How long can "digital crack" addiction support the social gaming market?

Screenshot - Scarface

The recent focus on the “casual gamer” has brought about this weird new genre of game that I like to refer to as “digital crack.” If you ever played FarmVille or Café World back in the day, I’m sure you know exactly what I mean.

This is the sort of game designed to be approachable in quick spurts at the office whenever your boss turns his back. They’re built to hook you, to lodge themselves into this weird little place in your brain where you file away a list of perpetually uncompleted tasks. Companies like Zynga know that even when you aren’t actively playing their games, you’re carrying around this inner to-do list about when exactly you need to come back to make sure you don’t burn your cake or let your crops die.

These games are also typically built with microtransaction stores that you can take advantage of if you just want to circumvent their naturally slow pace. Tired of the wait? Drop some change and get instantly gratified. Want some more powerful items? Spend a buck or two in the real-money shop.

Weirdly enough, this was actually a successful business model at one point. I was actually tempted to use the word “sustainable” in place of “successful” in that previous sentence, but I had to change it because I realized it’s not completely accurate.

See, that’s the thing about it; it’s not really a sustainable business model. Zynga may have made a killing off of it for a little while, but the growth of their profit margin hit a wall as they realized how hard it would be to maintain any sort of forward momentum. They’ve been losing money like their pants pockets are made out of fishnet ever since. In fact, Forbes just did some pieces explaining the company’s falling numbers and its abandoning of its attempts to pursue a U.S. gambling license, which potentially would have injected new life into the company.

Even the Dog on Zynga's Logo Is Hungry

Now, the real problem, as I see it, is that Zynga tends to sacrifice quality for quantity. Their business model requires them to keep creating new games constantly, because their games have such a short shelf life. They’ll see a surge of players at launch, and then see numbers slowly decline.

You can probably already see how this is a self-perpetuating problem. Create low-quality games with short shelf lives, be forced to keep creating more low-quality games in order for your user base to stay interested in your game library.

One possible way to mitigate this is to create higher quality games, and this seems to be something that Ubisoft Blue Byte's more recent title Anno Online is trying to accomplish. Just compare screenshots of any of Zynga’s titles to Anno, and you’ll see a drastic difference in the levels of detail. Too lazy to do about 15 seconds of Google image searching? That's fine; I'll make it easy for you:

FarmVille 2 vs. Anno Online

And this detail stretches far beyond the visual appeal; Anno Online is a more complex game than any of Zynga’s efforts. Perhaps more importantly, where Zynga tries to encourage players to interact with one another by constructing barriers to entry that require you to keep your friends list populated, Anno Online encourages it by use of a chat window and a trading feature. You won’t make any friends by playing, say, FarmVille 2 (though you might lose friends over all the obnoxious requests you send out), but you can actually meet people by playing Anno Online.

Now, I’m not saying Anno Online is perfect; it’s definitely not. But, in my opinion, it makes much better use of its social features than just about anything Zynga’s done, and, hypothetically, it should be able to sustain an active user base for longer. (I do admit that Words with Friends was pretty fun for a while, but really, it's just Scrabble. It's not exactly showing off a high level of creativity from the folks at Zynga.)

On the other hand, creating high-quality titles is a risky business, and companies are wise to be hesitant about sinking all their addictive little eggs into one digital basket. It’s always possible that an expensive-to-develop title will be a real stinker, and some super cheap titles will become mega-successful.

So what's a social gaming company to do? For now, I suppose, just keep pushing out low-quality "digital crack" for the newly discovered "Grandma just figured out how to use Facebook" demographic rather than pour resources into a Heisenberg-quality product. It's a short-term strategy, for sure, and Zynga and its competitors are eventually going to have to change if they don't want to fall out of relevance.

Walter White's Got the Goods

To the disdain of the Zynga exec reading this in hopes that some mediocre game journalist is going to magically pull some sort of sustainable business plan out of nowhere, I can't really offer a concrete solution. What I can do, however, is go back to playing my backlog of high-quality indie games and forget I ever had an article due today.

Sorry.

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Josh Wirtanen
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