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"I was torn, because I did, and still do, believe in that opportunity," says Koster. "But I also really loved what we were doing with Metaplace.com and really believed in it. The message of accessibility and games for everyone is something I have been speaking out about for a really long time... there’s a big canvas there, though it isn’t just about the mass market accessibility, but also about the affordances of the platform – meaning, there are kinds of games that can only be made on top of something like Facebook. The million-player game, the game that exploits the social network, the game that relies on collective action… so it wasn’t just the idea of 'games for mom.'"
Was Facebook a good platform for that vision? A considerably more moderate Scott Jon Siegel suggests that Facebook as a platform for games might have suffered from knitting itself too closely to the needs of its most powerful developers. Zynga's repetitive, metrics-driven design may not just have created audience fatigue and damaged the perceived opportunity, but permanently impacted Facebook's suitability.
"I feel that the weakness of the Facebook games platform is a direct result of Zynga's 'design' decisions over the years," says Siegel. "It's led to a samey-ness across the Facebook charts, and a platform that's become increasingly cumbersome to developers, in part as a reaction to years of developer exploitation of that platform's communication channels."
Five years ago things were different, Siegel says, recalling a platform-holder eager to court strong developers as well as underdogs that would benefit from extra nurturance. "But Facebook has historically catered the most to developers who provide the most financial incentive for doing so. I'm not sure we'll ever know exactly how cozy Zynga and Facebook got with each other, or how much it negatively impacted other developers, or the platform. But I'm fairly certain that relationship helped sour the platform for a lot of people -- both developers and players."
Ian Cummings left EA's Tiburon studio and its Madden NFL franchise to help found Row Sham Bow, whose Woodland Heroes was a widely-recognized success on Facebook. Ian Bogost spent some time on the company's board of advisors ("Developing for the Facebook Platform is picking out the wallpaper for one's own death row holding cell, the cleaver for one's own blood sacrifice," he once effused in unsurprising dramatic fashion).
Cummings remembers Bogost "wondering aloud whether Zynga had simultaneously created and destroyed the entire Facebook game industry," he says, a statement that seemed shocking to Cummings at the time but now seems less so. "I think the unfortunate thing about the immediate turnaround times, along with the gold rush of every developer jumping onto Facebook, meant there was a massive flood of copycat ideas and techniques."
"Zynga [was] dominating the pack by such a wide margin in terms of daily and monthly users, then every single development studio just started accepting a lot of their design practices as the gold standard," says Cummings. He recalls he kept expecting a more traditional, core-friendly game to arrive on the Facebook platform and transform the landscape (and its traditional, dubiously-ethical business model of only monetizing 1 percent of users, or 'whales.')
"It never happened," says Cummings, who now works at Zynga. "I start to think it probably won't."