Experienced Points: Zynga’s Wringer

By Shamus Posted Friday Apr 16, 2010

Filed under: Column 35 comments

This week’s column might make a small step towards pacifying the people who were outraged that I discussed Zynga without going out of my way to enumerate their treachery. I’ve written a bit about Zynga now, and there seems to be some impression that all Zynga conversations must open and close with a litany of their sins. There was a comment at one point where someone suggested that (paraphrase) we should hound him until he apologizes for this. Meaning, I guess, that I should be punished for not sacrificing a few inches of my column space in the interest of telling people what they already know.

This column should not be viewed as an olive branch to those enraged parties. I am not a fan of mandatory conversations any more than I’m a fan of forbidden conversations. I think it’s important that we be able to look at Zynga’s impact on the industry without working ourselves into an emotional froth over what jerks they are. That’s a dead horse, and there are more interesting targets to which I would like to apply my weekly 1,000 word beatstick. In fact, I think the Zynga rage will look fairly quaint a couple years from now, for reasons I explain in the column, which was linked in the previous paragraph as well as at the end of the sentence you are reading now.

Part of the problem is the March Mayhem voting and the way Zynga trounced several established industry fixtures like Square Enix and Rockstar. This drove people into an enraged frenzy. The epicenter of the clash took place in the epic 598 page, 20,000 comment long thread regarding Valve vs. Zynga, which was a sewer of open hostility and irrational hate.

Hopefully now the blood has cooled and people will be in some kind of shape to talk about this in the framework of one [unpopular but successful] business in a changing industry instead of a discussion about the the idolatry of the unbelievers.


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35 thoughts on “Experienced Points: Zynga’s Wringer

  1. Jabor says:

    Hopefully now the blood has cooled and people will be in some kind of shape to talk about this in the framework of one [unpopular but successful] business in a changing industry instead of a discussion about the the idolatry of the unbelievers.

    Likely, but it seems there are still a few fanboys running around the Escapist.

    I love your snark in those comment threads, by the way.

  2. ArcoJedi says:

    How is it possible that there are no comments yet?

    Anyhow, a game is a game is a game and the developer should only be judged based on the quality / fun of that game. Any sort of malware / shenanigans connected with the game should be punished by all proceeds and revenue being forfeited immediately. Case closed.

  3. Irridium says:

    Seems Zynga has taken(temporarily at least) Activision’s place as “most hated developer” at the moment.


    Anyway, nice article. As much as I despise Zynga, there’s no denying their success.

    That will just make their fall that much sweeter ;)

  4. Atarlost says:

    It’s really sad. I see stuff catering to hardcore gamers who can afford the expense of a game only box and who have honed their FPS reflexes for years, and I see stuff catering to the sort of people who think slot machines are stimulating, but there hasn’t been much of anything that caters to the middle ground.

    So who’s going to write the game for people with a PC they can’t afford to replace with a new gaming rig and who can’t justify buying a console because they don’t feel the need to own more than one mindless FPS? I mean even X-com is going to be a FPS now, probably one with graphics I can’t run that fail to actually provide a better gaming experience even when working flawlessly. Who’s making games for those who by lack of resources, time, or reflexes are pushed out of the hardcore gaming market, but want something more fulfilling than Farmtown?

    1. krellen says:


      Though I suppose their games aren’t much if you’re not an FPS fan. Personally, I like looking through GOG.com’s selection and see if they have any oldies I haven’t played or haven’t played in a while.

      1. Also, Sleep Is Death is worth checking out

  5. Dev Null says:

    Heh; way to beat the whiners to death with their own demands Shamus! Not a big fan of mandatory conversations either – if its something we all know already, can’t we just take it as read and move on to talk about something interesting?

  6. Jarenth says:

    I’m going to offer a point of critique: Your idea of ‘Farmville-players will flock to different, better games when these games become available’ is based on the belief that these people are actively looking for better games. And I think that’s false.

