No one can question the success of Zynga, but the value of its contribution to the video game industry seems highly controversial. On one hand, there are those that see Zynga as an evil empire, crushing the artistry, quality and joy of games under the weight of crass money-grubbing, designing games solely to elicit one particular response from players: typing in credit card digits. A blog post entitled ‘Who killed videogames’ captures this sentiment fairly well. On the other hand, there are those who believe Zynga has opened up a whole new universe of gaming. I want to say from the outset, I don’t really have an opinion on this. It is what it is.
That said, whether you believe Zynga games are stupid or brilliant, its business strategy destroying or enhancing the industry, two things are clear: one, the company engages millions upon millions of players consistently over periods of months to even years and, two, they have attracted millions of players outside the traditional ‘gamer’ market. That is, for better or worse, they have happened upon techniques that reliably engage people and keep them coming back—at least for the time being. There is something to learn here.
As zeal for a soteriological vision of videogames transforming mankind ratchets up—the ‘reality is broken‘, video games make us better doctrine—video games face the same challenge as any path to salvation: getting converts to step onto the path. Unless the world is to be transformed and saved by a relative handful of gamers tapping away at their Playstations till the wee hours, games will have to appeal to a much, much larger audience before they start fixing reality.
Understanding why and how the Zynga games have become so successful, whether you love or hate them, is useful. I certainly won’t be the first to attempt to analyze the design of these games. Their success is often attributed to their social networking characteristic, in which they leverage social relations and norms to draw players in and keep them engaged. These games are, after all, called social networking. But I don’t buy it. It’s a nice story, but I think it is just a story and rather fanciful and doesn’t really account for their success. Alternatively, a very deliberately calculated ‘internal friction’ is frequently identified as a key design principle. Enough of the game is given away free to engage players but obstacles and constraints impede full, unfettered enjoyment. Although this critically provides an alternative monetization scheme (ie., rather than selling the game outright) and perhaps some tension within the game, I don’t believe this is the bedrock of Zynga’s success either, well, at least in terms of engaging players. In subsequent posts, I will explore the way in which the design of Zynga games, particularly Farmville and Cityville, engage a player such as to maximally induce habit. The habit, of course, being playing the game. Consistently. Over a long span of time. If video games are going to save the world, how to get converts is no small matter. This is as good a place as any to start looking for principles of engagement. Traditional games won’t help us here: there’s no need to preach to the converted.