Tech Column: The Zynga Debacle

A couple of days ago, I read something that made me happy. Happy in a delightfully sarcastic way. A real schadenfreude moment. Something that made me laugh out loud as I punched the sky and proclaimed, “Serves them right!” 

“What,” you might ask, “caused such an outbreak of temporary hysteria?” I can give it to you in one line:

Zynga is going into online gambling.

Even writing that out on paper makes me crack a smile. Not because I intend to partake in the aforementioned online gambling, mind, but because it’s a clear sign that Zynga is dying. 

The fall of Zynga is hugely significant, due both to what Zynga represents in terms of the gaming industry, and what this decision means for the future of casual games in general. Let me expatiate a little, though. Zynga’s influence really requires a bit of explanation. 

Ironically enough, gambling is nothing particularly new to Zynga. Presidio Media, the company we now know as Zynga, was a Silicon Valley startup funded entirely by venture capitalists and was established in 2007 by Mark Pincus—CEO of several online startups that have all collectively gone nowhere. 

The company’s first notable game, Texas Hold ‘Em Poker for Facebook, was one of the first so-called “social” games to be developed for the then-brand-new Facebook social app platform. It saw moderate success. Whether this success was due to the fact that Texas Hold ‘Em Poker was the most interesting offering in an app pool that consisted of less than 20 apps at the time is ripe for debate, but I’ll give it this: It was a nice proof of concept for the possibilities of real-time gaming with Facebook friends.

Zynga’s most well-known and profitable opus would come two years later in 2009, however, with the company’s release of FarmVille. Strangely enough, FarmVille was not the first game in the “-Ville” series, as the hilariously poorly-titled YoVille preceeded it. 

However, whereas YoVille was a terrible Sims ripoff (says EA, who sued them over the issue), FarmVille was and is a terrible Harvest Moon ripoff. Beginning to notice a pattern?

Gameplay, as one would expect, is entirely focused around making money by cultivating various kinds of crops and livestock. However, whereas games like Harvest Moon execute this concept competently by encouraging players to become invested emotionally in their farms due to the hard work involved with raising crops and livestock, and the desire to raise and support a functional in-game family, FarmVille takes almost exactly the opposite approach. 

All the hard work of raising a farm can be circumvented instantly by spending “Farm Coins” to plant instantly growing crops that never wither, thus guaranteeing a profitable return on every harvest. 

Moreover, while you can earn Farm Coins through normal gameplay, you can also purchase bundles of the digital currency with real money—a phenomenon that has come to be known as the “in-app purchase.”

I could literally rant for hours about how terrible in-app purchases are from a gameplay standpoint, but in the interest of saving space, I’ll summarize by stating that in-app purchases destroy a gaming experience by encouraging the player to invest financially, not emotionally, in the game. 

For a time it seemed that Zynga’s poor design decisions were financially golden. It would take more space than I have left to list the number of accolades awarded to Zynga and FarmVillebetween the years of 2009 and 2011. Unbelievable numbers of Zynga copycats sprang up during those years, flooding mobile platforms with “free-to-play” games that relied heavily upon in-app purchases and had very little real gameplay. 

The fact, therefore, that, as of May of this year, Zynga executives began dumping massive amounts of the company’s stock and had to offer massive stock option benefits to try and prevent a “mass exodus” of employees came as a surprise to the world, but not to me. 

As a matter of fact, the recent announcement of Zynga’s online gambling plans, coupled with a statistic from investment firm Piper Jaffray stating that only 17.4 percent of high-schoolers had played a game recently on a social network (down from 25.3 percent as recently as six months ago), made public something that I had known for years: Zynga games are really terrible products. 

Now, though, it seems that the public has realized this fact en masse and may be in a position to push for higher quality games in the near future. Imagine that … players wanting to playgood games. 

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