Saturday, September 08, 2012

Zynga and Fundamental Problems with their Social Network Games

As you probably know, Zynga's stock is priced far below its IPO cost, and many executives are leaving the company.  It's not like they're losing money, but they're losing mind-share rapidly.  Will Zynga be able to turn around this trend?

Zynga's fundamental problem may be the fundamental characteristic of the video game industry as a whole: video games are designed to be played for a while and then discarded.  You "beat the game" or you learn the story, or you get tired of "the grind", because there's an emphasis on the destination, not on the journey.

Good board and card games are played over and over again, over the course of many years.  I know people who have played my five hour board game Britannia five hundred times, and undoubtedly there are other board and card games of similar longevity.  I may have played the tabletop RPG D&D that many hours.  Video games do not match that, though MMOs can approach it.  But social network games are nothing like MMOs.

Inevitably, in a video game that more or less constantly asks you for money, that builds in frustration so that you'll spend money to stop being frustrated, the player will get tired of the game and quit playing.  And when the next game is practically just like the last (as is typical of Zynga Facebook games), the player is going to get tired of the next one that much sooner.

Yet Zynga is so big, every incentive is to avoid risk, hence the games are the same over and over again.  Because they still draw millions of players, it's just the same group over and over again.  But that group may be getting smaller.

Traditional arcade games were so hard you couldn't beat them, so many players kept going until they could no longer improve.  But this is a new century, people don't want hard games, they want entertainment and time-killing and playgrounds, so social network games are stupendously easy to play.  They are mass-market games, a completely different "kettle of fish". 

Contrast Zynga's big-company low-risk mentality with King.Com's small teams churning out games every 3 months for online trials.  Then they turn the most successful into social networking games.

The following explains the key to making really good games:
    . . . Just Cause 2 developer explains that while most developers produce downloadable content to prolong user engagement, the real trick to long-term success is to make a game that players don't want to put down in the first place.
    'We create a game allowing players to properly explore and have fun and not focusing so much on the actual end goal of the game,' he says. "

In other words, make a game where people enjoy the journey, not just the destination.

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