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Arrogant, snobbish and elitist – why attitudes to Zynga suck

By on September 8, 2010

I read this article from SF Weekly on Zynga’s business practices with increasing anger. My bile rose and rose, and not for the reasons you think.

My Farmville farm. Yesterday.

The article claimed to be an exposé on Zynga’s dodgy business practices: copying other people’s games, disdaining innovation, being strongly focused on the bottom line.

All fair comments. All written about before (see, for example, Why suing your rivals makes good business sense, or Zynga CEO Mark Pincus: "I Did Every Horrible Thing In The Book Just To Get Revenues")

But that’s not what made me angry.

It was the sneering attitude to social games that pervaded the story.

Snobbish, elitist and wrong

Author Peter Jamison talks about Zynga’s “inane forms of entertainment” and its “brand of simplistic entertainment”. He says:

“At a time when traditional "console" videogames — the kind bought in a store and played on a computer or entertainment system such as a Sony PlayStation — aspire to be classified as works of art, it might seem odd that such confections as FarmVille enjoy widespread attention and financial success. In 2007, for example, publisher 2K Games released a spellbinding console game, Bioshock, in which players make difficult ethical decisions in an underwater city-state founded on the libertarian ideals of Ayn Rand.

Next to such immersing products, Zynga’s games look cretinous.”

The snobbish arrogance in this statement makes me almost speechless with anger.

It might seem odd…

it might seem odd that over 233 million people enjoy Zynga’s games every month*.

It might seem odd that Farmville (despite its waning popularity) was played last month by five times as many people as have *ever* played Modern Warfare 2.

It might seem odd that 55% of gamers on Facebook are women. That 79% of them are over 30.**

It might seem odd that amongst Facebook gamers, a third log on every day just to play an “inane form of entertainment”. A further third log on multiple times a day to play.

It might seem odd that a third of gamers have never played another game before discovering Facebook games.

You know what I think. I think that making incredibly expensive, hard-to-play games that require proprietary hardware and prior experience to enjoy is a dumb way of providing gaming entertainment to a global audience.

It works for some. It doesn’t work for all.

Zynga (and Playfish and Playdom and 6Waves and Crowdstar) have found ways to make games that appeal to a broader cross-section of society than traditional approaches have ever done. They have done more to make games mass-market than anyone other than Nintendo. They are the true mass-market of gaming.

And this article sees no merit in their achievements.

I think that attitude sucks.

When will gamers grow up

Multi-million dollar development budget games have a place in the market. So do casual, accessible, browser games that appeal to a different demographic.

The gamers are saying it: 233 million people are playing Zynga’s games alone

The products are saying it: Facebook games get more users than any traditional games title.

The revenues are saying it: Zynga is making perhaps as much as $500 million a year from social games.

So when will gamers stop sneering, stop hiding behind their bleating “but Farmville isn’t a game” and start realising that Zynga have done something that traditional games have never done.

They have made gaming something for everyone. Isn’t it time we applauded that?


* This figure is the aggregate for all Zynga’s games and is not de-duplicated. People playing multiple games are double counted, so the actual figure is probably lower than this.

** These points come from PopCap’s research into social gamers. See www.gamesbrief.com/resources.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • http://twitter.com/codemonkey_uk Thaddaeus Frogley

    FarmVille et al are the McDonalds of gaming. Cheap, mass-produced, bland, homogenised, popular, and profitable. Do you expect the worlds chef’s and restaurant critics to speak highly of them? Would you tell Tom Colicchio that having a few exclusive restaurants, priced outside the reach of the mass market’s pocket, was DUMB? That is insulting and arrogant as well.

  • http://twitter.com/codemonkey_uk Thaddaeus Frogley

    FarmVille et al are the McDonalds of gaming. Cheap, mass-produced, bland, homogenised, popular, and profitable. Do you expect the worlds chef’s and restaurant critics to speak highly of them? Would you tell Tom Colicchio that having a few exclusive restaurants, priced outside the reach of the mass market’s pocket, was DUMB? That is insulting and arrogant as well.

  • Anonymous

    I think youre right that too many people deride social games, its a very immature attitude to take. But I think you’re wrong to take the stance that somehow more players = better. Honestly I think there’s a line to draw between “good” in a creative sense and “good” in a market sense. Clearly making money is good, but there’s got to be a balance creatively with making money and doing something worthwhile. If you’re not a creator, maybe thats just not important to you, but as a creator I can tell you it is important to me.

    I’d rather connect with 1000 “true fans” than 1000 million people who couldnt care less. I’m not even thinking of the true fans as complete evangelists either, just that I’d rather connect with real people and not with people-as-consumer-numbers.

  • Simon

    Perhaps a less emotive analogy would be art and craft. Zynga’s games may not be high art, in the way that Peter Jamison claims Bioshock aims to be, but they are indisputably extremely well crafted.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    I accept that there are differences. I think banging out about “inane” entertainment ignores the fact that these games bring entertainment to so many people.
    And I hate Heston Blumenthal for making good cooking seem out of reach of normal people, and those idiots who think that the only “good” books are literary fiction.
    In short, I think *all* elitists are snobbish and arrogant, not just games ones.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    I agree the distinction would be helpful. It doesn’t stop me being cross with snobbish attitudes though :-)

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    It does depend on what you are trying to achieve. Personally, I think the Da Vinci Code was an amazing book: the prose sucked, but the craft in making it so page-turningly compelling was incredible.

