Well, here we are. As those of you who are friends with me on Facebook (and who haven’t blocked all of the applications that I’ve been using) may have noticed, I am playing several Zynga brand Facebook games. I chose Zynga primarily through its wide exposure, but secondarily because of its prevalence in my consciousness as a gamer as a standard by which all similar offerings can be judged. Zynga is the Jacuzzi of hot tubs, Farmville becoming synonymous with nearly every attempt at creating a profitable enterprise in microtransaction fueled Flash games. Besides the Zynga titles, I played several other games in smaller amounts, including one major competitor of Zynga’s (Digital Chocolate) game “NanoStar Siege.” I have also read a fair amount of literature on the subject of both microtransactions as a business model and the prevalence (and relevance) of Facebook games. I also watched the South Park Facebook episode while pretty drunk, which made the show that much better.
My perspective on these games is a complicated one. I do not agree with criticism that attempts to describe these applications as “not games” because I have yet to hear a sufficient argument in that direction. The most common argument I’ve heard is that they are not games because all you do is click on some things and watch bars fill up, leading to an experience that is barely comparable to a modern video game, with their vast worlds and intense graphics and complicated systems. The problem with this argument lies with a fundamental misunderstanding of what a video game is. Video games are devices that measure input by the player and judge whether or not that input is valid enough to advance them to the next level/score them points/defeat the enemies. The reason that games are so good at increasing hand-eye coordination is simply because that is all they are. They output visual information and receive appropriate or inappropriate input via the controller or a motion of the body. They create a feedback loop whereby players eventually emulate the machine by (or vice versa) through interaction. This is the essence of all video games and in a greater sense the essence of all games. I find one of the best analogies is to consider untying a knot. No matter how crazy and complicated the knot ultimately is, it still comes apart the same way as every other knot, by finding the right strand to pull. Every other aspect of video games is fluff added on top. Multiplayer videogames are simply a contest of who can push the right button first. RPGs are simply games where the button has a percentage chance of being the right button or not. Rhythm games are fairly pure representations of video games, relying solely on fairly obvious audio and visual cues for your input. So, yes, Facebook games are video games. They may not be particularly complicated in execution and their processes toward eating up people’s time are fairly lucid, but they satisfy every requirement that a game would have. Depending on your opinion, they may not be good games, but they are without a doubt, games.
Being a portion of Facebook, many, if not all of these games are billed as “social” games, supposedly inspiring social interaction among your friends on Facebook. This is somewhat problematic for me, as I am not a “social” person. When I play major MMORPGs, I tend to avoid groups as often as I can, eager to avoid the internal anxiety processes that prevent me from having a decent conversation with people for a fair portion of time. I play solo, which for many seems adverse to the very concept of anything labeled “Massively Multiplayer.” The reasons I have for playing MMOs are more concerned with an appreciation of the world constructed and the systems driving the thing rather than a desire to meet and talk to people. I don’t always feel this way, but I am unable to consistently maintain relationships over any calculable amount of distance, so rarely does joining a guild or clan last for me. Something generally ticks within me while reading a guild discussion or going on a disastrous raid or some other portion of interaction and I realize that I really honestly don’t want to associate with any of these people because I hate them all. It’s complicated. That being said, none of the Facebook games I’ve played have had even remotely the same concept of “social” as I would consider from other larger production MMO’s that I’ve played. The “social” component is simply the constant and obnoxious system insisting that you share free gifts, share coins, share xp, do a small amount of tasks for your neighbors, send a train towards your neighbor, occasionally challenge them to a simple contest, and endless other little quibbles of time and energy that do not belie any real interaction. It’s still a system of expected altruism, where the game eagerly suggests that you pay everyone who helps you back through another simple response click. There are a number of events in these games where you are flat-out told to ask for items from your friends or pay cash to complete their requirements. As a staunch individualist (really, I just don’t like asking people for things) this is another obstacle preventing me from playing these games.
Knowing this facet of my personality, I wondered how I would approach these games. Would I eventually cave and learn to be an irascible mooch or would I find myself running up against a wall and unable to advance any further in the game (it inevitably entails the collection of more stuff within the game, rather than any approach to an end goal. Such is the nature of an MMO, as they are designed not have endings, but to keep people playing for as long as they can.). And so my journey began with CityVille, the latest and greatest Zynga creation.
