"It favored the most ruthless, basically"
Koster says that neither blame nor credit can be laid solely at Zynga's door. "The fact is that it was a wide open new market, with virtually no controls on it. It was a gold rush scenario with no regulation," he says. "And what happens in those situations is that those who are the most clever with their tactics can build a massive lead based on practices that don’t work very well in a more mature market, that are often outright unethical."
"Eventually, Facebook started clamping down on those practices, but it nonetheless established the tone of the market in a way that powerfully shaped the platform and developers on it," he says. Even though exploitive practices had been stamped out by the time Koster joined Playdom, the business infrastructure was irrevocably changed: Metrics were emphasized over design, development relied on split testing over relatively-short time frames, and data was tracked to the minute, rather than a broader look at customer lifecycles, Koster adds.
"It was a situation where, if you didn’t engage in those practices, you were going to struggle," he says. "It favored the most ruthless, basically. And once limits started being imposed, there was still left a culture of optimization based on fairly short-term incentive structures."
The result from a design standpoint was pure conservativism: "Rather than pursuing what could be done on the platform, in the way that new platforms usually encourage, it all instead converged very quickly into just a very few game types that could be proven to work, because there was measurable success in doing so," says Koster. "The period of fertile experimentation was cut short, to my mind, and the winners ended up being those who innovated on business practices, not game designs."
He also thinks the sudden gold rush surprised Facebook, leading to a platform where APIs weren't usefully-specific for game making, constant changes made extra work for developers, dashboards were unsuited to administration and community management facilities were limited.
The risk-taking and invention designers like Siegel hoped to see from smaller companies in the social games space was nearly impossible within those kinds of constraints in both business and design: "[In] various ways... the platform was rigged toward favoring larger companies," says Cancienne. "The platform API itself was a continuously moving target, with features changing or being removed on a continual basis. If you were a small shop, it was very, very difficult to stay on top of this and keep your game using the platform optimally -- or even working at all."
"F2P energy mechanics became a one-size fits all solution, and no one we spoke to was interested in hearing about other options," he says.
"By the time we were acquired by Zynga I think we mostly had a grin-and-bear it attitude," says Cancienne. "We hoped against hope that we'd be able to get something interesting done on this platform that had been churning out garbage for so long, at this company that clearly had its heart in the wrong place, but for most of us, our guts told us our odds of making something we'd be proud of were very, very small."
Friend Game, designed by the Area/code team after acquisition by Zynga, was innovative, but the company didn't seem to commit to the title long-term alongside noise from EA's Sims Social, and it quickly faded from visibility. Zynga closed the Area/code office at the beginning of this year as part of larger cutbacks that included the closure of fellow acquisition Newtoy.
Abstractly, then, the potential for innovation and meaningful social game design on Facebook was there, but the platform came unprepared to host games in the first place, and quickly hewed to what metrics-obsessed giant companies wanted. It seems that as went Zynga, so went the platform all along: Headlines about MAUs, DAUs, concurrent users in the millions and massive revenues have been replaced with ones about layoffs, executive exodus, falling revenues and studio closures.
Zynga seriously considered entering the gambling arena (that idea was tabled by Xbox head-turned-Zynga CEO Don Mattrick), as Candy Crush Saga maker King.com, now also a mobile games giant, usurped Zynga on Facebook charts. The free-to-play mobile market seems to have risen from the smoldering ashes of Facebook, but the games themselves leave little legacy.