    It is entirely appropriate for creators to want to talk to their true fans. I’m not only fine with that, I think it’s the way all media is going (see http://www.gamesbrief.com/2010/09/the-future-of-media-in-45-minutes)

    But to deride people who are making good, popular and commercially successful games – that just seems blinkered to me.

  • Anonymous

    Well, the industry has always had a problem with too narrow definitions. I know I used to get outraged when my AAA mates all snorted when I told them I had gone indie. Like somehow being an indie game programmer made me less then a game programmer. The same is true for casual, social etc. The “AAA” industry has a very weird view of “the industry” which is significantly skewed towards retail box product. Personally I couldnt care less anymore, its one of those things people grow out of.

  • PaulMode7

    An analogy to this would be to say that there is an imperative for everyone to like pop music.

    Of course there isn’t! Of course some music fans, critics and pundits will be angry with (and snobbish about) pop music.

    Proponents and creators of pop can try to rebut this, waving their balance sheets around as they are wont to do. They can say that pop is commercially and creatively vaild; they can say that it gets more people listening to music.

    All of those things are true, but they’re not reasons for anyone to stop *hating* pop music. It’s an emotional response, and one which is both valid and permissible.

  • Anonymous

    Recopied comment from gama:

    I think there’s two ways to look at it Nick:

    The first is to laud them for having managed to build something. Zynga have the attitude of a web company, much like Google or Facebook, and so they are very concerned with clicks, performance and page views. They understand that their business is an attention-span business, so they spend a huge amount to acquire and hold that attention. That’s by no means easy.

    Second is to label them as cretins. Like it or not, the strategy of copying all their success from other games and essentially just play a marketing game is pretty dismal behaviour. While it is arguable that that happens in all forms of gaming, the very fact that Zynga has been so successful at it is a fair point of contention, legal or otherwise.

    The real questions are these: If you want to laud them for their success, what exactly is it that you want to laud? Just because they are in the games business, and successful, does that mean they should be automatically lauded?

    Would you apply the same thinking to casinos? Casinos make some of the largest amounts of money on Earth from games, and they too are all about capturing attention span after all. Does this mean that they should be our heroes? Or is there something to the idea that creative value actually matters?

    I think there is. The difference, and the reason for the snobbishness, is that while it’s a hard task to capture attention on a scale – and good luck to any who can – what you are then doing with that attention matters a great deal. Are you creating value or extracting it? Are you using that attention to do something that is better for mankind, or simply making coin?

    To some the distinction doesn’t matter, but to plenty it does and in the long run it is what breeds customer loyalty. When your games are the same as everyone’s, and all you really have is distribution tactics to find attention, and deep pockets, then there’s no real reason to stay loyal. The difference between Nintendo and Zynga is thus that Nintendo creates a lot of value through original content in the mainstream, whereas Zynga are so far sitting behind the curve and relying on other companies to do their innovation for them.

    Cash cow businesses don’t tend to last forever because they eventually get out-innovated. Many a web-business such as Myspace and Yahoo has made the mistake of thinking it’s all about the money rather than the value, and they’ve eventually been undone by nicer competition that users felt a greater inclination toward being loyal (Facebook and Google) and won out in the long term.

    The question for Zynga, indeed all the social game publishers, remains as it did a year ago: What are you going to do to really up your value and create something that people love rather than just play because it’s there.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    I’m not saying they have to like it. But not sneering would be good.

    An alternative analogy would be sneering at people who say “haitch” or end sentences with prepositions or don’t know the difference between a champagne flute and a margarita glass.

    I’d be tempted to call someone who sneered like “arrogant, snobbish and elitist.” That’s what this feels like to me.

  • http://twitter.com/capncleaver Daniel James

    I agree that the snobbishness towards mass-market social games is misplaced. One should respect peoples’ choices, even if it’s a big mac and large fries. It’s worth remembering that a cheap price and easy accessibility are important.

    I didn’t read a lot of that into the article, mind you. What I took away was regarding the Z’s alleged cultural practices around cloning. In some ways, the less said about that the better, and I do believe that they are changing fast (they have to, there’s not a lot left to clone.)

    I think it’s good that SF Weekly cover these alleged practices, and thus perhaps elicits new questions for Zynga employees from their friends instead of ‘Woah, you’re going to be rich.’

  • Matt

    “You know what I think. I think that making incredibly expensive, hard-to-play games that require proprietary hardware and prior experience to enjoy is a dumb way of providing gaming entertainment to a global audience.”

    The snobbish arrogance in this statement makes me almost speechless with anger.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    Daniel, I agree that the article was mainly about Zynga’s business practices, which deserve to be exposed.

    For me the snobbishness was endemic, like the casual racism of 50s America or the casual misogyny of 70s Britain. It was an endless drip feed of the assumption that the games were cretinous, inane and essentially worthless.

