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What lessons can we learn from Zynga's popular game, Words With Friends? In the latest Persuasive Games, video game researcher and designer Ian Bogost examines whether social games can find room to grow.
Imagine that you were a big game studio that had built your business around free-to-play social network games. Say that you had recently gone public, but your stock was down sixfold from its IPO price. And let's also imagine that the social network facilitating most of your business was also taking a hammering on Wall Street. Imagine too that analysts had suggested that an underdeveloped and under-executed mobile strategy was cause for worry among investors in both cases.
Oh, and just for kicks, also imagine that you'd recently spent a couple hundred million dollars to acquire a smaller studio with a red-hot mobile title, but that said game's performance had declined rapidly in the quarter after the acquisition. In the meantime, imagine you had let your most successful mobile title wallow in disregard since acquiring its creator more than a year before.
Obviously, this isn't a hypothetical scenario. It's the recent story of Zynga. With its stock down and its prospects in question, the company has faced multiple executive resignations and fielded tough criticism from financial analysts.
Even if the shift from web to mobile social games is still just a theory, Zynga seems to have all but disavowed a proven, continuously successful game that performs well across both platforms: Words With Friends.
Some history is in order. Words With Friends was the second title from Dallas studio Newtoy, which first released Chess With Friends on iPhone in 2008. That's the same year an infringement lawsuit from Scrabble's North American copyright owner Hasbro had driven Scrabulous off of Facebook after a year of intense popularity on the platform.
Newtoy thus had a number of things going for it in advance of the release of Words With Friends: a technology infrastructure for facilitating asynchronous play for mobile devices; a brand-name for such games ("With Friends"); the untimely demise of an incumbent competitor (Scrabulous later relaunched as Lexulous and Hasbro dropped its lawsuit, but the game never achieved its former glory); and a helpful reminder of the legal obstacles that the studio might face if it didn't offer a substantially different audiovisual presentation from the genre's ur-game.
Still, Words With Friends was hardly a sure thing. Electronic Arts had managed to get an officially licensed iPhone version of Scrabble to market in 2008, and with the downfall of Scrabulous it seemed impossible that an upstart like Newtoy could upset a game with a 60-year head start.
But amazingly, it did. We'll never know exactly why, but for once design may have triumphed over marketing. Not game design, either, but visual and experience design.
Visually, Newtoy's crossword game wasn't very different from Scrabble or Scrabulous in play, although the developers wisely revised the appearance of the tiles and board along with the position of bonuses and the value of individual letters.
These alterations partly helped the game avoid copyright infringement challenges, but they also recast the familiar crossword formula in a new visual light. Next to EA's faithful recreation of Scrabble's staid wooden tiles and pastel board, Words With Friends' bright, rounded, plasticy look felt fresh, clean, and well aligned with the minimalist mobile devices on which the game was first played.
From an experience design perspective, Newtoy did an expert job with the app's startup and "onboarding" experience. Back in 2009, EA's iPhone Scrabble displayed a lengthy animated splash screen (it still does), then required registration to start games with friends.
Newtoy not only made its app load quickly, but also allowed users to start a game just by entering another player's username. The friction was low, so playership increased. Over time, Words With Friends has added many more layers of UI and registration, but did so after gaining enough users and mindshare that the network effect helped overcome a bulkier experience.
Given Zynga's ongoing interest in buying studios for their users as much as or more than their game properties, it's clear that these two decisions were central to making Newtoy an appealing acquisition target for the social game Godzilla.
Since becoming Zynga With Friends, the studio has released three new "With Friends" games: Hanging With Friends, Scramble With Friends, and Matching With Friends. The first two follow the same course as Words and Chess, adapting popular folk- and board games (hangman and Boggle, respectively) for asynchronous mobile play.
But none of the studio's subsequent titles match the popularity and influence of Words With Friends over time. It boasts 13.4 million monthly active users (MAUs) on Facebook and has held the #1 top paid app spot on iOS as recently as last week (it's down to #72 this week). Of the other titles, Scramble With Friends has performed best, with 4 million MAUs on Facebook, and an iOS ranking of #25 this week. By comparison, Draw Something is down to 11.2 million MAUs on Facebook and is the #251 paid iOS app.
It’s tempting to ask why Zynga With Friends hasn’t managed to produce a "With Friends" like Words, but that answer is somewhat obvious: hits are rare and hard to predict, and previous performance doesn’t guarantee future success. A more interesting question is this one: what lessons can we learn in advance from Words With Friends about the future of game development?