Silicon Valley knows how to breed monsters.
Recent emergents out of the valley, located in the southern San Francisco Bay Area in Northern California, have included Facebook and Twitter, the internet's largest social networking websites. Twitter has created a real-time, global feed of information, the likes of which our ancestors couldn't have fathomed. And Facebook and ground all competition foolish enough to stand in its way to a fine pulp, choosing to pave its own path rather than follow the footsteps of others.
Big as they are, it doesn't necessarily make them bad. While risks of addiction and time-wasting are abound, it's hard to deny that these, and similar businesses, offer genuinely useful tools and serve practically applicable purposes. But the Valley's latest beast is the kind that does more harm than good.
You may not have even heard of this beast, the Zynga Game Network, But you've most certainly heard of its byproducts: Mafia Wars. FarmVille. FrontierVille.
These "social games" are apps, primarily for Facebook, but increasingly for mobile devices and eventually for other sites as well. These apps run simple, free games. So simple, and so free, that they have a net total of 60 to 80 million users per month, and growing. Nothing wrong with some success in the gaming industry, right?
But the problem is that these games are too simple. And that they're not free.
Those in the gaming industry, particularly the ones developing highly detailed, thoroughly story-lined, premium graphic video games, are watching hopelessly as tens of millions of would-be gamers flock to these social apps to spend hours performing mundane, repetitive tasks. In today's world of all-out-multitasking, the convenience of gaming on the net and on your smartphone is evidently present, especially when you can semi-simultaneously scroll through your social networks.
Unfortunately, this leaves real game developers in the dust. To make their games, it takes more time, more talent, and more money—and it's all for naught. Zynga's games mind-numbingly simple, and while it has been proven an effective formula to attract users, it diminishes the quality and reputation of the gaming industry, and casts a wave of fog on the industry's future. Have we peaked our real gaming experience? Are we reverting back to the days of Pong and Snake?
Pixels, pixels, only ten bucks per pixel
Imagine creating a new file in Adobe Photoshop. You make a box, let's say 50 pixels wide and 100 pixels tall. You colour it blue, maybe pink, maybe both. You save the file as an image, and upload it onto Craigslist, eBay, or Etsy.
"Anybody want some fresh, hand crafted, artisan made pixels? Get 500 pixels for only $3.99."
And somebody actually buys it. So you make thousands.
This is essentially what Zynga does to profit from its otherwise free games. For real cash, you purchase 100% virtual objects. A pink tractor will cost you two cups of coffee. But you'll also need gas for it—there goes a quarter of your bus pass. And what do you have to show for it?
Using this business model, Zynga is working its way up to hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue, and rapidly increasing. While users do not have any obligation or responsibility to purchase fake items with real money, many do. What's one pink tractor if I never buy anything else? But users almost always do buy more, and it suddenly becomes very difficult to track the staggering amount of money you've invested into a poorly pixelated Facebook app. The business model preys on users' desire to excel in games and impress their e-neighbours, but it pushes the boundaries of scamming. (Granted, that's right up Facebook's alley: For years, they tried to sell tiny images of birthday cakes and hearts for $1.00 to "send" to your friends' walls.)
If i can't make it sound bad, let the company CEO, Mark Pincus, say it himself:
The industry and internet assault
Zynga combines scam-style monetizing with industry-destroying simplicity in its apps to effectively degrade the company's own consumers, the gaming industry, and a significant portion of the internet. Mark's monster laughs in the faces of those who invest time and/or money into its games. It spits on talented gaming programmers, designers, and developers by skewing the market unfavourably and dishonourably. And it slaps the internet in the face—"hey, check how stupid I can make you look."
Despite it all, though, Zynga's one beast that's gonna keep on growing.