    I would welcome a critique of Farmville from this author (even though I suspect I would disagree with it). It was the prejudice – like the “No Blacks, No Irish” signs you used to see in British guesthouses – that wound me up.

  • Matt

    Really? So you think there’s as much merit in, say, Days of Our Lives as in the Wire? You think that Battlefield Earth is the equivalent of 2001?

    What you really seem to be saying is that anyone with taste of any sort is snobbish and arrogant, and that’s nonsense. Zynga’s games ARE simplistic and rather inane, just like McDonald’s food is simplistic and inane.

  • Juan Barandiaran

    Wow, I never thought somebody would compare derision for a form of entertainment to racist policies and practices. That comparison alone shows you have way too much invested in your entertainment.

    As for the actual subject matter, and beyond what others have contributed in terms of business practices and creativity, I have other criticisms. I play a lot of games, including casual games, but none irritate me like farmville does. And the reason is that farmville is a gigantic waste of time. I’m not helping solve the world’s problems with a hidden object game, but after wasting some time on it I’ll have finished, with a little bit of a challenge and a little bit of a story as compensation. I’m not being productive for my family when I play a puzzle game or a time management game, but again, I’ll eventually reach the end and have some kind of challenge along the way. Farmville doesnt end and doesnt have any challenge. Progressing is just a matter of spending time on it, and all you’ll have to show for it is the number of trees or collectibles or buildings or crap. Its consumerism turned into a video game, and you pay in dollars or time, all for the “status” that comes from having virtual stuff (would it have ever took off as a game if showing off wasn’t intrinsically built into it?). All the people I know who actually play this for more than 1-2 days play so they can have more virtual stuff. Which makes them, ironically enough, virtual snobs, which is a fancy way of saying complete idiots. So go get angry because I call farmville an inane waste of time, compare me to a racist, it only serves to confirm my opinion that you have horrible judgement. There are much better casual games out there that will actually tell you a story or give you a challenge and best of all, eventually end so that you can start something new instead of wasting your time eternally clicking away at your virtual crap.

  • PaulMode7

    But this isn’t sneering at people for their behaviour or lack of knowledge; it’s making an emotive statement about the creative content of one particular form of entertainment.

    Isn’t that what someone’s doing when they say, “That movie was stupid”? You seem to be conflating that with saying, “Anyone who likes this movie is stupid” – I don’t see that the author is doing that here.

    Jamison isn’t denying the commercial success or popularity of Farmville – he’s saying that it “looks cretinous” in comparison to Bioshock. That’s certainly something which it’s possible to debate – I don’t feel the need to dismiss that statement out of hand. In fact, it’s quite interesting: I’d say that both games have “cretinous” qualities.

    I do agree with you on a supplementary point you’ve made: the author could have elaborated on this and given some concrete reasons for his assertion. I do think Zynga make this hard though: to appraise their games in any way, you have to hand over a chunk of personal information to them; given their past history, that’s not exactly an attractive proposition.

    Is there anything wrong with being creatively cretinous? I’d say I enjoy both cretinous and highbrow forms of entertainment! I think many people are the same.

    My main problem with the article is that the author implies that creative sophistication should somehow automatically correlate with commercial success.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    I do see your point. I think there are plenty of criticisms that can be levelled at Zynga’s games and its business practices. What I was trying to highlight here is the same things as the sneering criticisms of “Scott Pilgrim versus the world” by film critics who said it was made for gamers, etc.
    I would happily see a genuine critique of Zynga’s games. I was happy to see a critique of their business practices in SF Weekly. But, and this is where I disagree with you, the article was written from the *assumption* that these games were inane, cretinous and simplistic, with no credit for the fact that they are giving some types of gamers exactly what they want.
    Plus I think some of the gameplay mechanics are very, very clever.

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  • PaulMode7

    Definitely agree that an in-depth criticism of the mechanics would have been more edifying than “this game looks cretinous”!

    Yep, we do disagree on the nature of the criticism: I still see the “Scott Pilgrim Effect” as being the act of criticising an audience for enjoying something (i.e. fundamentally wrong); whereas this is the act of criticising a product for being over-simplistic (a valid critical point, albeit made in an off-hand, emotive manner). That’s a key distinction for me.

    I don’t think anyone is in doubt that Farmville has *clever* mechanics in terms of keeping people playing and generating revenue from players; but again saying it “looks cretinous” in comparison to something else is not contradicting that. It certainly *looks* less sophisticated than Bioshock! Maybe that’s its genius: hiding that complexity under a veneer of very simple gameplay – many games do that. I do think that it’s possible to appreciate the cleverness of something and still find it culturally objectionable – maybe Jamison should have taken that tone more in his article.

    You could say the same thing about many grinding-based MMO’s – their gameplay is inherently less sophisticated than that of many skill-based games. But, of course, sophistication is rarely the way to make very large amounts of money and appeal to a mainstream audience. A good critic, though, should be able to separate the gameplay from the business model.

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  • punch7

    “this is the act of criticising a product for being over-simplistic (a valid critical point,”

    And is the reason why the Sims isn’t still making money today.

    Being “simple” doesn’t make it any worse than the high end games of today, considering the high install base already.