reynolds flies in the face of your logic, but you failed to point this out... Instead you portray the organization as static and clueless, despite the fact that they are the current (profitable) leader in the space with an estimated market cap north of $2b. I read that Zynga is currently hiring something like 10 employees a week. You seem to imply that they must be spam-robots or game-copying-zombies but, in reality, you don't really seem to have any insight into who the company is hiring or what long-term strategies they intend to pursue.

Which brings me to a different point. Although you repeatedly point out examples in orthogonal business arenas (McDonald's, YouTube, etc.) you make the classic mistake of completely discounting first mover advantage in technology markets. "At first, YouTube did X but then the novelty went away..." You make these statements with a straight face, all the while ignoring the fact that YouTube was purchased for a whopping $1.5b and remains the #1 destination for online video. There's a saying that a little bit of revenue solves a lot of problems in a startup and Zynga currently has a LOT of it.

You also tend to (mistakenly) view the games themselves as completely static, as though Zynga packages up their games on an Atari 2600 game cartridge and ships them to the Walmart. Last I checked, these games (simple as they may be) are running on an internet platform and can be continually developed, improved, retooled, etc. over time. They seem to be anything but static, but you make no mention of this.

I'm not going to argue that any Facebook-centric games are good or interesting TODAY, because I don't think that they are. Pong wasn't exactly great either but it started a revolution. There are many, many risks for young technology companies but you've made the classic mistake of confusing a startup with a large conglomerate. This is not General Motors, it's a tiny company with 600 employees, a boatload of cash, and one of the few entities out there making money hand-over-fist in a horrible economy. I think you chose to write their epitaph a little to soon.

Andrew Mayer
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Thanks for the article. It's an interesting point of view, but I fundamentally disagree that there is a race for the bottom going on here. Mainstream gamers aren't "unsophisticated". They're looking for fundamentally different gaming experiences then those that have been previously provided. When they get them the respond in large numbers.

This audience is NEVER going to respond to traditional game dynamics. They have no interest in uncovering traditional "deeper" game dynamics, because the assign no personal value to understanding them. What they will do is uncover a strategic relationship with a game through exploration, which is what you see in the RPG model. You can argue that Mafia Wars is a lot of things, but "shallow" isn't one of them. Neither is Farmville for that matter.

What Zynga has proven is that for the right kind of experience there is a potential audience of 60 Million players. There is no game in history has shown that potential before. But just as the dynamics are different, the economics, user interactions, and lifespans of these games are different as well. If you're waiting for social games to be saved by traditional models you'll be waiting for a long time.

It's possible that people will grow bored of Facebook Games as a genre, but I think that's very unlikely. Compared to most internet timewasters Social Games are a high quality experience. What we may see are fewer "monster hits" on the level of Farmville or Mafia Wars, as the audience starts to fractionate and show some brand loyalty, but Facebook will clearly sustain a large number of titles at the 3-6 Million user range.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Andrew,

Thanks for the reply. But I think your reasoning is based on an idea that somehow the Facebook audience is a different or new group of people, and there is a hint of rejecting the "traditional" in there too. But Poker is nothing but traditional. RPGs like Mafia Wars have been around for 20 years. Farm games are sim games by any other name. Many of the successful casual games are direct copies from other games (such as Bejewelled).

The point here is that I think you're assigning a sort of directed interest to the Facebook audience as a whole which actually isn't there. Some very traditional game types are doing very well on Facebook, and some more innovative stuff too.

That's why I think the early phase of social games can be described neatly as an attention and distribution play rather than a brand new game form. The sum total of the audience is vast and mostly getting to play online web-based games through Facebook for the first time. It's really very simple. I see no brand new behaviour in the Facebook audience that hasn't been seen in other game markets, like the Atari bust or the Wii boom. What I see is an explosion of audience based on novelty, and a set of developers who have built a highly efficient interruption marketing engine to build user numbers. And yes, it is mostly done on the back of thin games because thus far the mechanisms of interruption have proved insanely efficient to the point that game quality only mattered to an equivalent level.

Mafia Wars *is* a thin game. There is very little to actually do in the game other than repeat a small set of actions and wait for rewards to drop, unlock further levels and so on. It only really tests the patience of the player, not their physical, social or mental skills. Why do they play it? Because it's free and available anywhere. The same applies more or less to most social games.