Released last October, CityVille is the latest game from zynga, riding a wave of city building Facebook games and skyrocketing to the top of the charts with over 97 million monthly users. The game is pretty similar to Farmville, except that you plant buildings instead of crops and collect rent. In the game is also a system whereby you farm various fruits and vegetables in exchange for goods which you use to supply businesses that generate a lot more “city coins” than rent. Progression through the game is marked by increasing the total population of the city by building both housing and community buildings, such as police and fire stations. The community buildings cannot be completed without being staffed by your CityVille neighbors. Players can spend “city cash” to circumvent this requirement, and players can purchase additional city cash for real world money.
FrontierVille is essentially Farmville 2.0 with a western twist. You perform essentially every major farming component from Farmville, but with the added pressures of things like “varmints,” randomly generated little annoyances that expound the amount of effort in running the farm by a bit, but reward you well for “clobbering” them. Your avatar is forced to contend with a never-ending tide of brush and overgrowth that threatens to overrun your homestead. Apparently there’s some dealio with spouses and the inevitable children, but I haven’t reached that point as of Jan. 31. The quests granted are a bit more stringent on requiring your friends to help you collect or do something, and every major building you construct requires materials that can only be gained through free gifts from friends. CityVille features some of this further down the line, but for the first four or so community buildings, only your friends’ participation is required. Overall, FrontierVille feels a lot like what it is, a more advanced Farmville, featuring all of the minor enhancements that Zynga and other developers have implemented between Farmville’s release and the release of FrontierVille.
Treasure Isle is a diversion from the typical Zynga formula, at least in execution of the treasure hunting aspect. You’re still clicking things and watching bars fill up, but this time you’re not forced to tend any particular crop or house (there is, however, some farm plots on your base island for you to do just that). The treasure-hunting most heavily leans on another aspect of Zynga and other Facebook games: finding items as parts of “collections” and later trading them in for rewards. Every island has only so much treasure, so a player is bound to inevitably need something they do not have. They can request it from other players. Also included is a system of construction that mirrors FrontierVille’s, demonstrating the iterative development of Zynga products.
I initially decided not to play CaféWorld because almost immediately off the bat, it asked me to hire a friend in the game to be my waiter. I didn’t have any friends and didn’t care to do this and was already suffering Zynga fatigue that day, having begun three other games. I was later drawn back into it at the behest of a very good friend of mine, who also suggested that his current flame add me for CaféWorld friends. So far, it’s been a pretty bland experience, even by the aggravatingly similar standard for other Facebook games. You cook things that take portions of time and are expected to return when that time has passed and serve things to your customers. That seems to be the extent of it. You can also (like every other game) collect things and get enhanced cooking utensils that allow you to cook other things. It doesn’t particularly matter, though. It’s all the same thing.
I started playing this game because I wanted to broaden the scope of this article outside of simply Zynga, but I wasn’t sure where to start. So I googled “best Facebook games” and found a top ten list of games for 2010; this was on the list. Of the games, it seemed the most interesting, as it promised a legitimate tactical experience as opposed to the usual “click and wait” style of other Facebook games. The promise followed through, with the game featuring little tactical battles between some ridiculously large armies (for the genre) that are largely determined by the placement of three main units. The tactics would seem to take on a rock-paper-scissors design, featuring “Slayers” with high damage and speed, but low armor, “Soldiers” with high armor and reasonable attack but very slow, and “Archers” with no armor and awful melee but a powerful ranged attack. The appearance of balance gives way to the numerous “Hero Cards” that both you and your opponent possess. These cards have a variety of effects, and as you would expect, you’re going to have to pay through the nose to get some. (Though a few are available through leveling up and spending gold) These cards are a watermark feature for Digital Chocolate, who have decided the best way to compete was to mock Pokémon (seriously, there’s 151 of these) and create a collectible brand of digital creatures with an ill-conceived (and terribly written) back story for their existence and a pentagonal faction system (like Magic: the Gathering cards). The cards are not little monsters (not all of them, anyway) but little people or representations of various internet/cultural phrases or stereotypes. There’s a good amount of them that are chicks, and a fair amount of anthropomorphic chicks. They feature both Venus and Godiva nude, albeit covered with their hair in all the right places. It’s not hard to guess what sort of audience DC is aiming at. These characters are supposed to be universal for all of the “Nanostar” branded games, of which there are only three so far.
