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Why Zynga's Success Makes Game Designers Gloomy (wired.com)
36 points by edw519 on Oct 7, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 42 comments

So I used to be a game designer in the very hardcore PC MMO world. I now work as a Lead Game Designer at Zynga. You know what? I'm not gloomy in the slightest. If I stayed in the MMO space, I'd be making the same games that I'd been making for the past 10 years, chasing WoW because that's where publishers want to throw their money. Facebook games on the other hand offered a different audience and a different set of rules to design against. It's MORE interesting work, to be honest. The are new and interesting challenges in terms of both gameplay and scale ("raid encounters" for 20? try upping that a few orders of magnitude!)

The whole "Oh god, Zynga is morally and creatively bankrupt" line is at least 6 months old at this point (and for a company that's only 3 years old, that's a pretty long time). Look at the recent acquisitions and releases... FrontierVille was made by Brian Reynolds's team (you know Civ 2, Alpha Centauri, and Rise of Nations, right? Yeah, that Brian Reynolds.) and is by all accounts quite successful. Zynga just bought Bonfire (ex-Ensemble, responsible for Age of Empires and Halo Wars). "Good" (more interesting, fun, higher production values, etc) games are slowly cropping up on Facebook, and more people on getting on board, not just because it's a perceived money train, but because it actually allows you to do something new as a designer.

For the first time in 12 years, my mother understands and enjoys the kinds of games I make. My aunts hassle me to add particular items to my game. Granted, I still haven't figured out a way to tell people what I do without them narrowing their eyes at me... (Previous: "You work on video games, huh? Like Grand Theft Auto, that game is so violent and bad for society!" Now: "You work on FarmVille!? I [love|hate] that game!")

Incidentally, two of the people quoted (Jesse Schell and Daniel James) both make very similar social games on Facebook.

To be honest, it doesn't really matter what personnel you have on board or whether you feel there's some moratorium on bad press (I don't know why the other commenter got down-voted, because you do really state that), it's about the games Zynga produce. The games that Zynga are designing are pretty much bankrupt in terms of enjoyment in and of itself. They're a Korean MMO grind, with the key difference that you have to force your friends into that grind, or pay up.

I really did enjoy Frontierville for the first week or so. There was something therapeutic about tending to my farm, hitting snakes, adding some new trinkets. It's the same pleasure centers as Animal Crossing hits. Then I need to build a building, which requires all sorts of tools, which you can either buy with real money, or get from friends. Those took a couple of days to acquire from my friends. "I'm glad I don't have to do that again" I exclaim. Lo and behold, it's revealed to me that if I want the next building, at my rate of tool acquisition, building the house would take months. My choice was "Pay up, spam more friends, or I dare you to quit." I quit.

Does it matter that a game designer I greatly admire was putting me in this ridiculous situation in his game? Actually, yes it does. It makes it burn more when a man I respect is telling the press how great Zynga is and how much freedom he has, and then he's producing games like this. It's hard not to feel he's simply happy cashing pay checks, players be damned.

I'm not adverse to the idea of paying for games that are Freemium, I put a decent amount of money into Free Realms. But FR was careful to make the transactions in there not required: much of the game (apart from some jobs) was available to you, and that game design didn't require a microtransaction sword or whatever to progress. No money was required, which is the difference with Zynga's games.

Facebook games are a great new place to be. I have no chip about Zynga's Scrooge McDuck money bins, and respect them for their success, the metrics-based technology they have at the backend, and the amazing team they've managed to put together. But the products they produce are cynical and anti-player. And that's why people hate them.

The whole "Oh god, Zynga is morally and creatively bankrupt" line is at least 6 months old at this point (and for a company that's only 3 years old, that's a pretty long time).

So what is your point here... It doesn't matter how long ago something like that is said; does it have any merit? Also, I think the first time I heard that kind of observation was a lot earlier than 6 months ago, and I actually still hear it.

The last paragraph is key, Zynga games, by and large, are social lubricants more than art. Compare Farmville, which seems to be the example of terrible game design. Is it better or worse than Monopoly or Uno? Both those games have highly deterministic styles of play and exist more as a framework for social interaction than as "Art". I don't think its a bad thing. Just look at them in context as substitutes for kitchen table games for widely distributed friends.

Game wise, Farmville has the feel of nickel slots. You give up something of value, your spare time, for a chance at a reward. Since many view their time as low value, the reward is worth it. The interaction is based solely on luck. The buying of virtual goods helps people justify the time they waste on the game because it shows them that in game rewards have cash value.