This means three things:

1. There is room for both old and new game dynamics. I do think that aside from just being a distribution play, the "social graph" allows for unique kinds of play. I think it also allows for the old. Scrabble is old. RPGs are old. Poker is old. Friends For Sale, on the other hand, is new.

2. A fantastic opportunity is opening up for the unusual and the targeted games. While we're all paying attention to the big hitters in the charts, the funny thing about viral markets like Facebook is just how quickly memes can spread through it. As seen on other viral services, this facility will start to reward more edge-case/remarkable game ideas. Some may well be very simple where others will be complex, but the point is that the vast and undifferentiated middle will be harder to sustain.

3. Anyone who thinks social games are "sown up" (As some of my more traditional game industry buddies do) is not paying sufficient attention to how this market works.

David Smith
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Excellent article Tadhg. I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything you've outlined and disagreeing with the opposing comments - which is unusual for me as I like a good debate!

Andrew: Not wanting to get into a mud slinging session but Farmville is an incredibly shallow as a gaming experience because as Tadhg points out, there is no pay off. If you disagree you ought to ask some fundamental questions:

1) What is all this time I'm dedicating leading to?

2) Is there a great story? (like Assassins Creed 1/2 or Batman Arkum Asylum)

3) Am I learning anything? (As with educational simulations)

4) Is this an indepth simulation? (The Sims)

5) How long did it take me to learn all the aspects of the game? (minutes and hours: Farmville; hours and days: Civilisation; YEARS and counting: EVE Online)

6) One you've built your dream farm... then what? Will you start over? Is there any replay value?

If you still disagree then you may need to consider the possibility that you are one of the novices that Tadhg describes and try playing games with some meat on their bones. I might be wrong, but also you may be surprised.

Interestingly though, I point out all these commercial / tradition platform games but I accept that in many ways they're just as bad. Because of the high production costs they tend to be as guilty of cloning as the facebook market; and this leads, as tadhg points out, to me being a very picky veteran player.

I played through farm town / ville and bejewelled as so on because I'm engaged in some academic work in the area. I've noted that I've stopped playing those games where people I know who are not traditional gamers are still playing them many months later and wondered why. I hadn't considered the novice / veteran angle.

Incidentally I'm going to print off the section: "Entertainment is like dating... Viral game companies are not sexy" and pin it to my wall. It put a big ole smile on my face. :-)

Danger Lampost
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What an awesome posting. I think your main point may have been lost because of all the interesting comments you make. I believe your main point is that Facebook social games are a cauldron of evolution and the market is poised at an inflection point to create another generation of something new.

I had to block updates on game progress on Facebook a long time ago because I find them so annoying. In some ways, social games remind me of the pet rock fad from 1975 that made its inventor a millionaire. Pet rocks were only successful because you showed them to other people. I think most social games are similar - if you had no one to share your farm town progress with, would you bother?

juliuz prize
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Andrew Mayer
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"I see no brand new behaviour in the Facebook audience that hasn't been seen in other game markets, like the Atari bust or the Wii boom. What I see is an explosion of audience based on novelty, and a set of developers who have built a highly efficient interruption marketing engine to build user numbers."

I've been following the mainstream user market for almost two decades, and I can tell you that there is a difference going on here beyond novelty. It's about being able to effectively communicate gaming to a user who has no value assigned to playing games over any other entertainment activity.

The difficulty with reaching mainstream users is about the value that they think they're getting from the gameplay, and how you reach them to express that value within a tiny window of opportunity. You have to find a way to reach them that doesn't assign fundamental value to them being a "gamer".

Poker is a terrible example btw, because it's an understood dynamic played by veteran players. You don't have to communicate play or expectation to those users. They come to the game with both an understanding of play, and a clear set of desires, which is in many ways the opposite of the average mainstream gamer experience.

It's interesting that you're saying I'm painting with far too broad a brush, when you're essentially doing that with the existing social game dynamics. There are fundamental differences between this generation of social RPGs and those that came before, and it is those elements that are driving user engagement. That's why games that tend to hew towards more traditional RPG gameplay rarely break through 1M MAU.

