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Opinion: Four steps to a bottleneck, or Zynga's real growth challenge
Opinion: Four steps to a bottleneck, or Zynga's real growth challenge Exclusive
April 5, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

April 5, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander
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More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Exclusive, Business/Marketing, Design



On the heels of its tepid IPO, Zynga decided to address analyst and investor concerns that it relies too heavily on Facebook, which will limit its growth. The social network giant and metrics master did this by unveiling plans for its own platform, which aims to create more targeted social communities around its products.

Analysts, however, seemed uncertain about the extent to which this tactic could guarantee success -- because, they said, Zynga would still rely on Facebook's Credits currency. But maybe the reason the company's growth can't seem to stay stable isn't Facebook. Maybe it's the company's games.

To what extent are analysts and investors actually familiar with the intricacies of the company's development and balancing of recent games like Empires and Allies and CastleVille, which see an initial rush of interested users, a steady climb to numeric plentitude and then an inevitable drop-off?

The company has plenty of games that rely on either borrowing or purchasing already-successful game designs. For example, its With Friends brand largely relies on imitating or incorporating popular takes on familiar puzzle games. But very few game companies have thrived without being able to originate their own properties and ideas.

That's where the Ville-alikes should be bolstering the company's brand. But play any Zynga world-builder game for a long period of time and you'll notice distinct common mechanics that encourage an early rush of users quickly -- and that just as easily pushes them away in time. It goes a little something like this:

Step 1. Spoil Them With Early Plentitude. Beginning a new game like Castleville brings such a quick rush of objectives and information it's almost overwhelming. Within five to ten minutes of creating a character, the player has quests from three different characters. Within five to ten minutes, an explosion of celebratory fireworks heralds the player's first gained level. "Doobers" pop out and bounce everywhere -- bright, eye-catching items that provide a weirdly-stimulating sense of tactile interaction and accomplishment, they're key to creating a sense of player reward in all of the company's games.

Quests are basic and can be attained through the expense of just a few energy points. For example, an early quest can be accomplished simply by placing an object in one's inventory; a later-game quest will require a player chop down an entire tree, which can take eight clicks, or eight points of energy. This means that early in the game the player can complete many quests without running out of energy.

As all titles incorporate the ubiquitous dual-currency system, the games also begin with small but serviceable reserves of the paid currency ("Crowns", in CastleVille's case) -- but in a bit of clever trickery, it's never explained to the player that he or she is holding something that is arduously rare to earn in-game. Most players probably spend their real-money currency before they even realize what it is. The net effect of all this introductory plentitude is that players quickly become accustomed to a certain pace of play and ease of gratification that isn't sustainable.

Step 2. Get Friends Involved. "Visiting" is an important mechanic within these games. Inevitably, once the player achieves a core set of early objectives that train them on how to interact with the game, they're given quests that ask them to visit their neighbor's kingdoms, farms, cities, et cetera. As many people begin playing the games because they see their friends doing it, the barrier to entry for adding a fellow player as a "neighbor" is relatively low.

Over time, Zynga has taken pains to reduce the friction involved in visiting or tending fellow players' lands even further. CastleVille gives players separate energy points for each neighbor's kingdom, rather than forcing them to spend the limited daily ration of actions they need for their own kingdom.

In addition to letting players gather potentially-needed items from their friends' lands -- for example, if you harvest your friend's wheat for her, you yourself will get wheat to keep -- visiting also allows players to gain reputation hearts, a third form of currency within the game. Some items can only be bought with reputation hearts. The number of hearts one can carry are limited, encouraging players to frequently spend and re-accumulate them.

There is nothing actually social about visiting. You cannot communicate with your friends, and the impact of their assistance in your kingdom is difficult to observe; your friends may "help you harvest your crops", but of course they are still there for you to take when you return. Both Empires and Allies and CastleVille create visualizations of visitors to your kingdom in different ways, but they tend to hold minimal relevance to what the player on the other end actually wants to do with you.

The primary function of visiting seems to be to create and confirm for players a mental list of who in their social circle is an active player of the game. They quickly learn who their CastleVille friends are -- which is essential to the next mechanic.

Step 3. Force Notifications. Remember the plentitude of the game's initial stages? Very gradually, this begins to expire; quests become longer-term propositions that incorporate more steps and more energy. At first this is still satisfying; now entrenched in the game's reward system, the player enjoys the process of gathering objects or earning pieces toward a goal. But then, little by little, the game starts to offload elements of quest completion onto Facebook's notifications system.