    I play Farmville on FaceBook. So do a few of my friends, almost all of them not ‘gamers’ in any shape. All these people (and me) started playing Farmville for the same reason: because we saw Farmville-related FaceBook posts from our friends. Click to see what’s going on, click around a few times, ‘hey, this is kind of fun’, and bam, the cycle continues.

    I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but most of the people I’ve seen don’t play Farmville because it’s that much fun, or engaging or interesting or what have you. We play it because it’s there, integrated in FaceBook, because it just happened to pass us by, and because it works and does everything I’d want it to do: allow me to waste some time and do something together with friends.

    So while it is possible (fairly likely) that a superior Farmville-clone comes along, I don’t think most people I play with will switch; because the quality isn’t the draw of Farmville, and because Farmville is what they already know.

    Wall of text done now. Fun factoid: thinking this out and writing it down took more time than I usually spend on a session of Farmville.

    1. ehlijen says:

      If most of those people who play farmville aren’t ‘gamers’, how did they end up playing it? Something must have drawn them in. And that something is what other will try to copy.

      To say that these people aren’t looking for new games and thus won’t find any is to ingore that they found farmville without looking.

      1. Jarenth says:

        Fair enough. I guess saying that people can’t stumble into another game like they did with Farmville is a bit of a stretch. It’s just that most people I know in this category ónly play Farmville. There’s other games on Facebook, some different, some similar, but these all get passed up either after a glance or just immediately. So I’m wondering if Farmville 2.0 will fare any better.

    2. dyrnwyn says:

      The idea that people will be drawn to other games also ignores the fact that farmville is not just a crappier “other game” (which is basically what you just said in the comment above). It’s completely different. I play many “hardcore” games and farmville, and Mafia Wars, and World at War, and more. none of my friends play these (except Farmville) but somehow I keep coming back instead of playing LittleBig Planet, Resistance or, New Super Mario BRos. Wii. That’s beacause the two categories are vastly dissimilar, you can’t say that Farmville is just a bad version of a better game, and people are morons for playing it, it’s just a genre of game YOU don’t like.

  7. SatansBestBuddy says:

    Read your article, and you seem to be missing the one key component to Farmville’s success; friends.

    Namely Facebook friends who are playing Farmville, whose every success and reward is posted on their wall for all their friends to see.

    Most of those people don’t really care one way or the other if there are other games out there, they just know that their friends were playing Farmville, and were asking for help in tending their farm, and what’s a few minutes of time when it comes to helping out a friend?

    So, if another game wants to topple Farmville, they need to put friend integration first and foremost; after all, every game is better when you play with friends.

  8. John Lopez says:

    I’m not sure I’m as optimistic.

    Once upon a time the customer of a game company was the gamer. Today we have the Facebook game, where the customer of the game company is the advertiser. This fact, combined with the behavior patterns of the mass market consumer, mean that there really isn’t much reason to come up with a “better” Farmville.

    Instead, the drive is to create a better ad network, better ad deployment strategy, better ad/consumer matching and better viral marketing.

    Oh, you will see some bones thrown to the player as well, but only insomuch as it makes the game sticker: the more important driver is the near mindless clicking of millions of mice.

    (I’m also a huge PopCap fan: Plants vs Zombies just blew me away with how much fun it was while remaining accessible to non-gamers. Perhaps they will move into that space and keep their integrity? I would like to think so, but I suspect the model wouldn’t be very different.)

  9. Mari says:

    Here’s my dilemma with Zynga games: they’re great “baby” strategy games on which to nurse my children. Sadly they’re only available via FaceBook or MySpace which are not great “baby” social networking sites on which to nurse my children.

    My kids actually like strategy games with a degree of freedom. Hand them Zoo Tycoon and you’ll see my 11 year old spend a great deal of time discovering which animals the lions will eat or devising tortures for the little sim guests such as pit traps, the “accidental” guest enclosure, being fed to the lions, or simply having the lions freed for a little playtime with the guests. My 10 year old will use the same zoo to design beautiful gardens with color-coordinated foliage inside the enclosures and no animals. What you won’t see them do for more than 2-3 minutes at a sitting is attempt to beat the “scenarios.” That’s because neither of them was successful with scenarios early on and now they’re afraid of the things. They believe that the strategy part of strategy games is “too hard” for them.