I agree that veteran mainstream users want more depth of play, but they want it *within* the context of the games that they're playing. Few of the overall skills are transitive. Farm game players are going to want more farm games, which is why Zynga is trying to string players along by creating strong similarities between their products.

I also agree that thinking of the idea of Facebook games as a medium is useful, it will be interesting to see if that transfers over to browser games in general. I'm guessing that's something Zynga is going to be exploring over the course of the year.

Yes, we'll start to see new (and more targeted) dynamics showing up, but one thing that became clear in casual is that mainstream gamers become fans of very specific genres and game dynamics.

The larger concern I have is that we'll only have three or four genres to choose from with an audience that is slowly diminishing, which is essentially what is happening in casual right now.

Mainstream users generally want more of what they already have, hence casual being unable to make anything but more time management, three-in-a-row, and hidden object games.


I've been developing games for a long time, for all kinds of platforms, including five years developing casual titles. This year alone I've been hired to discuss social dynamics for 2K and Bioware, so believe me, I'm well aware of the core market.

But the questions that you're asking are all linked to core-gamer values. That is, they are defined around the things that traditional gamers associate with an interactive experience, which is great for that audience of 3-5 million people.

But the values of mainstream players aren't the same, and they don't care about much or anything on your list. They're not looking to "beat" a game, they're looking to *connect* with it during the time that they are playing it. Ultimately they will embrace strategic and tactical play, but it comes out of their desire to achieve and maximize their experience, and not from overcoming artificial roadblocks.

David Smith
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Yes I accidentally stumbled across another of your articles / blogs after I'd made the last post and realised that at the very least you were more involved into the business than I gave you credit for. Apologies for that.

I'm still struggling to agree however, but I like to explore other peoples points of view.

You noted that the audience is diminishing and even without looking at the stats I'd be quite prepared to believe it because, as you may have guessed: I think that the audiences have realised that the games they are playing are in fact a total waste of time since they ultimately go nowhere. But are you saying you believe the audience is leaving purely due to a lack of variety rather than a growing appreciation / sophistication about what is it that they're doing?

I agree with your last statement too. When I was knee high to a grass hopper I was trying to *beat* games on the BBC and ZX Spectrum. A little older and I was looking for games that pushed graphical / technical / gameplay values on my Amiga. These days I only play titles I can *connect* with in the same way that I try to connect with books and films; or alternatively (but preferably at the same time) I might be intrigues by a particularly clever game mechanic - though - I find these tend to show up on the web more than they do commercially these days.

My point though is that I attribute that change in, I guess, taste to my becoming what Tadhg calls a Veteran player. I'm also sure that not everyone is the same as me but you can see how my experience resonates with the article.

Presumably the status quo won't hold out. Mainstream players as you call them will either decide it was just a novelty and start ignoring viral games as nothing more then the advertising they are (except maybe where there's a good prize to be won) and see social games in their current form as a waste of time / life / money; OR they'll become more picky about their choice of titles and yes some will favour one type of mechanics over another. You could think that this will take ages to happen like it did with traditional platforms but the web's made people fickle - maybe they always were but had no choice - and I can't see it taking people long to come around to this kind of thinking. Not all games. Bingo will last as long as there are old people who grew up liking bingo; poker as you said is a special case; silly games that lead to fabulous prizes will always attract a crowd; as will games that take no time at all to play but you get the satisfaction of trouncing your mates like bejewelled blitz. But FarmSims [or whatever] with no plot or reward that encourage you to part with hard earned currency for no real benefit? I can't see it, but maybe I'm short sighted or jaded.

Tadhg Kelly
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Tadhg Kelly
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Hmm, gama's commenting system doesn't like angled brackets. Let's try that again:

Hey Andrew:

:: "I've been following the mainstream user market for almost two decades, and I can tell you that there is a difference going on here beyond novelty. It's about being able to effectively communicate gaming to a user who has no value assigned to playing games over any other entertainment activity."

It sounds like you're talking simply about ways that games distribute.

Communicating gaming to a user is another way of saying "distribution", which is close to my point about social gaming being a distribution play first and foremost. As Youtube is a distribution mechanism for video and iTunes or Spotify for music, Facebook makes delivery of games to users incredibly simple.

