Friday, 17 August 2012

Analyzing Zynga Games - Part 1


Re:Questing and More


So, if you're keeping up with the tech news (I tend to do it through FanToPro - highly recommend it), you'll have noticed Zynga is in some trouble. Their Chief Operating Officer (COO), John Schappert, left the company. They're also being sued by EA on account of their latest, "The Ville" being too visually similar to "The Sims Social" - and hey, it probably doesn't help that one of their FaceBook tag lines for the game is literally: "Sims dragging you down? Fun lives here. Play THE VILLE".

Steve Savage remarked on the FanToPro site about keeping Zynga relevant, in terms of extracting lessons from what went wrong. I answered with a comment about what I felt were some problems, and have been turning it around in the back of my mind since then. I think in the end, the main issue (at least on the playability side, I don't know business) boils down to one thing.

You're expected to play the games THEIR way.

Here's the thing about real-time/social gaming - its greatest strength (with no ultimate goal, you simply have to keep playing FOREVER) is, to a degree, its greatest weakness (with no goal, you can arbitrarily decide I'M DONE NOW). Thus, the games have to keep you interested in the gameplay. Zynga was good at that. But their more recent "quest oriented" offerings are becoming tied down even more to real-time players, not game-time characters. I see this as a problem.

In some cases, it means you only have one week to get through a quest. If you miss out (because didn't want to annoy friends, or spend real cash, or were simply busy that week), you don't reap the rewards... then possibly get frustrated, and leave. Alternatively, in other cases, you end up doing parallel tasks that don't make sense. For instance, you're on a quest to free a princess, and then suddenly the princess is standing next to you offering you an additional quest.

"But I haven't freed you yet," you respond in confusion. "I'm waiting on five more requests."

"Boy you're slow," the princess responds. "Well, keep at it for another week, you'll find me... in the meantime, multitask on this shiny new thing!"

There's a benchmark somewhere that Zynga seems to be following, some "typical game player" who can do these quests with the frequency they're demanding. It's obviously not me. As a consequence, I feel like I'm "playing wrong" or "failing", which is giving me more incentive to quit.

Consider that every game has certain pathways you're expected to follow. When you reach a block, you need to figure out a way around it. For some people that might take a few minutes. For others, that might take a few days. But the nature of social (real-time) gaming is that we somehow need to please both these people at once. The current solutions of "quest expirations", or "assuming you completed the quest anyway" are... problematic.

It used to be that Zynga games didn't have this sort of narrative (plow-plant-harvest-repeat). But then people started reaching the higher levels, so how to keep them coming back? More levels, adding "mastery", adding "Super Crops". But that only works for so long. What next? New grids. England in Farmville, reinventing FrontierVille as Pioneer Trail, etc. But even new grids get old after a while. (Would you believe Farmville now has SIX? Home-England-Cove-Winter-Hawaii-Oriental) Thus, quests, which they figure they can roll out on an arbitrary basis.

And therein lies a problem.

This analysis will be in four parts. My next part will consider in general what Zynga seems to have done RIGHT. In Part 3 I'll address more clearly what I feel is WRONG. Finally, I'll have some closing remarks, and perhaps draw comparisons to non-Zynga games. Note that I will be attempting to approach this from the viewpoint of someone who has never played the games, but is curious about why others play them... or who perhaps merely finds them really irritating.

For the record, I haven't spent any of my own money on Zynga games (though have received gift cards), I never sent requests to anyone not already playing (to my knowledge), and I did attempt to limit who saw the postings on my Facebook wall (once I figured out how to do that). It probably says something that I feel the need to say that.

Also, here's the Zynga games which I have played on Facebook at one point or another, and will be drawing my experiences from:
-Farmville
-Cafe World
-FrontierVille aka Pioneer Trail
-CityVille
-Empires & Allies (very briefly)
-Bubble Safari
-Castleville... still playing this one actually. *^^*

If Mafia Wars, Poker, Hidden Chronicles, or their Indiana Jones ripoff is in any way similar, feel free to comment as I go through.

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