The bubble bursts. The blood is in the water. The knives sharpen. Pick your favourite cliché to commemorate the beating that Zynga took last week after posted some numbers that Wall Street hated and lowering their forecasts for the rest of the year. Their stock plummeted 40 per cent and some people are rooting for the creators of FarmVille and CityVille and owners of Words With Friends to never recover.
If you're into video games, companies are what you hate. There are no idiot actors to love to detest, no prima donna musicians, no bloviating directors, no plagiarising authors and no overpaid, over-drugged jocks. And so when there is hate to be had in gaming, it's directed at money-making, faceless behemoths whose logos appear when you're about to play a video game. Pick your target: arrogant EA, exploitative Activision, stupid Sega, meddling Microsoft, no-clue Nintendo… any of those work for you?
Some people in gaming pick a company to love, maybe one of the aforementioned corporate giants — well, any of them except Zynga. Zynga is the company just about everyone roots failure upon. But maybe that's wrong.
Four months ago, I took a taxi to Zynga headquarters in San Francisco, walked through an illuminated cylindrical hallway that could have been in disco in a sci-fi movie, met a PR lady who is a couple of days away from leaving the company, headed upstairs and sat down with John Schappert, a man who used to make Madden games and worked in senior positions at both EA and Microsoft before jumping to Zynga. His current company isn't a web company, he tells me. "It's not a game company," he adds. "It's a web-game company." Yeah, these are the kind of semantics that make Zynga easy to mock, even if chief operating officers of just about any major company might issue similar brochure-ready statements.
Schappert gets to the McDonalds-scale mission statement of the company. "Our goal is: Can we have a billion people play together? We want to connect the world through games. How can we get a billion people to play together?"
This sounds preposterous to anyone who is familiar with the massive success of Nintendo's Wii, which has managed to sell… oh, just 100 million units in nearly six years. Maybe 10 million people have played World of Warcraft.
"I don't need to have a billion people playing one game," Schappert clarifies. "I'm fine with just a billion people playing Zynga games. So don't hold me back on one."
At the time he is saying this, the number of monthly active users across all Zynga games on Facebook is around 250,000,000, maybe even as high as 290,000,000, as the company will report to Wall Street for the end of March. It's 250,000,000 in the most recent July count.
They are (were?) a quarter of the way to that billion.
Zynga is best known for its ‘Ville games, which are strategy games played on Facebook. A FarmVile or CityVille or CasteVille player gets a plot of land and then can click on it to sow crops, build a city or explore a fantasy land. Much of what the player can do is metered, limited by the amount of turn-taking energy units the player has or how long it will take for an office building to be made or for a pumpkin patch to bear its fruit. Players get ahead by waiting or by paying to avoid the wait or by enlisting the help of other friends.
A dedicated Zynga ‘Ville gamer will create a vast and complex world of interlocking systems, one that was made possible, most likely, with the help of many friends who consented to send gifts, swap items and help improve the game board all through simple mouse-clicks.
The less-publicised Zynga games involve adventures and wars, but those are only played by one million to seven million people a day. That's small-fry among Zynga's mighty free games. The 'Ville games attract 15-30 million people on Facebook a day.
I don't call my mother as much as I should. But we trade turns in Words with Friends every few days. It's more or less a game of Scrabble but with more chances for big points. I've never played a multiplayer video game with my mother before. Zynga didn't make Words with Friends. They bought the people who made it for $US53.3 million.
Zynga is a new company, so most of its top employees — the ones it makes available for interviews — are from other gaming companies. They're veterans. Tim LeTourneau, who helps oversee internal studios at Zynga, is one of them. He worked on tons of Sims games at EA, starting with the first one and seeing through a decade's worth. Back in March, he gave me an analogy about Zynga and its relationship to the rest of the gaming world (i.e. the world of Xboxes and Wiis and PlayStations and games on Steam):
"If you look back at the history of games and computer gaming and you think back to when I first started — so let's go back 22 years — the biggest games at that point and time, the market leaders, were military sims. It's 688 Attack Sub. It's F-15. Think about the offering: you buy this box and you've got a 200-page manual that you're supposed to read so you can figure out what the payloads are on this particular… that was gaming. And there were 100,000-200,000 people that would buy those games religiously and there was an entire industry based on the success of those games. And then all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, wait, I made this game that's sort of out of the ordinary and I'm able to get to 500,000 players'… [People would say:] ‘that's not a real game.' You can draw those parallels over and over again."