Unlike any other form of gaming, viral games are cloud-hosted, require no installation and can spread very easily among communities. There is incredible novelty in that, just as there was with Youtube when it first came on the scene, and it is more than just a fly-by-night kind of novelty. It is here to stay, but, just as with Youtube, the quality of content needed to attract attention must improve to keep that sense of delight fresh.

:: "The difficulty with reaching mainstream users is about the value that they think they're getting from the gameplay, and how you reach them to express that value within a tiny window of opportunity. You have to find a way to reach them that doesn't assign fundamental value to them being a "gamer".

That's been much of the rationale behind both the Atari boom, the NES resurgence, the "cool" brand of Playstation and the Wii boom as well though. "De-gamering" games is not new.

:: "Poker is a terrible example btw, because it's an understood dynamic played by veteran players. You don't have to communicate play or expectation to those users. They come to the game with both an understanding of play, and a clear set of desires, which is in many ways the opposite of the average mainstream gamer experience. “

It is highly relevant to the point that I'm making about the users of games on Facebook being vast and undifferentiated though. It's not a concentrated audience, it is simply too young for that. Mafia Wars and the whole surfeit of RPGs are also "understood dynamics" as they are really just tabletop roleplaying games complete with complicated interfaces, levels, experience points, hit points and other similar tropes.

There is a distinction to be made here by the way. General gaming veterans are often still Facebook gaming novices, and the vice versa is also starting to become true. Viral gaming is new in its context rather than globally new. To a console gamer who's just joined Facebook FarmVille is exciting because of where it is as well as what it is.

:: "It's interesting that you're saying I'm painting with far too broad a brush, when you're essentially doing that with the existing social game dynamics. There are fundamental differences between this generation of social RPGs and those that came before, and it is those elements that are driving user engagement. That's why games that tend to hew towards more traditional RPG gameplay rarely break through 1M MAU."

I don't think that's true.

What are these fundamental differences and how do you draw a line from their engagement levels to the newer kind without considering the broader platform effects of notification spam, stream publishing and other key drivers? It's the introduction of those platform mechanics that coincides almost precisely with the sudden and collosal growth of games this year. Stream publishing in the new Facebook design from March is what led directly to games like Chain RXN building millions of users in mere weeks.

Farm Ville jumped all over that in addition to Notifications and Zynga's advertising strategy and built much larger user numbers than Farm Town, which built linearly. Cafe World and Fish Ville have done the same trick. Meanwhile Mafia Wars, practically all of Playfish's games and most other games have grown in a strictly linear fashion alongside the growth of the Facebook userbase itself.

The only difference therefore, given the similarity of so many of these games, is promotional and distribution strategy. There isn't any inherent difference in the game mechanics that's driving this. And now that Facebook have started implementing platform changes to give opt-in power back to the users, look at what has happened to the user numbers:

Zynga and RockYou have been completely flat for a month. Playfish, 6 waves and Playdom are losing users. Crowdstar are still growing because they are on a major user acquisition drive, but they are levelling off. Most developers are losing DAU/MAU inch by inch, and this is before the big switch off with Notifications has actually happened. Seasonality may explain some of this, but not all. It's mostly about what Facebook is doing to the platform.

So, while as a game designer I would like to think that the games are doing something inherent to increase or decrease their own fortunes, I think there's much more evidence to support my novelty, platform and distribution case rather than anything else. However as I've said I think inherently good game design is the future because the platform and the user conditions are changing in a way that's not going to allow such easy-money approaches to work anymore.

:: "I agree that veteran mainstream users want more depth of play, but they want it *within* the context of the games that they're playing. Few of the overall skills are transitive. Farm game players are going to want more farm games, which is why Zynga is trying to string players along by creating strong similarities between their products."

I think I addressed this above when I talked about the cycle of how Pong players got bored of Pong. It happens in all game genres that when a genre has essentially run out of innovation then it loses its overall appeal.

So I agree, for example, that farm game players will want to keep making better farms.

When I said " There’s no point making a farm game these days because everyone is sick of farm games and a new entrant will find it hard to spread." it's in the context of equivalent-quality development. Country Story is basically yet another farm game. It looks nicer graphically than Farm Ville or Farm Town, but has essentially not worked (MAU 5.7m, a 25% decline in a month, DAU/MAU 18%).

