Is Zynga Now A Video Game Company?

Is Zynga Now A Video Game Company?

Certainly. Zynga’s as much a video game company as any of the interactive entertainment field’s brightest lights. Of course, given the firm’s primarily business-focused approach to design, it’s also the devil incarnate to some. But the real irony that many people miss is that the outfit may inadvertently be one of the best things to happen to gaming since the invention of the home console.

Say what you will about titles like FarmVille and CityVille. Those games are designed to keep players hypnotically clicking away like slack-jawed idiots. Among the industry’s fastest-growing and mostly wildly popular titles of all-time, they’re also helping make true believers out of millions. And, for that matter, these games are finally communicating the pastime’s appeal to generations of clueless bystanders who’ve spent decades convinced that gamers are still socially awkward dweebs who spend 20 hours a day twiddling away on Atari-2600-era joysticks.

OK, so tending virtual crops or building an online crime family isn’t exactly the height of artistic expression, and in many ways a marked step back from today’s growingly more high-concept, intellectually sophisticated, culturally aware and literate blockbusters. But face it: It’s these simple, idiot-proof and engaging concepts that make sense to all, as well as their inherent intuitiveness and appeal, that are increasingly helping to push gaming to the forefront of mainstream awareness. And, while we’re at it, inspiring more designers – including individuals from a more diverse group of cultural backgrounds, nationalities and ages than previously seen at any point in history – to take up the craft of game creation than ever.


Thank them 10 years from now when a new generation of enterprising young teams working out of their basements and fuelled by Ramen are pumping out incredibly deep and thought-provoking, yet simple to pick up and play offerings ideal for social settings that make even modern-day classics such as Braid, Limbo or Swords and Sworcery look like prehistoric carvings crudely scribbled into cave walls. Or, while we’re at it, you meet your future husband/wife/World of Warcraft life partner when someone starts talking raising simulated sheep or managing animated homesteads over drinks at happy hour.

Note from the deputy editor:
I asked Scott Steinberg to assess Zynga’s video game company bona fides, but that was yesterday, when we were spurred by the report that Zynga snatched EA’s number two executive for a senior position. That was yesterday. Zynga moves fast and made news again today for purchasing Wonderland Software, creators of the game Godfinger. Zynga has been averaging one new game studio purchase a month, including prestige acquisitions of the creators of Words with Friends and Drop 7. That Zynga farm of developers keeps growing, one macro-payment at a time. –Stephen Totilo, Kotaku

Mind you, Zynga has obviously come under immense criticism for its cash-centric design methods and gameplay strategies, which often put making money before ensuring that players have a keenly-balanced gaming experience, or can enjoy particularly new and novel features. But much as players like to romanticizse it, gaming’s a multibillion-dollar business that’s long been dominated by firms that prize accounting over artistic integrity – what, you think EA brought back NBA Jam, Microsoft aims to make idiot-proof motion controls the new high-tech gaming standard and Nintendo’s suddenly resurrecting The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time out of purely altruistic motives? Putting the exploitation of new technologies, trends and devices above the chance to push the boundaries of creativity is a proud, time-honored tradition: From classic-era Atari’s multitude of home Pong variants to Capcom’s endless [Insert Meme Here]vs. [Which of Our Franchises is Currently Selling Best] crossovers, it’s the same fundamental principle.

Storied history and franchises aside, corporate giants like Electronic Arts and Take 2 aren’t powered by sunshine and magical rainbows, and have to pay for the dozens of avant garde experiments (Mirror’s Edge) and aeons-long development cycles (Red Dead Redemption) that eventually lead to BioShock-level brilliance somehow. Check Rockstar’s softography prior to Grand Theft Auto, or Harmonix’s before Guitar Hero – you’ll see plenty of foul balls before they ever starting belting out home runs. The difference with Zynga is simply that it’s not content to play by the old industry rule of thumb- one hit pays for every 10 flops – and instead focuses on the bottom line first. One might argue that, while sacrificing the quality of a player’s experience is inexcusable, the overall concept is actually a much saner approach to game making, offering predictable revenues and successes than can be funneled into making better sequels, spin-offs or fueling the launch of original, more innovative outings down the road.

