Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 18, 2011

Most of the time I play games for fun. Either because I already know the game and know it will be fun, or because from reviews and recommendations I believe it to be "my kind of game" and expect to have fun. But sometimes I deliberately go out and play games that I know are not "my kind of game". One reason is that sometimes I get surprised and have fun with games that are outside my typical range. Who would have thought that I would like World of Tanks or story-based first-person-shooter games? Another reason is that I blog about games, and would like to have some first-hand experience of current games and trends in gaming to improve the quality of my blog.

Zynga games on Facebook are not generally considered great games for experienced gamers. But taken all together the number of people playing these games are in the hundreds of millions. They are most definitely a trend in modern gaming, and potentially an entry point for many people into the world of video games. That makes them worth looking at.

Earlier this year I noticed some encouraging trends with Zynga games: The gameplay improved. Empires & Allies, while still not quite what a gamer would call a "strategy game", is a huge improvement over simple cow-clicking games like Farmville. Adventure World has "instanced dungeons" with a puzzle-based gameplay which, while not being terribly complicated, still offers more puzzles than the average MMORPG dungeon.

Unfortunately it seems that this trend towards better gameplay has stopped or is even reversing. This week Zynga released Castleville, which like Farmville and Cityville is void of any gameplay worth mentioning. There are the same farm plots and cows to click on to make money to buy stuff to decorate your land with. Castleville is "better" than Farmville in terms of graphics and sound, has more appealing characters, story and quests, and has a simple crafting system. But in the end it is a game about clicking on stuff to build a pretty farm castle. And, like in all Zynga games, you can't even do that without constantly begging for stuff from your friends. Or, as I do it, from your "Zynga friends", which you can find easily enough on the Zynga forums in "add me!" threads. In terms of evolution of gameplay it is clearly a step backwards.

As reported earlier, Zynga's profits are down, and there is increasing evidence that user numbers of Zynga games peak more and more early, and then decline quickly. The "-ville" games have historically been Zynga's greatest successes, so I would interpret Castleville as an attempt of Zynga to land another super hit before their IPO. It will be interesting to see, albeit somewhat worrying, if Zynga manages a return to previous form by releasing a game with less complicated gameplay. Do players evolve from simple games to more complex ones? Or are "click to get reward" games already the highest form of gaming some people are interested in?

Zynga keeps cloning the same formula over and over: people got tired of that, it's natural.

The mentioned "add me, add me!!" pest is something that I really did not like at all. You are forced to find (random) friends to play with. You're also forced to keeps spamming your wall, begging for some help, donations, energy, ... That's silly, and the "social" aspect completely dies.

Zynga is lacking innovation and is always trying to pickpocket few coins from you. Plus... energy costs are usually insane. Again, people got tired of that.

Ahhh... damn, can't wait to play more Skyrim today!
I think the typical argument would be that the very fact that numbers peak earlier and earlier with each successive game is evidence that players are craving more complexity that the game designers are not providing. As in, yes, gamers graduate.

I am not particularly convinced. I do think FarmVille "veterans" will try out CastleVille and burn out faster because of the transference of their prior skills (i.e. the learning stage is shorter). But when they become bored with CastleVille, they will migrate NOT to more complicated games, but simply other games.

A person's skill develops over time, but the underlying motivation to improve is much less malleable IMO. If they wanted to or were able to graduate, they would have done so already.

I think you are right. It's sort of the same thing going on with WoW. Each new addition has diminishing rewards.

The advantage of things being a different game instead of an expansion pack though is probably that you can radically change a new game to shake off that diminishing return, while having a very serious game-changing shakeup with an expansion pack is likely to get you a LOT of angry people.
Facebook games are simply an experimentation with a new medium (web based social interactions) that people are still trying to figure out.

Do they have a future? Perhaps, but certainly not in the way they are trying to set it up.

There is a fundamental conflict in forcing people to mesh their real life identity with they imaginar, game bound personas. Very few people that I know would broadcast that they are playing silly facebook games (none of my friends do so) - in fact I myself loathe to even try one out because I am concerned that it may be something awful and everyone will know that I tried it.

I would try but the cost of doing it is too high. Facebook games only have a future if one can play anonymously without giving up our real identity to each and every company separately,
There is a fundamental conflict in forcing people to mesh their real life identity with they imaginar, game bound personas.

I wonder in how much that is related to the previously discussed "virtual evil", where we don't feel remorse for evil acts committed in a video game, even if the victims were other players. I once played a board game which was all about backstabbing and treachery with friends, and the game led to one of my friends and his girlfriend breaking up. Ganking anonymous strangers might feel okay, but ganking friends is more likely to backfire with real world repercussions.
discussed "virtual evil", where we don't feel remorse for evil acts committed in a video

Yes, this here is also something that we don't really know how to deal with because we are in this new medium that we are not used to communicate in.

We don't know what are the ethical judgments that need to be made - what is right/wrong that is just a game vs right/wrong that leaks out from the game and reflects on the person.

To take your example I would also think that backstabbing your girlfriend in the game (if she is really trusting of you and would not expect it at all) then it is a foul thing to do ... even if it is just a game ... better backstab someone else ... now we have a situation.

What makes it ever more complicated is that there will always be a clear distinction between an act committed against an internal game character vs a game character played by a real life persona.
I am interested in how Zynga appears to have diluted their brand. Back when Zynga was pretty much Mafia Wars and FarmVille, those were the two Facebook games everybody talked about.

Now Zynga has I don't know how many games and people only talk about Zynga and maybe mention FarmVille in news coverage. It does not feel like they have a flagship product anymore.

Yes, other games have come along from other publishers, but has anything gotten the huge publicity that FarmVille got up to a year ago?

It feels to me that in their attempt to release minor revisions of FarmVille that they have spread their image too thing.
Azuriel is correct, in that Zynga players will simply migrate to the next Zunga game. They don't want a complicated gaming experience, as Zynga games are all about chasing new promos and spamming your friends for bigger promos. The "power creep" as it is gets boring, as does the repetitive gameplay, and people move on to something else.

Zynga's pattern has just been to spam out games as fast as they want players to spam to their friends. There isn't an enriching gaming experience, and one was never meant. It's just a diversion from a creatively bankrupt company.
The most telling thing is that it is hard to find positive comments from bloggers who were once more than willing to give these games an honest chance and to approach them for what they are.

No longer.
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