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Four reasons why I think Zynga has peaked

By on October 4, 2011

This is a guest post by Patrick O’Luanaigh, CEO of nDreams, a leading publisher and developer for Playstation Home and other platforms.

1) Zynga have become too greedy

Playing their latest release Adventure World illustrates this – after a couple of days, it rapidly became impossible to play for more than 4 minutes a day without payment, particularly if you don’t have lots of friends playing the game. With Cityville and Farmville this wasn’t the case. Empires and Allies was worse in this respect, but still enjoyable. But with Adventure World it simply becomes frustrating to the point of giving up.

Zynga’s item costs also appear to have risen hugely, and are approaching ridiculous levels. Their continued focus on revenue above fun/fair value is rebounding on them. When you start expecting the average player to spend large amounts of money just to avoid the game being crippled, things have gone too far.

I believe that every game has a ‘fair average value’ which I’d define as the amount that the average player feels is about right to spend on that game each month. Some players will spend much more, some less (and many will pay nothing in a free-to-play model), but there is a fair value that feels right for an average median player. I simply don’t believe that Zynga get this concept.

Check out Tiny Tower on iPhone which is making huge revenues but gives players lots for free and doesn’t feel ‘greedy’. This is where I believe social games are heading – let players play how they want to play, not how you want them to play. The number 1 rule has to be ‘players should have fun’, and then when you have millions of people having fun, encourage them to buy items to make things better, quicker, and easier. Rather than ‘players should have fun’, Zynga seems to be moving towards ‘players who spend more than $30 a month should have fun’. And I don’t think that is the right approach.

2) Zynga have stopped growing

Despite acquiring lots of Facebook developers with existing users, Zynga’s total number of unique users this year hasn’t risen. Their player numbers have plateaued. I simply don’t see where their growth is going to come from. Check out the latest figures, charts and financials from Zynga and see for yourself.

3) The ‘I can’t believe that game took over my life’ syndrome

I believe that great games leave the player with positive warm feelings when they stop playing them. Players should walk away feeling glad they committed time to the game and feeling happy they spent the money on that game. That’s how you build brand loyalty. I’ve heard too many people who stop playing a Zynga game talk about a ‘sense of relief’, a shock about how much time it had taken and how much money they’d spent. I don’t think this bodes well for retention of players in the long term.

(Editorial note: See Whales, True fans and the ethics of free-to-play for an understanding of how to avoid this issue)

4) The trend towards more interactive gameplay

For many social gamers, games like Farmville were one of the first games they had ever played. With many of these players now keen for slightly more interactive gameplay, social games appear to moving towards territories that traditional game developers understand better. Zynga made a brave stab at this with Adventure World, yet destroyed it instantly by adding even tighter time/energy restrictions than previous games, which is entirely the wrong direction for a more interactive game in my view. I think Zynga understand where they are brilliantly. I’m not convinced they understand where things are moving.

Four principles for free-to-play

I’m definitely NOT saying that free-to-play has peaked. If Zynga IPO, I won’t be buying shares. I’d rather invest in companies like Bigpoint, Innogames and Jagex. In fact, I’d rather invest in almost any other games company making online games other than Zynga at the moment given their huge valuation.

On the back of this, here at nDreams, we’re embracing four principles for our free-to-play games:

  1. Be generous, not greedy.
  1. Leave people feeling happy when they stop playing the game, not regretful. This means treating players with respect and avoiding using psychological principles of addiction.
  1. Create purchasable items that make the game even better than the original design. Don’t make the game worse after it has been designed, then force players to buy items to make it playable again.
  1. As far as possible, let players play how they want to play. Give them ways to spend an hour or more on your game at any time if they want to, or to play in short chunks each day. As long as they end up generating revenue, you should give them as much freedom as possible to play in a way that suits them.

About Patrick O'Luanaigh

I'm CEO of nDreams Ltd, a production company/development studio based in Farnborough, UK. I wrote a book called Game Design Complete, used to be Creative Director of SCi/Eidos and have a wife, two girls and one cat.