However if someone were to come along and develop a vastly better farm game (for example, a 3D farm game with a unique feature such as being able to walk around your own farm) then that might well upset the apple cart.

However to do so means putting more time and effort into the development of the games, which goes to my point about harder-to-clone games, longer lead times (and missed windows of opportunity) and other insulating effects that have prevented Runescape or Second Life or a variety of web games from having any serious competition. Thus trend setting is where the future lies, not trend following.

The question I would put to you is this: Given Zynga's track record of quick cloning and powering distribution, do you really think that they are the company to turn around and plough funding and time into innovating much better software to build stronger properties and set trends? They haven't really been that company so far (Exception: they made the first Poker game), so are they able to start now?

:: "Yes, we'll start to see new (and more targeted) dynamics showing up, but one thing that became clear in casual is that mainstream gamers become fans of very specific genres and game dynamics."

That's also not new. Hardcore gamers are likewise split into many niches.

:: "The larger concern I have is that we'll only have three or four genres to choose from with an audience that is slowly diminishing, which is essentially what is happening in casual right now."

I agree it's a concern, but I ultimately think it will not happen. I suspect casual's decline is because of a couple of factors. The first being that Wii stole a lot of its thunder by delivering a better casual experience than PC casual did, and secondly - as you yourself wrote early in the year (
al-games-may-eat-the-casual-market/ ) - because viral games have been stealing casual games' lunch because they offer persistence in a way that most Flash casual games were very slow to pick up on.

:: "Mainstream users generally want more of what they already have, hence casual being unable to make anything but more time management, three-in-a-row, and hidden object games."

The argument is the same for hardcore game niches with FPS, RTS, etc.

It's not actually true though. What it is is that innovating whole new genres that are actually fun is simply hard to do, and many developers as much as many players simply shie away from it. Secondly, the physical control form of games exercises a certain hard limit on what kinds of games will work in any given context.

Thirdly, the role of the platform is very important. I used to work as a dev manager for an interactive TV and web games portal and my experience of what they want to serve to their audience is one of surety. Match 3 is so common because often that's what the portals want, they want it cheap, and they want no risk. All these things add up to genre consolidation. Similar drivers work in the console space, which is why Xbox seems to be the place to go for shooters. Microsoft have deliberately chosen to support many shooters.

One of the best decisions that Facebook ever made was to not act as a portal but instead as a social aggregator. Most portal strategies on the web tend to fail in the long term (look at hi5's continued decline since opting to create a dedicated games portal: ) because the web rewards billions of choices. What Facebook did was closer to the strategy of Kongregate (basically let developers do as they wish) but with mechanisms that allowed users to spread memes quickly (this is where Kongregate failed, opting to try and be a destination instead -despite my warning :
missing.html ).

This inherently viral structure rewards edge cases. When creators are basically free to create and spam and scam behaviour is denied, the result is that creators in fact create. Thus are we on the brink of a golden age of new ideas, new genres and so on in a way that we haven't yet seen. This more than anything else is why I think social is going to change the face of gaming into something much more artist oriented than distribution plays can keep up with.

alexis bonte
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I agree with much of the analysis, but lets not forget that social games companies such as Zynga have built a huge head start and I don't 100% buy the fact that they won't be able to go for more depth of content, particularly with their hiring power, treasure chest and user base.

The fact that Playfish sold to EA shows that EA understood this and also is a move on Playfish's part (at least that is what their CEO says) to get access to the EA games catalog (and a nice exit :). It is also likely traditional players will struggle to adapt their game franchises (CiV included although I'm a big fan). I'm surprised you did not mention what companies like gameforge are doing without even using the distribution power of Facebook.

Tadhg Kelly
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My partner in our company said the same thing about Zynga or other companies being able to change to develop other kinds of games. My response is "maybe so, but usually no".

Companies of any size tend to establish their culture early and it's uncommon that they then go on to change it because of the internal pressures that the established culture creates. A recent example of this is EA's attempt to move from its core franchises onto to more innovative turf with games like Mirror's Edge and Dead Space, and the subsequent punishment at the hands of the market that they received for not being bold enough.

