That Casual Business

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There’s a large billboard conveniently placed about 30 feet from the garage to my apartment. Over the course of a year, it’s been gracious enough to inform me of many, many horrible movies and the occasional tie-in promotion. Aside from a passing glance at the art design, I tend to ignore what’s being advertised. I suppose seeing things day in and day out desensitizes a person after a while.

Recently, though, I’ve been paying extra attention to that little marketing obelisk. Friday morning, I found that the month-old ad for Shrek had given way to a promo for Mafia Wars of all things. “Buy a coffee, get a virtual unlock”, it beckons, as my gaze is challenged by an icy glare emanating from a very self-assured moll. The whole affair is quite Spartan: flat black background, large white text, a large drink cup front and center, with the Zynga logo poking meekly out from the corner. You might almost mistake it for the next installment of the GTA franchise.

In fact, that’s likely what most of the world will walk away thinking, if they can even guess that the billboard promoting a game. But consider, for a moment, the segment of the population that knows better. Consider the Facebook user that has aspirations of being a Godfather figure, the MMoRPG fiend that passes the time between raids on a gangland murder, or the players that are aware of the game but haven't quite allowed themselves to get wrapped up in it. To them, the ad might be a siren call; a kind of sideways wink at their little subculture or the radiant admission that "game" and "Facebook" are not mutually exclusive concepts.

If I’m a bit hyperbolic, it’s because I’m used to seeing megablockbusters aligned with such marketing paradigms. 7-11 promos are usually the realm of the Iron Mans or Avatars of the world. In the odd case that a game does get the tie-in treatment, it’s something with a fiscal pedigree approaching a gold-plated Rolls Royce: the Halos and God of Wars, to name a few. Watching a Facebook game get such favorable adspace is really causing me to take a good look at where these games are going. It’s one thing to spray flash banners across the net or on forums, but to place the game in an area where average joes buy coffee, gas and slim-jims?

It’s almost like Zynga assumes that (gasp) regular people would enjoy the thing.

And that’s just absurd. Facebook games aren’t whole narrative experiences. They’re not running the Quake engine, or using volumetric lighting to enhance the gameworld. They certainly don’t have a unified UI or Gamer-Peen counter, and I’m not really sure I can even talk to the people I’m smearing into loser paté. The mere idea that a tap-tap-tap interface could become a mainstream consumer affair is completely antithetical to the very serious and very established rules of gaming. Real games demand sacrifice. Their cost of admission is social standing, hygiene, and valuable time. They're not simple baubles that can be picked up at a whim. Just what kind of audience does Zynga think they’re attracting?

Seriously! The only thing more absurd than this would be Apple featuring Farmtown in one of its global keynotes.

Comments

Seriously! The only thing more absurd than this would be Apple featuring Farmtown in one of its global keynotes.

I think you mean Farmville?

Love the last two paragraphs.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
Seriously! The only thing more absurd than this would be Apple featuring Farmtown in one of its global keynotes.

I think you mean Farmville? :)

Shh, Quintin, or you'll attract Zynga's lawyers.

Quintin_Stone wrote:
Seriously! The only thing more absurd than this would be Apple featuring Farmtown in one of its global keynotes.

I think you mean Farmville? :)

To be fair, there is a game called Farm Town.

Their cost of admission is social standing, hygiene, and valuable time. They're not simple baubles that can be picked up at a whim.

To be fair, neither are Zynga games. Mafia Wars and Farmville demand huge tracts of valuable time. In fact, that's pretty much all they ask for: minimum thought, very little interaction, but gigantic amounts of time. You don't go into Farmville and just play around with it like a toy, because there's nothing really there to play around with. You go into Farmville and work for hours and days and weeks.

Facebook games are designed to be mainstream affairs. Nothing surprising about that at all.

I used to work for a major Website that hosted casual games like Bejeweled, Zuma, online Scrabble, etc. Players could earn online achievements and unlock points by playing casual games. Some of the achievements were easy, while others were insanely hard. Needless to say, many of our customers put hardcore WOW players and TF2 commandos to shame when it came to grinding out those achievements and trying to win free stuff.

Casual players may be less "skilled" than hardcore fans, but they're not necessarily less commited to games.

Once the ability to block game-spam on Facebook was added, apparently people playing the games dropped like 42% or something like that. I don't really remember and that number could be way the hell off. The only reason there's even a tiny nugget of information about this still in my brain is because I hate Facebook and everything surrounding Facebook, and I like hearing about things I hate faltering.

And the people who talk about how Facebook is the future of games are f*cking morons. Sure, perhaps it's a new frontier, and those who care to mine for gold there are welcome to it, but that doesn't mean those who struck oil elsewhere are going to be abandoning the drilling operations any time soon. Panhandle while the panhandling is good, because there's no guarantee the handling of pans will be lucrative forever.

My first significant exposure to video games was at ... the 7-11 near my house.

That was where the Pac Man and (later) the Ms. Pac Man games were.

I've got to hand it to Zynga. They're much more aggressive than any traditional gamemaker about separating folks from their money.

Enix wrote:

My first significant exposure to video games was at ... the 7-11 near my house.

That was where the Pac Man and (later) the Ms. Pac Man games were.

Indeed. Red slurpees and Defender. Marlboros (you could purchase and smoke cigarettes, as a young teen, inside the store. Uphill! Both ways!) and Donkey Kong. Grow-light hotdogs and Asteroids. Beef Jerky and Centipede.

The birth of neighborhood rivalries as kids rode their bikes from all over to the beckoning video game bug light, and those rivalries settled on-screen. Portable cassette players (they were barely called boom boxes yet) playing Led Zeppelin and Molly Hatchet and Journey and Santana albums that had been recorded and duped and passed around. Primitive pirates. Yarrr.

I see Facebook as the video game Peewee league. Not everyone is going to graduate from Facebook games to real games, but it's a gateway drug. I don't think Facebook is going to take over gaming - I think it fills a niche more "serious" games can't fill (i.e. Lots of people can play Facebook games at work), and as games continue to become more ubiquitous, some Facebook gamers will migrate to the Wii, to the Xbox, to the PC, and they'll be assimilated.

I'd love to see statistics about how much people play Facebook games between 9 am and 5 pm and how much those same people play Facebook games between 5 pm and 9 pm.

Spaz wrote:

In fact, that’s likely what most of the world will walk away thinking, if they can even guess that the billboard promoting a game.

The second clause no verb.

Hans

Farmville, Mafia Wars, et al. will reach out to the cultural mainstream, and there they will find acceptance. The widespread adoption of the "casual social game" is upon us.

The question I have is: what does this brave new gaming world look like from a business perspective? What does it mean for "gaming" as a whole?

Zynga's astounding success has a sort of gravity to it, which is sucking in all sorts of people looking for the next "big thing" in games. Even serious game designers with impressive credentials are falling for it, looking to make real games with this platform.

I wonder, though, what they're really going to find here. As broad as this market may be, it's obscenely easy for new game providers to enter, and I envision a future filled with wave upon wave of cutthroat competition for increasingly thin margins.

Zynga was here first, so they set the price expectations, but what happens when a guy comes in with a farmville clone with lower prices? The marginal cost for new virtual widgets in these games is essentially zero, and the cost of actually making a functional clone is cheap. I have to think that once competition heats up, the price consumers will be willing to pay for this sort of gaming experience will rapidly sink towards "nothing."

So yeah... these games have captured the cultural mainstream. That's great. But good luck trying to make money once the competition for this market shows up for real.