Of all the major market games I’ve played in the last few years or so, these have got to be some of the buggiest and poorly managed. Almost universally across these games, there is a relatively impressive loading time, one that activates every single time you browse to their pages. It wouldn’t be an issue, but every time you attempt to send a free gift to your friends, the game sends you to a second page to do so and you have to wait yet again to load the game. The hotlinks for Zynga games that are above the games themselves are set to open the new game in another tab automatically, leaving the previous game still running. This would be fine, except each of these games is a ridiculous memory hog. I accidentally overheated my computer one evening by opening three of them at once without noticing. Why this is even remotely a possibility for games that are basically glorified Flash applications astounds me. Clearly the management at Zynga cares more about getting more people to play than plugging memory leaks. Even when I was only running one such application, bugs happened all the time, from minor graphical glitches to the game failing to sync with the server, losing me whatever progress I had just made. The Zynga browser that overlays itself over the game and lets you accept notifications was constantly out of whack with what I had already accepted through individual applications.
I started with CityVille, mostly because I heard relatively good things about it from Kotaku some time ago, and I was curious as to what made it particularly better than Farmville and their ilk. It wasn’t too bad, and I was happy to see that I didn’t particularly need other people involved early on. Using the in-game “city cash,” players can circumvent requirements for a lot of goals and buildings. Actually, had I gone nuts with the money, I could have rocketed straight to the end game of CityVille, buying early unlocks for all of the buildings and decorations in the game, purchasing city coins and goods so that I had little reason to wait. I wasn’t surprised, as this business model (more on it later) is pretty popular in the gaming sphere. Though some content is literally cash-only, the majority of the game is free-to-play as a standard for the model, as developers are afraid of scaring potential customers off by telling them they need to pay to play altogether. It’s endemic in the announcement of free-to-play games, an ardent reassurance that the games content would actually be free to most players, with only “cosmetic” or “minor” enhancements available for purchase. Zynga makes no jones about their cash-only items being decorative, but at the same time they rarely offer a super item that totally breaks the game. Being the author of this article, I chose not to spend any money (mostly because I don’t have any) and try to succeed or simply enjoy the game as a free game.
After I finally spent all of the tutorial missions and stopped leveling up to have my energy replenished (basically when I had to wait for a period of time) I moved on to the next game, FrontierVille. FrontierVille was already not particularly my cup of tea, as I am not a huge fan of western-themed products, but the game managed to stay somewhat interesting with the sheer variety of things to do. As sad as it sounds, I enjoyed clearing my land more than building things or tending to the animals. After I spent all of the energy in FrontierVille, I moved on yet again to Treasure Isle. I had heard about Treasure Isle on Kotaku as well, also hearing that it was a different beast than Farmville. Playing the game confirmed this, as it satisfied my OCD streak by allowing me to dig up entire islands in search of virtual tchotkes. Not content to leave well enough alone, this game also features a farming component, with little farms that you can plant energy granting fruit for later use. Clearly Zynga is aiming for a theme with these. After that I started up CaféWorld, just because it was all that was left on the list that wasn’t poker or Mafia Wars. CaféWorld, for some reason, features some butt-ugly 3D graphics and a really bland looking restaurant and asked me almost immediately to pick a neighbor to be my waiter. As my goal was to avoid having to force any of these games on other people, I immediately decided not to play it and clicked out of it. That was the end of my first day of playing these games, and so far I had had a stimulating experience collecting coins, gems, stars, little lightning bolts, logs, and slices of cherry pie. These games are nothing if not pretty snazzy, high-res graphics all over the place.
Day two was less eventful, though after playing all of these games and being bombarded with all of the suggestions that I share my playing experience with someone else, I finally caved and registered for a secondary Facebook account solely for the purpose of playing these games with myself (the account is registered as “John Boner” which I will likely later make into a parody “John Boehner” account). As sad as it sounds, I enjoyed going through the introduction for the games over again while the experience of playing them was still fresh in my mind. I spent much of that day doing a complicated log-in log-out dance between accounts, sending myself things and opening franchises in places. I soon realized, though, that one extra person would not be enough to advance in most of these games, so I finally caved and at least asked a friend I had made through playing Mafia Wars to neighbor me. This, over the next few days, lead to a slippery slope of me eventually adding everyone I knew who did play the games to my games. Enter the sort of shock when you realize that a person you’ve known for a while actually has a ridiculously high level and has amassed a collection of items that literally slows down your computer just to look at.