    The games of little depth that Zynga produces are the perfect way to step them up to better strategy games but neither kid is allowed to play them because according to the TOS at both Facebook and MySpace you need to be 13 to set up an account and frankly with the garbage I see there I think that’s still a little young. So I’m rooting for the competitors to do that neat little stand-alone trick and soon.

    1. Jarenth says:

      You could always make them a token Facebook account and then have them play though the Farmville.com site, which logs in on your stored Facebook page but is really only about playing Farmville.

      Alternatively, Harvest Moon.

    2. SatansBestBuddy says:

      Get those boys some Harvest Moon.

      It’s like Farmville, only single player, on a console, and good.

      1. Mari says:

        They’re girls ;-) But I hadn’t thought of Harvest Moon. We actually have it thanks to hubby’s tendency to bid on large lots of games for one or two rare ones at eBay. We’ll try it out. Thanks.

  10. David V.S. says:

    My wife is ensnared by the Gameboy Advance version of Harvest Moon (Mineral Town). It seems to do everything Shamus recommends.

  11. Mark says:

    So Farmville is a gateway drug game, just like Dragon Strike was a gateway to D&D for me. It suddenly doesn’t bother me as much that my wife plays it. Maybe I can steer her toward games we can enjoy together.

  12. Daemian Lucifer says:

    One thing I dont get:You say you dont want to talk about zyngas malpractices because everyone knows about them,but then you go on to bash ea,ubisoft and activision for something that everyone knows they did.In fact,Id say that more gamers are familiar with malpractices of the later than the former.For example,I never knew about zynga before you mentioned it here last year,because I never was their target audience,so never did care to read about them,nor their products.Not to mention that I got fed up with facebook in its early stages,so I dont use it at all.

    1. Axle says:

      The article is about Zyngas game design and not about their malpractices or other Zynga issues.
      Its like writing an article about Germany, from a tourist point of view and people will shout at you, that you can’t write somethnig about Germany without mentioning Nazis.

      An article should stick to the point and that is exactly what Shamus did.

      1. Daemian Lucifer says:

        No,I get that part.What I dont get is Shamus’ complete refusal to talk about their malpractices.He never shied away from mentioning malpractices of the others Ive mentioned,even when praising them.If not in the article itself,then at least here.You always knew that when Shamus writes about ea,hell call them the devil somewhere.

        Hmmm…Actually,I think Ive answered my own question in the previous post.He is not the target audience for zyngas products,so he is not invested emotionally in those as much as he is in eas products.

        1. Shamus says:

          There’s probably a lot of truth to that. I just don’t care about Zynga’s products all that much. They don’t sell anything I want. If it wasn’t for their massive user base, I probably wouldn’t be aware of them at all. My Facebook has never been spammed by them. I never saw Farmtown (the game on which which Farmville was based) so I can’t judge just how flagrant their imitation was. I don’t know anything about them first hand. I’m actually taking people’s word for it when they say what jerks Zynga is. All I have to go on is their wiki page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zynga

          Bad, but hardly the worst. (I’d say the company behind Evony is a lot more reprehensible. Then again,. I HAVE been annoyed by Evony and not Farmville, which goes back to your main point of me just not having a lot of investment in it.)

          And I see their awfulness as beside the point: Millions of new people are playing computer games. Nobody cared about Zynga two years ago, and I think they’ll be a lot less important two years from now. They are simply a catalyst for a much more interesting story.

          1. briatx says:

            Millions of new people are playing computer games.

            But is that true? Are these people who never played Tetris or Minesweeper?

          2. PAK says:

            Shamus, I think it’s great you’re taking such a measured take on all this. From an academic, speculative standpoint your article is really quite interesting.

            I find all the vitrol going on in the Escapist comments to be quite baffling. Why are people so emotionally invested in something they could just choose to ignore? I don’t know much about Zygna’s malpractices, but it seems like mostly they’ve just discovered an amazing advertising model. Not the most noble thing, perhaps, but no-one’s forcing these people to care. It’s easy to block Farmville updates from one’s friends, and to choose not to play. Is this all just a form of fanboism? Is the existence of a game that doesn’t cater to their sense of quality intrinsically offensive somehow? I’ve never gotten that mindset, I guess.