It’s easy to vilify corporate giants, especially in the wake of Guitar Hero‘s recent relegation to the benches, given their seemingly single-minded pursuit of cash and knuckleheaded willingness to grind even the biggest and best franchises into the ground in order to turn a quick buck. But if you look at what Zynga is saying and doing as of late, it’s making the right insinuations, intimating that it will put all the cash and talent it’s amassing to work building deeper, more engaging titles that just happen to be tied to the world’s most popular and readily accessible online platforms. In other words, it’s allegedly cranking away on what will hopefully be some pretty kick-ass games that more players of all skill levels – including traditional game players – can access from a greater range of touchpoints and devices than one could’ve dreamed even just five years ago.

CEO Mark Pincus and co are no fools: They know that players have more options in terms of titles, platforms, devices and entertainment options than ever. The company is also well aware that’s it’s increasingly fighting for a share of your time, not just your wallet. So now it’s growingly hiring away experienced game industry talent-–John Schappert, Brian Reynolds, etc.-–and buying up useful studios in hopes of rolling out a newer, deeper and more immersive wave of social experiences-–call them anti- or hyper-social games if you will. These amusements will still feature the best of what social games have to offer: Instant gratification, multiplayer interaction, immediate accessibility, long-term persistency and casual approachability. But beneath the simple veneer of doe-eyed characters and shiny objects to click on, they’ll have all the depth, complexity, massively multiplayer interplay, community engagement and lasting rewards of traditional video game titles.

Is Zynga Now a Video Game Company?
Scott Steinberg heads video game consulting firm TechSavvy, which advises developers, publishers, investors and media corporations on business strategy, product testing and market analysis. A frequent game industry expert witness, he’s also the author of Video Game Marketing and PR and host of video series Game Theory.

To stay relevant going forward and keep up with the flood of new games invading Facebook daily – most of which are easy to abandon, because they don’t cost you anything and take minutes to enjoy, making them ideal for the commitment-phobic – the firm not only has to deliver higher-quality gaming experiences that players actively want to seek out and spend time with. It also has to build games that emphasise value and convenience, and around which communities can easily be formed, giving you a reason to keep tuning in instead of scampering off to play Angry Birds at the gym.

From Kingdoms of Camelot‘s hardcore leanings to Ravenwood Fair‘s PC/console-style expansions and Heaven’s Diner‘s location- and photo-based challenges, social games are clearly evolving. Zynga realises it has to keep up, and invest in high-quality, top-tier gaming experiences as much as new technologies to maintain pace, especially as its own audience of players matures and their gaming tastes become more sophisticated. In effect, this will eventually make the firm an entertainment and intellectual property (IP) company as much as any software maker, comic book publisher or Hollywood studio.

There’s a reason gaming’s most legendary developers continue to defect to the social space, and it’s not six-figure paychecks and lightning-quick development turnaround times alone. As Loot Drop’s Brenda Brathwaite so elegantly pointed out in her GDC rant, the industry is on the verge of a fundamental sea change as social gaming continues to explode in popularity-–even amongst those who wouldn’t consider themselves gamers-–and companies like Zynga are standing on the front lines of what promises to be both revelation and revolution, ushering in an entirely new and different (possibly better) era of game design and development. (Isn’t the ultimate point of creating games to bring pleasure or make a statement to as many as possible?)

The good news is, given the growing level of competition, fan expectation and sheer alternatives players can readily turn to if disgruntled or disenchanted, these firms-–the few and the proud-–have no choice but to storm the proverbial beach. Frankly, they’ll get their Armani-clad kiesters shot full of holes if all they do is stand around trying to hawk licensed dog tags and branded bomber jackets instead.