That's a history of video games right there. Something is popular for a crowd of a certain size. Something else comes along and becomes more popular. That new, more popular game is discredited by fans of the original games as not being a eal game.
I ask Schappert if a Zynga game can ever win Game of the Year. It's a loaded question. We both know that more millions of people have played FarmVille than have ever played the kind of games that people who vote on GOTY awards give GOTY awards to. No one, not even anyone at Zynga, has ever said FarmVille was as good as Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto III or BioShock. I don't give Schappert that context. I just ask the basic question.
"I would hope," he says. "We have some of the best game designers in the industry at it, designing and working on our games. Brian Reynolds developed FrontierVille. Mark Skaggs designed FarmVille. These games are great."
He acknowledges his games would have a hard going with the critics: "I think the traditional gaming industry has been driven by a certain level of tech and fidelity that reviewers are looking for."
Until recently, my most-played game every day was a game on my iPhone. It's called Drop 7. I was obsessed with it for about two years. It's Tetris with maths, but is about 1000 times more fun than that description makes it sound. It was created by a company called AreaCode that was purchased in 2011 and renamed Zynga New York.
The worst way of describing FarmVille or CityVille, I say to LeTourneau when I sit down with him, is as glorified chain letters that compel people to keep clicking because they feel they have to. He tells me his wife never played games until she played FarmVille and that she would call it a game.
Before we have this exchange, LeTorneau had already made a statement that most game developers don't feel the need to make at the beginning of interviews:
"Contrary to what anybody might say, these are games. I feel like I'm making games every day. I don't' feel like I'm not making games."
The most important thing about these games, he says, is that they're social. For example, when I ask him if Zynga would ever making a racing game, he says, "Sure. If we do, the first thing it will be will be social. "
Bob Bates started writing text-adventure games for Infocom in 1986. He didn't write Zork or Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, he says with a smile, when we're chatting in Zynga HQ back in March. He wrote Sherlock and Arthur. Later, he wrote the story for the first-person shooter Unreal II. Even later, he wrote the romance plot in FrontierVille (that's the game now known as Pioneer Trail) and now he oversees Zynga's external development studios.
Right before he worked for Zynga he was a consultant. He knew he should smarten up about social games, so he played the hot one at the time, Zynga's Mafia Wars. Like other Zynga games, it was free to start playing, but you could pay to progress more quickly.
"I spent several months ripping that game apart and understanding it," he says. "They way I did it was: every time I'd be playing and was thinking ‘I just want to do this thing and maybe I will pay to do it', [I thought] ‘But wait a minute, wait a minute! I'm not going to pay. I'm going to sit back and I'm going to say, "Why do I want to do that?" "What have they done in this game to make me want to do this thing?"' That's how I learned this space."
This prompts a long question, from me: "When you're making a Zynga game and they inherently have to be Free-to-Play but they're going to support some sort of micro-transaction model, does the desire to entertain the player and have the player experience fun risk coming into conflict with the need of the company to compel the player to keep spending more money and find reason to almost become uncomfortable and feel. ‘Ok, I need to spend more in order to improve my experience.'? Are those two things in tension with each other?
"A little bit but not as much as you'd think," he says. "If the game is fun and engaging and you have a ton of people playing it, some portion of that group are going to want to do some of the things that cost money." He tells me about types of players. There are the Decorators, the players who will want to pay to get some of the things that make their version of the game more distinct." Some people do that because they can't paint or can't write but they can do that in this environment. And they like to do that." There are the Show-Offs, though Bates doesn't really like the negative connotation of the term. These people want to impress with you with their game world, so they might pay to make their world look cooler. And there are competitors, people driven by the performance of their friends on the game's leaderboards. Some of these people will pay to do better. All Zynga games, Bates and anyone else who works at Zynga will remind you, can be played for free. Paying is optional.
I mention Super Mario Brothers, a game I think we can assume is very good. I tell Bates that I can't imagine any free-to-play version (in the Zynga sense) that wouldn't in some way diminish the game. I wonder if the free-to-play model simply disqualifies certain game designs from working well in it.
Bates reminds me that Zynga isn't the only company to use the free-to-play model. He also talks about how tough it is to make good games, let alone good casual games, let alone good social-casual games. And then he says this about the question of how one would make Nintendo's famous game free-to-play: "It's a horrible admission, but I don't know that game, Super Mario Bros, well enough to sit down and off the top of my head say what would I do…"
Okay. What about a text adventure? How would you do that in the Zynga way?