At first it feels optional: Let's say you need five blocks of wood to finish a building. Why bug five friends, or even one, when it'll just take you a couple sessions of play to chop up all those trees? That's fine, until the next building asks you for 15 blocks of wood. You decide to make 10 of them yourself and ask friends for five more. You do this by selecting who to request from a list -- and because you as a human being are aware of how pesky you're being, you prioritize asking your neighbors in the game. Many tasks are "give one, get one," too, so you feel a little better. You know that you're helping your neighbors play.

In time, though, the ratio of things players can earn on their own versus things they should ask friends for becomes steeper. First, players have three choices: Spend money to keep up the pace of gratification, notify friends to keep up the pace of gratification, or earn the needed components through patience and hard work. Later on, tasks require items that can only be got by asking friends or paying, removing the third option entirely.

Gone is the lightweight engagement of early play stages, as players have to balance the discomfort of long-unfinished quests with the discomfort of sending out multiple rounds of notifications per day. Each time a player logs in there is an increasing list of requests sent out from fellow regulars. It doesn't even matter if the player has the requested item in inventory or not; simply clicking "accept" results in friends receiving what they asked for, enforcing the meaninglessness of the exchange system.

The result is a symbiosis of obligation; you clicked, so your friends will click back. What was once visiting neighbors has led to this habitual exchange that dovetails weirdly with the way people use Facebook -- the red number that hovers over the globe icon demands to be addressed, and you must return your CastleVille notifications just as much as you need to check who has commented on your photos or "liked" your status.

Step 4. Force Wall Posts. Many players likely lose engagement as the delayed gratification and social dependency ramps up, but this area is Zynga's real bottleneck. Eventually, quests -- which have gone from things that feel like growth and satisfaction to mindless checkboxes of items to gather -- start to require items that cannot be gained any other way than through wall posts.

Instead of a private notification to a friend, players have no choice but to post an item in their feed letting everyone (unless they've hidden game updates, which most people do) know they need some kind of item or other. Presumably Zynga imagines that a Facebook populated with Wall posts about its games will normalize them or make them look more appealing, but the Wall spam and silly puns are the kind of thing that only the most obsessively-dedicated "social gamer" won't mind.

It's embarrassing, and what's worse, even the game friends that would be liable to click on the Wall post and help out probably have feeds full of real-world friends' updates, are not on Facebook 24 hours a day, and thus will probably miss the request. It gets to where longtime players have two choices: Crank out several Wall posts a day in the hopes of completing a quest, or pay up.

Even if at this stage the player does decide that the time they've spent on the game was enjoyable enough to warrant a few bucks here and there, the experience has completely fragmented. It's become a hollow cycle of completing item lists by sending requests. It's alarming and uncomfortable, and what was once stimulating inevitably becomes empty.

Presumably this is why Zynga wants to build its own network: It thinks that the barrier to growth and engagement with its games is due to players' hesitation to let a game colonize their entire Facebook networking behavior like a virus. On a Zynga-only social network, players don't have to worry about looking stupid, don't have to hesitate to send out rafts of unlimited notifications.

To a point, it's normal for social groups to congregate around specific activities; people make friends through local clubs, rather than forcing the clubs to come to them. But one wonders if perhaps the friction that players of Zynga games feel with their self-consciousness and the limits of Facebook is part of the experience.

The first few miuntes -- even the first few hours -- of a Zynga Ville-style game feel great. The player will spend the rest of their time, and even some of their money, in trying to recapture that ease. It's not unlike the strategies drug pushers use to build their customer bases.

It's important to note that Zynga games ultimately monetize on hooked users, and that engagement of the existing userbase (i.e, how many pay and how much they pay) is more important than volume. In this regard, that the company sees quick drop-offs at its bottlenecks doesn't necessarily inhibit the health of its games so long as it can keep people paying.

But here's the thing: The company may be able to force a core kernel of its audience to open its wallets once the gratification dies off and the bottlenecks force them into joyless repetition. Paying buys a player relief from that friction. But will players pay if Zynga gives them a world of social impunity?

Maybe they'd pay if those games were actually social fun, like some of the brands Zynga has coveted and bought seem to be. There's an idea.


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