I would really love to read a full blown social psych journal article on Farmville.

Zynga depresses them because they don't make games to be fun, amuse, educate, or tell a story. It's all about the addiction and funneling factor to get users to pay. The 'normal' rules for app developers also do not apply, the founder even admitted to abusing every FB feature possible to grow.

I think Zynga would depress anyone in the game industry with any other motive than purely profit.

You are just not the target audience. If Zynga games were not fun to everyone, no one would play them. Just because you do not find them amusing does not make them bad games.

I don't like the My Little Pony games aimed at 6 year old girls, but I won't say they are bad because I know I am not a 6 year old girl.

They're "bad games" by any usual metric bar with which games are critiqued, unless your metrics are "money made" and "addiction." But they're businessmen metrics, not the ones a game designer would use.

PopCap are definitely the company to look at here. They spent a decent number of years cloning smaller games, which was not to their credit. In the last 4 years or so, they've been creating amazing original IP. And those games are doing gangbusters with all sorts of audiences. You don't have to create bad games in order to engage new audiences, you just have to tap into what they are interested in.

What is the "usual metric bar with which games are critiqued"? I am pretty sure that is your opinion because there is no metric bar that all games are measured against.

Game reviews do not use a good game checklist to explain why a game is good or bad, they give their opinion. You can say Zynga games are bad, but supposing that your opinion should apply to everyone is arrogant.

There are plenty of metrics, like engagement, enjoyment etc. etc., but there is some very tangible metric bar by which games are measured, it's called peer approval.

By what metric are other art forms judged? How are the Oscars awarded to movies? Who chooses the winner of the Booker prize? Or the VMAs? Peer approval.

Zynga doesn't have peer approval from many game designers. This article highlights some dissenting opinion, but there's plenty more out there. Just Google it. Their infamous speech speech at GDC Awards show doesn't help their cause either. [1]

Note I am careful not to say "games reviewers" because reviewers are writing for their audience, and that core game audience usually does not intersect with Zynga.

[1]: http://news.cnet.com/8301-13772_3-20002221-52.html

What other metrics do we have? Social approval among people who fancy themselves game critics?

One possibility (not sure if it's been done) is to try to understand what the players themselves think of the game. Some WoW players love it, some kind of hate it but continue to play it anyway for various reasons, ranging from addiction to sunk cost to social pressure, others vaccilate or are somewhere in between. How does that compare to FarmVille players or to Starcraft 2 players or to slot-machine players?

Self-assessment isn't a perfect metric either, but differences in self-assessment between players of different kinds of games might give something interesting. I mean, if you go only by money made, the slot machine is still the best game of all time. Which maybe is true on one axis of "best", but it seems weird to argue that it's the only possible way to discuss games. Is looking at the top-grossing films list the only possible way to discuss films?

My point is that if you want to evaluate quality you have to leave metrics behind and start looking at opinions. And opinions are like assholes in that they're ubiquitous throughout the population.

Of course you can make up metrics based on averages of everyone's opinions, or weighted averages where you weight by the "sophistication" (in some sense) of the person's opinion. But nobody will believe such metrics anyway, in that you'll never catch anybody saying "I hate this game/book/album, but this reliable metric says it's good, so I guess it must actually be good!"

If Farmville is bad, it falls into the "fascinatingly bad" category of things that are derided by professional opinion-makers but still vastly popular. Genuinely bad games, books and bands are a dime a dozen -- check out a publisher's reject pile, an open mike night or a twelve year old programmer's hard disk for examples -- but fascinatingly bad things like The Da Vinci Code or Nickelback or Farmville deserve a lot more analysis.

I think 'fun' can be a relative thing, which is why people play games like Farmville. When you are bored at work, then a game like Farmville would be a 'fun' diversion of your time. Or if you are bored at home and rather than worry about bills piling up, or that school paper due you play Farmville because it's more 'fun' than worrying about either of those things.

It's like Solitaire. I've played countless games over the years, but I don't recall every actually enjoying the time spent playing it. Normally I was just avoiding doing something else.

I don't like McDonalds, but I will say it's unhealthy garbage which beats companies that actually care about food only on the strength of its marketing budget...

This is a good point. I'm not in the target audience for McDonalds either, but even if I were and I really really liked McDonalds, it wouldn't make it any healthier or more substantial. I would still be better off eating something else.