"A text adventure would be somewhat easier," he says. These games could be episodic, with cliffhangers. "Player would want the next chapter and you could say, ‘well, in order to get this next chapter, you need to do some interaction with your friends or you need to pay us some money or you can wait until next week when your energy has replenished or whatever.' So usually, in our games, you can progress by waiting, you can progress by being viral or social or you can progress by paying."
I reply: "Do any of those three things in your mind make the game more fun than if you could just have the next moment in the text adventure right away?"
"Done right, the social part would," he says. "We don't always get that right."
Bates envisions a Zynga game that connects people in a more interesting way than their games mainly do now, a Zynga game that doesn't just have people exchanging gifts and item requests over Facebook . He wants to get to "the point where we're playing with your friends, instead of where I'm over here and you're over there and we're just volleying back and forth." He wants more of Empires & Allies' neighbour-invading interactions. Or, to put a friendlier face on it, "What would be really cool is if I knew something that you liked and I had the freedom to come into your world and say, ‘I know he's really going to like this'" and then do that thing.
Sometimes, Zynga is accused of copying games. Their Dream Heights looked like someone else's Tiny Tower. Their CityVille seems like Sim City but on Facebook. The Ville, their second-hottest game now (after their poker game), is more or less like The Sims.
Surely, there is a line between games that are clones and games that are smart iterations. Everyone draws that line in a different place, LeTourneau says. "It's a very interesting conversation in general. Does Call of Duty have to give credit to Medal of Honor? There are very, very few true innovations in any creative space. I've had the great fortune of working on some of them. The Sims I would consider to be one of them. It came from nowhere."
What's original about Zynga, he tells me, is the company's focus on making any game or any genre of game a social experience.
The creator of NBA Jam makes games for Zynga, as do the lead designers of Civilization II and IV.
There are three core tenets for Zynga, Schappert says. The games must be social. They must be accessible (both in terms of being accessible on lots of devices and in terms of being easy to start playing). They must be free.
Most traditional video games involve lots of barriers, he points out: "the barriers that I have to own this device to play a game; I have to go to the store to buy this game; I have to shell out more money to buy this game… the more barriers you put up, the fewer people who are going to experience you game."
Since Drop 7 is for iPhone, I can say that my favourite Zynga game on Facebook is something else. It's not any one game that Zynga makes, actually. It's a batch of them. Any one of them that I've played — Adventure World, Empires & Allies, Bubble Safari, Ruby Blast — is metered by energy, which stops the game when you've taken about 15 minutes' worth of turns, more or less. I don't pay to play more. I don't nudge friends to give me energy. I wouldn't even call what I do waiting. I just switch from one Zynga game to another, so that the one I was just playing refills my energy while I'm playing the next.
So the game that I'm playing on Facebook? It's not a Zynga game. It's the how-to-not-pay-Zynga game. Succeeding at it feels like beating the system, because, well, that's exactly what it is. It is, for me, the most interesting challenge in the Zynga Facebook games.
LeTourneau believes that the energy system in most popular Zynga games is key to their success. It keeps sessions with the games short. "The fact that these games are metered out is part of why people will come back to them, because they represent 10 minutes of the day, not 10 hours of a day." He likes this. "If your comment was ‘That game was one of the best 10 minutes I spent today,' that would be a huge win. That would be a giant win, because it was the best 10 minutes you spent today and the best 10 minutes you spend tomorrow and the best 10 minutes you spend three months from now. You're not burning out on it. It's something you think about . It's a few minutes of delight that you get to have during your day. And it's a completely different gaming experience than sitting down in front of a console."
Of course, Zynga would like some of its players to play for more than 10 minutes. That's why the game lets you pay to continue. That's how Zynga makes money. This creates a weird situation, as it does with any so-called free-to-play games that depend on some people paying, even as the company behind the game acknowledges that most people won't. The situation is that most of the players will equate the game with a free experience. They will value it as such even though they will be repeatedly asked by the game, to cross a transom and declare that, actually, the game is worth paying some money for. What is the parallel? The person at the supermarket who lets you pick up a small cube of cheese with a toothpick in the hopes you will pay for more? The software pirate who tries dozens of games for nothing but vows that, not to worry, he'll pay for the one he likes? To really like a Zynga game — to assert while playing that the work of Zynga's game designers is good and worth paying for — is to relent. Otherwise, you're freeloading.
"Keeping the players around and having lots of them" Bates tells me, "that's the key to the business — It's not figuring out how to get every last nickel out of this guy. It's about keeping a lot of people around, having a lot of people play and some percentage of them are going to want to do some kinds of things that we'll make money from."
Photos taken in Zynga's San Francisco lobby in March 2012.