Zynga Bird Alienation


Zynga is claiming that Xbox Live is too small for Farmville and Rovio Mobile says that console gaming is about to die.  I’ve got all sorts of problems with these statements.

It’s easy to see how these games are so profitable.  They latch on to a popular format (Facebook, iPhones) while using a low entrance fee and aggressive advertising to gain a large audience.  Angry Birds costs iPhone users a dollar and features some incredibly simple slingshot gameplay where you try to knock down towers and such.  It’s actually kind of fun, but it’s something that I exhausted my patience for years ago in a virtually identical, free game.  It makes money because it appeals to people who don’t really play video games.  The sort of people who are perfectly satisfied with a game that they only play for about five minutes at a time: Pop Cap’s audience.  It’s also cheap enough to be bought on a whim without a second thought, and it no doubt sits there unused on many people’s phones.

Zynga games on the other hand feel more like psychological experiments.  Remember season 2 of Lost?  That bit almost everyone knows about even if they didn’t watch the show? 4 8 15 16 23 42.  If they didn’t type those numbers into the computer every 108 minutes, the world would supposedly end.  After seeing how long the characters were willing to do this in the show, I’m sure the founders of Zynga realized that they could make money this way.  Now pretty much every popular game on Facebook uses the same mechanic.  You can make a few minor actions for a few minutes but then you have to wait a few hours for your energy to build up, your crops to grow, so on and so forth.  This isn’t a video game in the usual sense of the term.  This is an addiction builder, a compulsion.  They took a game that would normally be seen as shallow and uninteresting and got millions of people hooked by adding real-time elements to it.  Suddenly you find yourself checking Farmville every morning, throughout your work day, and before bed in an attempt to milk as much progress as you can out of your day.  And you don’t know why.  Once they have their hooks in you they start finding ways to charge you.  Give us ten dollars and you can do more in your day, get special items, be marginally better at this pointless activity, etc.  Suddenly you’re willing to pay extra money for this company to kill more of your time while giving you nothing in return.  There’s no compelling story here.  No gameplay mechanics to master.  In many ways it’s more of a spreadsheet than a game.

You can probably tell that I have more against one of these games than the other.  One is a casual game in the strictest sense of the term, and the other is an abomination set out to destroy mankind.  Something like that.  So here we have two companies that can attribute their success to the fact that there is a large market for people who want to play simple games sporadically for only minutes, even seconds of their day.  Shallow experiences that rely more on Skinner’s Box than they do on interesting, involving gameplay.  You’ve found your market and your income.  Good for you.  Now shut up.  Stop talking.  Just…no.

What you both shamelessly ignore is the fact that your games appeal to an audience that is almost exclusively separate from the console gamer crowd.  Sure, there are exceptions, but not enough to invalidate my point.  What are you trying to accomplish when you say things like this?  Console gaming is dying?  Xbox Live isn’t big enough?  You’ve only been around for four years or less, but you think you’ve got your finger on the pulse of the market?  People aren’t selling their Xboxes so that they can play more Farmville.  The real reason that Xbox Live is too small for Farmville is that only a tiny fraction of players are willing to pay money for such a game.  Facebook has the advantage of having 500 million users, all of which you can advertise to with obnoxious status update spam until they either try your game or block you entirely.  Xbox Live isn’t like that.  You would just be another terrible XBLA game to sweep under the rug as people move on to the games on their console that are still actually games.

Console games are dying, Rovio?  How?  You managed to make something that costs almost nothing but makes a ton of money?  Congratulations, you’ve created the romantic comedy of video games.  I don’t see movies taking the industry-wide shameless cash-whoring route, so why would games?  Angry Birds has no effect on the Mass Effects and Final Fantasies of the world, and your ignorance astonishes me.  The statements that you release to the press accomplish nothing other than alienating a market that you should be trying to win over.

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