The problem is that even when companies do want to benignly change their culture, the existing culture usually forces a significant dilution. It thus takes almost total reinvention (such as at IBM a few years ago) and a willingness to throw previous success away and start over. Most companies that do change thus don't actually manage to do so until they're staring a crisis in the face. Thus, with no insult intended to Zynga at all, I think their current success is likely to really insulate them against making the sort of major shift that I'm describing.

As for the head start, I think it's less important. It's crucial to understand that viral markets are, on the whole, highly trend oriented and transient. So many applications have lots of users installed but they lose active users if they don't successfully retain them. What we've seen a few times in the Facebook app charts as a result is applications storming up the charts adding millions of users per week, even per day occasionally. That effect is still going on.

As an example, Crowdstar, a developer that nobody ever heard of 6 months ago, is now the number 2 game developer on Facebook, overtaking Playfish in the process. This shows just how fluid the market for viral games really is. Zynga may well have 230m MAU, but strangely it means a lot less than you might think.

Kai Lukoff
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Excellent analysis! I agree, today's social games are thin and better described as viral than "social." I'd add that I do think games will become more truly social, making use of synchronous gameplay and live chat features in the near future.

But I'm not convinced that advanced or niche games will ever conquer the market. Social games are drawing in unprecedented numbers and demographics. I don't see significant numbers of female or older gamers "graduating" to Civilization or more advanced titles. In other words, the majority will remain fast-food consumers in perpetuity.

Zynga and Mark Pincus are certainly betting on it:

"I think there’s a continued trend towards greater simplicity. We learned that lesson this year. While our games are more accessible than hardcore games, nobody realized making them more simple would unlock more users. Nobody would guess that one of most popular categories would be fish swimming around in a bowl. I would be shocked if it didn’t get even more simple…" SEE:

Even if it's not mass market, there's still space for more advanced games. Certainly all the young guys who who enjoyed the Civ titles growing up (myself included) will enjoy a simplified, social edition on Facebook. And yes, some new recruits will certainly join, as Facebook is a great distribution platform. But such games will never achieve the widespread popularity of Zynga's string of accessible pet/rpg games.

Here in China, social features are more prominent in games, although they remain basic and asynchronous (though far more competitive, via stealing and schadenfreude, than on Facebook). Though there are some original titles, developers are just now copying the viral distribution tactics (notably with the rapidly growing Renren Restaurants, a knockoff of Playfish's Restaurant City). We're keeping tabs at

Tadhg Kelly
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Thanks Kai.

On the 'mass market' point, the point is rather that viral/niche markets and "mass market" don't co-exist too well as concepts. That veterans will end up splitting off into dozens or hundreds of niches with strong successes in each rather than fighting over a decreasingly influential or valuable mainstream middle ground.

Birdy Edwards
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Excellent article, Tadhg. While I agree with many of your points, I believe the social/viral gaming platform is at a truly unique stage with certain qualities--though small--that may very well set this sector on a course that just can't be predicted by the Atari/Youtube or even Wii models. It should actually be a very, very interesting year to watch where this goes.

But I think a discussion about Zynga specifically should take place (as opposed to Playfish or equivalents). Although your article uses the Zynga name a lot, I think much of it is a comment on the social/viral game idea rather than Zynga itself.

Last I read, Zynga reported about 750 current employees in December. But more interesting is that they are rumored to have 300 open full time positions. A few interesting things to note about this:

1. You definitely do not need to recruit 300 more spots (the vast majority of which are technical positions) to crank out another SomethingVille. This is just a fact. Zynga itself proved this when it started out as a 30-man team that could hammer out SomethingVilles in record time.

2. Zynga is showing no signs of undergoing some kind of massive paradigm shift in game design for their CURRENT games. SomethingVille and GenericWars are always going to be SomethingVille and GenericWars. Every 2 weeks they publish a minor update (more decorations for your farm, more fashion items for your pet, etc) but the fundamental game mechanics won't change. Farmville will never have a phsyics engine. MafiaWars will always be text based. Zynga isn't hiring those 300 new talents to crank out the same old same old.