With friends came items, and soon I was handling a dozen requests a day, mostly friends sharing a free daily item, occasionally friends asking for help with some minor task in their city or island or homestead. I dutifully responded to every request that I got, sending out daily items for each of my games. With real friends, though, the impetus for using my fake Facebook account to play disappeared and John Boner languished in disuse. Despite the sudden flurry of activity, my various games had started to lose some of their luster and I logged in somewhat less day by day. I picked up Nanostar Siege based on a top-ten list on some website, partly to try something a bit different than a Zynga game, partly to attempt to rekindle some interest in the project. The game wasn’t bad and doesn’t really require friends to play, but it had its own problems, largely being the unbalanced sort of play between people who had found better and more useful Hero Cards to play than I had. I came to a stop in the single-player campaign because the computer is an outright cheater who behaves as though it is three people playing three cards at once and gets to reload the cards three times as fast as I can. Near the end of my Zynga experience, Gavin asked me to join him in CaféWorld, which I grudgingly did. He even went as far as suggesting his lady-friend be added to my friends to help her in CaféWorld. I played CaféWorld a total of one times, really not that interested, and maybe a day or two later I looked at my game requests and saw 32 of them waiting for me, and I decided that I was done. I blocked everything except CityVille and I haven’t played that since either, only assisting the few people who ask me for things.
Ultimately, I avoided making any new friends. With the sole exception of getting an internet friend into “Gun Bros” inadvertently I managed to avoid forcing any new players to join me. I limited what few times I posted an achievement on my wall to being only viewable by John Boner. I was, in short, a really poor customer. This is acceptable to me. I do not enjoy being a cog in the machine or a link in the chain or any of these things. I enjoyed playing them, but they lack the sort of substance necessary to keep me playing for more than the week and a half or so that I did. I know that these games are specifically modified to target dopamine receptors and the specific parts of the brain that govern motivation and goal-orientation, but these were all minimally impacted in me. I really do wonder whether or not this indicates anything about me. I do/can focus on certain things, I do have at least some of the self-discipline required to self-motivate myself to self-actualization, but whenever I play games that are supposed to be enormously addictive, I find myself reaching a limit after a period of time no greater than a few months. I was enormously addicted to Pokémon at the end of last year and for a portion of January, but now I’ve totally lost that spark. I’d have to force myself to play it now. I was enormously addicted to Minecraft again for a few days, but now I’ve found my attention entirely elsewhere. I don’t really know what that says about me as a person. I tend to simply label it as inconsistency and put it at that, but the fact remains that I simply cannot become fixated on any one thing nearly to the extent that I feel I should/I feel that others do. Ah well, even if indescribable, I can at least understand this portion of my being and incorporate it into a greater understanding of who I am.
The buzzword for these games is “social” because since they are on a social network they are ostensibly “social” as well, especially since you add people as friends in the game and they can do things for you in most of these games. You share items with other people and essentially cannot succeed in the game without interacting with at least one other person. The problem with this concept of “social” is that it doesn’t really define anything particularly unique and isn’t strictly social. So you enlist people to help you complete a task, but so does an employer, and he isn’t necessarily social. Your workplace isn’t a “social” workplace.
The problem really lies in the tacit assumption that other video games are not social. This is a popular stereotype that, like the flamboyant queer, has yet to dissipate in the public mindset. Gamers are horrible little nerdy people who never talk to anyone, but by playing a “social’ game, you sidestep all of the pitfalls that a “regular” or “core” gamer is normally trapped in. This sort of thinking is backwards and industry-defeating, but so thoroughly prevalent that gamers themselves begin to argue that certain games are “casual” and thus inferior to their “hardcore” games, despite the distinction being fuzzy at best. One of the most telling things about the status of these “social” games is that none of them feature dedicated chat systems. They do reside on a platform (Facebook) that features a chat application, but this is largely ignored, and legitimate co-ordination between people to play these games is pretty much limited to putting certain items on your “wish list” and hoping that someone you know is feeling generous.
World of Warcraft is a vastly more social game than anything Zynga offers. World of Warcraft allows for a number of levels of interaction with your fellow players, from hiring people to craft objects, to purchasing and placing items on the auction house to running raids (short dungeons designed for multiple people to work together to complete) to joining guilds to earn bonuses and organize meetings to a robust community of people who role-play characters in the world. You can meet new people in WoW. You can’t meet anyone in CityVille.