I think it's unfounded. Perhaps these players were never going to play Assasin's Creed or Halo. Now they have games that they enjoy. The market has just gotten bigger.

My favorite quote about Zynga, relevant to this discussion, is that "their motto is the exact opposite of Google's 'Do No Evil'". That's what makes me gloomy. They're like the spoiled love child of EA and Microsoft.

They have no scruples or creativity and no apologies to make for it.

Oh yes, that reminds me how much of Zynga's properties are ripped off from existing games. Farmville was a straight-up clone of Farm Town, PetVille was a clone of Pet Society... The properties that Zynga are most proud of are the same as the ones they didn't design.

Farming games actually have a pretty long history: http://www.chinasocialgames.com/?p=400

I think this type of game has occurred to many people. Back when I was doing coding for a MUD I was considering adding farming mechanics, because I thought it would be fun to come back later to the game to gather and sell the plants. More fun than the mining mechanic they had, which consisted of basically moving around the map and just typing "mine" over and over again.

But then I figured, who would care about farming when you can already kill monsters in battle. Instead I created a virtual sauna.

Let me fix that for them:

"We're afraid because we make big-budget games, and Zynga has made people pay for low-budget games."

I've thought for quite some time that game budgets in the millions are getting out of control. (And movies, too, for that matter.)

Good controls, decent visuals and audio, and great plot and/or mechanics. That's what makes the best games. Big-budget games ramp up the visuals and skimp on the rest. I'm sick of that.

Not that Zynga has plot (at all) or mechanics, mind. But they're cheap enough and they make you happy, so it works. I broke my Facebook games habit about 6 months ago. Prior to that, I did 'donate' way more than I should have to a couple (non-Zynga) games. Eventually, the repetitive mechanics palled and I broke free of it.

Big-budget game companies need to learn from Zynga. They need to use the same techniques that compel people to play Zenga games, but in bigger, better games that actually have more. Instead of being scared or saying Zynga is breaking their market, they should learn and improve.

And some have been doing it for years. Achievements, collectables, upgrades, bonuses... Pokemon even has it as the slogan: "Gotta catch 'em all!"

Any game designers that are 'gloomy' over Zynga's success are flat failing to learn from the situation.

"We're afraid because we make big-budget games, and Zynga has made people pay for low-budget games."

Nobody gets annoyed at the success of Bejeweled or Sally's Spa or their many knockoffs. They're simple, but they're not "evil".

Good controls, decent visuals and audio, and great plot and/or mechanics. That's what makes the best games.

And Farmville has none of those. It's just a Skinner box. (So is WoW, but at least it has a skill component).

You clearly have not played Starcraft 2 or (Battlefield: Bad Company 2).

SC2 is such a finely tuned piece of gaming, I spend 30 minutes a day just watching replays at http://youtube.com/hdstarcraft. It beats watching most TV series. It's so good, I bought the game just to support Blizzard, even though I mostly just watch others play.

Not all of them make big-budget games - at least, "puzzle pirates" doesn't scream high-end 3D gameplay to me.

Also, there's a distinction between fun and addictive.

Finally, I'm not sure they are actually losing all that many sales - how many people playing Farmville would have paid for Neverwinter Nights?

how many people playing Farmville would have paid for Neverwinter Nights?

You just stumbled onto the real issue right there. All these people have been making amazing games, but they all appeal to the gamer market. Zygna has found out how to reach the the traditional non-gamer. It might be a hard pill to swallow, but the truth is that games like Farmville appeal to the majority of people who would never really pay for games before.

> stumbled

Well, no, I was well aware of that argument. But I'll take it in the spirit it was intended. ;-)

I doubt many people actually enjoy Zynga's products that much. They just can't stop playing. There's a difference between liking and wanting, and Zynga games are optimized for the latter.

Game developers hate Zynga for the same reason that real comedians hate Dane Cook: Uninspired, unoriginal (borderline theft), and a dilution of the craft.

Sure, you could chalk it up to jealousy of success, but the reality is that there are people out there who are in it for more than money, and sometimes it hurts on a visceral level to see mediocrity succeed wildly.

"Sure, you could chalk it up to jealousy of success, but the reality is that there are people out there who are in it for more than money, and sometimes it hurts on a visceral level to see mediocrity succeed wildly."

Mediocre is a relative term. What is this based on? To you it might mean graphics to me it might mean the storyline.