3. Zynga is aggressively recruiting fresh, new grad talent while NOBODY else can. Whoever is heading up Zynga's recruiting office probably feels like he's got the golden egg-laying goose in his desk. During a time when everyone from the giants to the famous IPs to the indy studios have no resources to recruit college graduates, Zynga is rumored to have over 100 open full time positions for new grads. There is a LOT of CS/engineering/business talent with passion for games ready to grab their diplomas in a couple of months, and Zynga can basically target the cream of the crop because the competition just can't afford to try right now.

4. What is the main difference between a fresh grad and someone who's been in the industry for 5-10 years? Why should a game company bother prioritizing those new grads over people with experience publishing titles and working crunch time? Because college kids have one huge advantage: all the theory is fresh in their minds. Zynga is built on Flash and PHP, the simple stuff. Colleges do not teach Flash and place almost no emphasis on PHP. It's all C/C++, algorithms, databases, 3d math, etc. Put 2 and 2 together and you have a picture of Zynga recruiting new programmers of a totally different breed, for what purpose? I'd bet that academic brain muscle isn't going to be wasted on scripting new SomethingVille levels.

Put it all together and you can expect to see some interesting stuff this year from Zynga. Oh I'm sure they'll make the occasional SomethingVille game every once in a while and keep churning out generic new content for the existing games, but Zynga is expanding in a way that CLEARLY indicates they know what kind of thin ice the viral games market is. Their cultural and economic foundation may be those quick and simple viral games but with a huge war chest, huge potential new talent, and access to the single largest online network... well they'd be fools not to take a stab at something new.

Patrick Dugan
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I think we can all agree that we'd wish Zynga would keep plowing on as they have because it'd make the market a lot more approachable for the rest of us. It's kind of like wishing gold would pop under $1000 to take a buy.

Pavan Ongole
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Amazing article Tadhg. It really touches almost all points analyzing Social aka Viral Games and the the market leader. While I agree with every single argument you put forth I am finding it hard to understand why would

1. DST invest millions in Zynga - do they see an Exit Strategy that would pay them off? But even with an exit it is somebody on the other end who is buying? Who could that be and what would they see as a profit making venue?

2. Even if its a buy and hold strategy - MySpace purchase stands a living example of where a SNS could flatten once users find it is bombarding them with too many ads. Same is the case how YouTube grew into irrelevance as a revenue generator compared to its pre-Google buy out age. More traditional forms of contracting with content generators are being explored. If so, how would a buy & hold strategy be explained?

3. EA paid millions to get Playfish and is believed to be building deep content games. Playdom - another believer of game content also stands a chance of cranking up content-driven game growth by leading. Or Zynga seeing that its competitors are doing can use the same mode of fast following can even drive content based game strategies - if this was not to work, is EA not wise enough to see that coming?

4. Lastly, Zynga may go public or get acquired (if somebody is still able to buy its huge valuation) if so, what would be the valuation of buyers based on?

I sincerely think your arguments are theoritically apt, and I enjoyed them so much as I felt lot of the media lacked asking such pointed questions about growing phenomenon but at the same time find it hard to digest that some people are betting millions (in Zyngas case may be billions) in this market.

Are they wasting their money ?

messay sanchez
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Have you tried the game called literature that was produced by Zynga as well?

Basanta Acharya
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I think on the 'mass market' point, and "mass market" don't co-exist too well as concepts. because it'd make the market a lot more approachable for the rest of us.

Thank you

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lowongan kerja
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i love to play zynga game like texas poker and cityville

lowongan kerja

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Tenn Williams
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Social games I think are becoming the new revolution of gaming, particularly online. I'm not as much a fan of them from the stand point of playing them, but they can be fun to develop. I'm seeing these principles more and more being applied to iPhone applications as well, such as this page talks about

I think the most important part of designing a game like this from the start is the environment/world itself. These games in particular are simple but addictive because of the elements within the game, leveling and close ties that they have to the game play - no fluff.

Garth Carter
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Good points and great analysis.

Brian Simcox
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Very deep analysis, well worth the read - and also the comments.

Anissa Pollard
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i think with the global economy expanding online as it has, i think it has really shattered the idea of "mass market". Sure, you will always have hits, but I think most of the opportunity lies within specific niches that games can address. And with more and more people able to access gaming online, your chances of developing a game that meets the needs of a group of people increases dramatically

Lanny Shi
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Can you please write more blog entries on this subject, its a request, because after reading your blog I am highly interested in learning more.