For companies like Zynga, cash will always remain king, as keeping waves of money flowing into the bank gives the outfit incredible wherewithal to acquire the talent and technologies it needs to grow and survive, not to mention chart its own future, which-–based on recent moves-–obviously involves leveraging the skill and practical real-world experience of games industry veterans. Were Zynga simply to view itself as a software or service provider offering a vanilla experience that plays to the least-common denominator, or content to stand around collecting a paycheck by simply exploiting new business models and technologies and/or regularly churning out nondescript and sub-par branded titles, well… Let’s just say that, given the state of today’s gaming industry, even the mighty social giant wouldn’t stay on top of the game for long.


  • They make videogames, so yes they’re a videogame company. Seems a bit of a redundant question really… the question is are they a GOOD, QUALITY videogame company?

  • Couple of missed points:

    1. I don’t WANT the ‘general public’ playing these ‘games’ and calling themselves gamers. Nothing annoys me more than when an aquaintence of mine claims to be a gamer, I ask him what he plays, and he says ‘Oh i’ve been getting stuck in to Farmville, and this Angry Birds game on my phone!’. I LIKE being ‘socially awkward’, it used to mean that whenever I met someone who proclaimed themselves to be a gamer, we would have a lot of common ground to stand on.

    2. I don’t WANT games to be simple, pick up and play affairs. I like games to be challenging. I like Contra, Metal Slug and Megaman, games that are fun because of how punishing they are. I cringe at easy modes, regenerating health, and checkpoint based saves.

    3. Cheap, disposable games like everything Zygna makes is devaluing the industry. Soon, people will start to see games like this as the ‘norm’, and ‘normal’ full-priced $50 games as an extravagant waste of money, making them even MORE costly to produce for little return.

    • There is nothing lamer than someone whose enjoyment of something is influenced by someone else’s enjoyment of it.

      • Hate to break it to you, Kegs, but that’s everybody. You may not realise it, but I’m sure there’s been tines you’ve given an experience a more solid go and then gained nostalgia sheerly because someone else enjoyed it, who you respected.
        Or you enjoyed a movie less because someone else went on about how great it was and overhyped it.
        As a social animal, our experiences are always coloured by the influence of others.
        So, don’t be a hater when someone recognised it in themself. They’re just being honest after all.
        And there’s very little lamer than someone who makes an unperceptive and unconstructive dig for no good reason, in my opinion.

        • Nah, that doesn’t do it for me. If your enjoyment of something is based largely on the greater public’s rejection of said thing, then your interest in it is shallow and self-aggrandizing. If you don’t like Zynga games, then don’t play them. If you don’t like having friends who call themselves gamers because they play FarmVille, stop being friends with them or introduce them to what else the medium has to offer. Zynga make games and are at the forefront of an interesting audience paradigm: how dare anyone foresake that opportunity to expand the nature of games based on the fact that they don’t fit their own confined definition of what a “game” is.

          Moreover, if you don’t enjoy a movie because someone’s overhyped it, that’s your fault for believing the hype. If you don’t enjoy it, it’s not because that friend enjoyed it, it’s because you allowed yourself to believe the hype, and that’s your own fault; expectations play a huge role in terms of enjoyment.

    • Yeah, cheap games are totally going to devalue AAA titles, just like free television led to the medium of film!

  • Do they have anything that requires an installer? If yes, then I’ll consider letting them have the title.
    Facebook games are not video games. They’re flash games. Video games are installed, with local files, for gamers; as Steven suggests.

    Regardless of whether of not they’re “video games” for “gamers”, Zynga does things to games that consoles are oh so often accused of – making things simple and attractive to sell more units to the mindless masses.

    That is yet to bother me, purely because they haven’t had any good existing IP to do that to (that I am aware of).

    I wouldn’t want Zynga working on a Braid 2 or similar because there’s no way I can imagine them keeping it as subtle and hard.

    Zynga are a corporation, like Activision, with a goal of making additional dollars, with games merely their chosen medium. They are not a studio. If we are lucky, the studios they acquire will be allowed to keep free will.

  • I wholeheartedly agree.

    Farmville was gaming’s T-Model.

    Indiscriminately accessible, with a wide appeal and broken down to such a ridiculously simplistic concept that anyone can understand.

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