THE BUSINESS MODEL
Zynga operates on the concept of being able to sell anything as long as the market is large enough. With millions of players per month, they can capitalize on the .1% of players that spend money for enhancements and turn that into real, appreciable profit. Between this and the low cost of producing their product (which is essentially free), there is such an absurdly large margin that it would blow the mind of anyone pre-internet-commerce age. That’s the entire reason for the “social” component of these games. They need a large market, and the best way to develop that market is to encourage people to encourage their friends to begin also playing the game. It’s like a pyramid scheme, except no money is passing hands among anyone other than the developer. The model depends on a platform like Facebook, because Facebook has an absurdly large install base and everyone already knows everyone on Facebook. Suggesting to a friend that they come and help you farm is as easy as clicking a button and sending them a pre-recorded message on Facebook. And the darndest thing is that it works. As P. T. Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute, and through Facebook, Zynga can find and market virtual goods to those suckers. Because it works for Zynga, and because business is largely trend-driven, dozens (Actually, hundreds. Not even kidding) of alternatives sprung up almost overnight. Everyone wants a piece of this boom.
Why? Why is this even conceptually possible? Zynga isn’t selling real products. They’re literally selling bits of art assets and the lines of code necessary to place them in your declared personal internet space on their servers. You’re paying actual money for an image to appear on the screen or perhaps a minor boost in your ability to collect other items. These things have even less than inherent worth. They don’t even exist. It’s like buying indulgences. And there is your answer. Why do people buy indulgences? Because the Catholic Church has told them that they’ll go to hell if they don’t. Hell is a conceptual place that doesn’t exist either, and all of the concepts involved don’t exist, but the Catholic Church is a great enough authority that they did roaring business selling bits of bones and rocks that supposedly belong to churches far away. The churches employed efficient and effective marketing techniques to sell otherwise worthless objects. That said, Zynga is no church and doesn’t have the kind of authority needed to simply tell people to buy city cash and avoid hell. What Zynga does have, however, is a better marketing campaign.
That’s not the only reason, though. The other reason has a lot to do with the sort of world we find ourselves in today. Music is free. Movies are free. Video games are free. Not just conceptually free, but free as in every person who copies and downloads a song does not decrease the total number of songs available. Music is infinitely replicable, as are movies and video games and books and any other form of digitized media. This is the kind of thing that changes the world. Now that these things are free to create, how can we put legitimate prices on them? Price becomes an arbitrary standard based not on what an object is worth but what the “producer” thinks it will sell for. In the face of these things losing their inherent value in the plastic/paper/tape they’re recorded on or creators losing the exclusivity of being the only person capable of recreating them, the industry will do anything it can to convince people that they should pay for the virtual items. It is in this way that all the “instant view” films on Netflix, all the songs on iTunes, all the e-books on Amazon are just as real as the garden planter that you just paid five bucks for in Farmville. It’s going to be a long haul for the industries, though, and they’re going to have to keep trying alternatives to draw profit. For music it’s a greater emphasis on concerts and flashy artists that draw crowds. For video games, it’s using Digital Rights Management to a greater degree and offering incentives for people to purchase the games at retail like EA is doing with the Madden franchise among others. For film it’s subscription based models like Netflix and 3D and HD technologies that aren’t as easily copied and run on a home computer. If you’re wondering why everything has been 3D lately, it’s literally because 3D movies are difficult at best to bootleg, because cameras only catch an awful blurry version of the film. For the publishing industry, at least textbook publishers, it’s constantly updating editions and offering codes for online “study help” programs with new editions of textbooks and suggesting that instructors use these online programs for legitimately graded quizzes and various assignments. None of these will work in the long run, because physical medium is a dying breed. The future is going to be convincing you to buy things that don’t really exist. The future will be marketing.
1. Zynga can’t addict me.
For one reason or another, I just don’t buy into the hype. I can’t care enough about collecting crap and watching bars fill. Maybe it lacks substance, maybe it just doesn’t quite understand what motivates me, but it’s not working.
2. Social games are not really social
These games are only social in that they draw other people into playing them by capitalizing on the social links players have with other people. As a definition, that’s pretty broad, and under it, you could consider Left 4 Dead a social game, as I only bought it because all my friends were playing it and insisted that I join them in.
3. Virtual items are the future
They are incredibly cheap to manufacture and with the right sort of wheedling, can sell like hotcakes to certain people. No good reason not to sell them.
FURTHER READING & MISCELLENEA
A board ranking facebook applications by users
An industry-run blog entirely about this sort of games
Insightful, if ridiculous sounding
Also interesting. Note the section on intellectually demanding tasks having motivation beyond money
Interesting fact, one of these games, called “Social City,” was based on an engine by Pushbutton Labs, which is a company comprised of former employees for Dynamix, the developer of various Sierra titles, including “The Incredible Machine” and “Starsiege: Tribes.”
I had originally planned to put in a paragraph about altruism and how these games hinge upon the use of it, but I figure that sort of thing has already been done to death.