This happens in more than just the gaming industry. Look at how much attention instant youtube got a few weeks ago. The developer just slapped together some ajax using a pre-built API. As a developer, I could have written the same thing in a relatively short amount of time. Yet, it got him lots of attention and a job offer.

I also say the same thing about things like Django. Rather than knowing how everything works, developers are putting blocks of pre-built code together to build applications. I am almost certain the assembly guys were saying the same thing when C became popular.

I suspect many of the game designers quoted here actually have somewhat more nuanced views on the subject. Chris Hecker complained that his quote was taken out of context from a 1.5-hour interview: http://twitter.com/checker/status/25917674678

It's pretty lame tabloidish reporting, really. There could've been an article about this, and if the reporter actually conducted 1 hr+ interviews, he had the material to write one. But instead he cherry picked four quotes, slapped on a big image, and hit publish.

As in many creative fields, a common goal for many game designers is to create a thought-provoking work of art that's also a runaway commercial success. Who wouldn't want to create the next SimCity, Minecraft, or Civilization?

But the harsh reality of the game industry often dictates that designers must choose between the two goals. And the harsh reality of having to eat and pay rent often dictates that one must prioritize the latter.

Zynga's success puts this tradeoff in the starkest possible relief.

In Zynga games, you’re just trying to get more stuff. You’re caught up in this junkie behavior, and you have to keep upping the dose. That has me terrified.

This exactly is what playing most MMO games is all about: the grind for stuff. I don't see a reason this should be considered that threatening to anything. The draw of MMO Games is the sense of accomplishment (next level, next piece of gear), and in any games now that've implemented achievements (Modern Warfare 2, Left 4 Dead, Quake Live, Starcraft 2 the list goes on forever) it's the same feeling of accomplishment when you get your 500th midair knife kill.

That's just the direction games are going. Give the user a a feeling of accomplishment.

I don't see anything warranting a gloomy outlook on games because of farmville, especially, since I don't see a huge overlap in target markets.

The level of actual social engagement in a game like Left 4 Dead (between the four human players) far surpasses that in a game like Frontierville, even if they both have achievements. Likewise, the level of depth and sophistication in something like Starcraft 2 is virtually impossible to compare. One could argue that Frontierville and the like are simply serving people's need for a simple, relaxing pastime - that's probably true - but as games, they still fall short. Facebook games, for the most part, exist as a space with the sole purpose of creating reasons to spam your facebook friends. I applaud Zynga for adding things that actually resemble game mechanics, but it's still kind of insulting to call them 'social games' when they're not particularly social and still barely games.

There is an enormous difference there. The achievements in games like Left 4 Dead are mostly of two types:

1. Recognizing natural progress in the game.

2. Interesting challenges that test or develop your skill.

Neither should be a "grind" in the Farmville or even WoW sense. Some games fail at this, but by and large I don't think the "junkie behavior" label applies.

I'd never get into Farmville or a MMO because both classes of game just look dull and time-consuming, but I agree that from that point of view they're pretty much the same.

The only thing that annoys me about Farmville and related games is the way they rely on getting people to spam their friends for viral growth. Now, I put them all on "ignore" as soon as I see them pop up so I've never got more than one notification from Farmville itself, but I have to keep on blocking all these damn games.

One important difference is that Zynga games require you to pay for the next dose, the other games you mentioned don't. MMOs are slightly different as you're also paying for the development of content updates and social areas and the like.

Talk about sour grapes. Industry standard game design has been terrible for many, many years and it's not Zynga's fault.

It makes me gloomy because of the incentive advertising they included to drive traffic to affiliate offers. From what I remember, Mafia Wars had teeth whitening, diet pills and dating sites.

Listening to Zynga execs talk, they don't really consider their products as games, but rather 'social experiences'. They rely on having people you care about playing the games and enabling communication between players through self-expression, gifting and other mechanics. They constantly compare themselves to email and other communication channels. A lot of that is obviously feel good fluff, but at some level, I think its based in fact and a lot of the opportunities they have to materialize rise out of this too.

TL;DR - designers who have been making games for themselves lament that someone started making games for everyone else.

c'mon, people. Classic music is less popular than pop-music. Hollywood movies frequently gather more monies than supposedly more highly sophisticated and artful ones. So what? Zynga isn't the first (and isn't the last) to make money off mindless simplicity of the populus.

(just don't get me wrong - i like Hollywood, especially "governator", and it isn't Bach that is in my earphones - pop-culture has it for each of us, i'm just too old for Facebook/Farmville)

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