            Like you, I find the sociological and future game-design implications far more interesting.

            1. Mari says:

              You’re brushing past it, right there. You know how for quite a while in the 90’s and early 00’s everybody “hated” Microsoft and swore never to use their products while surfing the web with Internet Explorer or from a Windows box at least? There was legitimate reason to hate Microsoft, don’t get me wrong, but a huge percentage of people who “hated” them did so because it was the POPULAR thing to hate. They were completely in the dark about what Microsoft did that was bad or even what Microsoft made. But the news and their friends told them that Microsoft was “teh evil.”

              I think a lot of the vitriol spewed at Zynga is pretty similar. I find it amusing to watch FaceBook friends become fans of pages like “I don’t care about your farm, your cafe, or your treasure hunt” while collecting friends like Pokemon to level up in Mafia Wars or Vampire Wars or whatever. Has Zynga given people legitimate reasons to dislike their business and/or business practices? Yep. Is that why MOST people dislike Zynga? I really don’t think so.

          3. Drue says:

            For what it’s worth I have never heard of Zynga’s evilness. I see the posts on my facebook but I have no interest in it personally. So when you say ‘what we all allready know’ that doesn’t include me.

            1. Mari says:

              Mostly their evil revolves around the fact that they engaged in some advertising partnerships with the black hats. Want more “noun cash” for your Zynga game? Install this (malware) toolbar from our advertisers and we’ll give you some. They did it knowing full well that the toolbar in question was malware. In a nifty little designers panel he once joked, on camera, that he never was able to get the stupid toolbar off his own box and then pressed on admitting that he was willing to “do anything” in those early days to get the money to grow.

              My contention remains that in many ways what Zynga did was better than EA/most of the other developers out there. Zynga’s malware was optional. You only got it if you were stupid enough to click on the “special offers,” most of which were pretty obviously fishy. Meanwhile SecuROM et. al come with the games whether you want it or not.

          4. Deoxy says:

            Zynga seems to have ripped off at least 2 of their games – Farmville from Farmtown and Mafia Wars from Mob Wars (I think at least one of those resulted in legal action, actually). They have several other games (my wife played one, and I looked into them a little bit), but they are all basically the same game with differently flavored noun/verb theme sets (farming, mafia, fantasy, vampires, pirates – and that’s just the ones I checked out, they have several more). The game mechanics are all the same – they are practically “skins” for the same game.

            And yes, Evony needs to die a very, very painful death. Preferably starting today.

  13. Axle says:

    People are playing Farmvile, not because they want to play a computer game but because they want to pass the time without sacrificing too much of their precious spare time. And Farmvile is simple and friendly enough to fill that space in their lives. The “bigger” games require too much of it (time) and are far more expensive.

    It’s the same as in any other form of entertainment: You don’t watch a soap or American idol for the same reason you watch Oz or Breaking bad…

  14. Hugo Sanchez says:

    You know what would make a great game for Facebook.

    Quake Live.

    That’d be fun times.

  15. Zaghadka says:

    Some people just like to focus on evildoers. That’s not a “dead horse,” it’s a “nightmare.”

    Didn’t read your article about Zynga, because I’m not interested in Zynga. Sorry. :^(

    I sympathise with your difficulties however, so you get this comment, and a cookie, if you like. ;^)

    1. ClearWater says:

      So it’s an undead horse?

      (Ok, technically it’s an extraplanar horse.)

  16. Kdansky says:

    a wee little nerdling

    I chuckled.

  17. cfort9 says:

    Just wanted to pass along something interesting. Overhead today in the halls of the Wharton Graduate Business School (University of Pennsylvania… and yes, insert *pretentious snort* here), I just heard someone say they were spending their summer internship at Zynga. Turning point? Or nefarious scheme?

    Either way its interesting, as people care ridiculously intensely about their internships here.

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