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A couple of weeks ago I talked about the rise of the Zynga gamers. At the end of the article I suggested that publishers who wanted a piece of that Zynga money should look for ways to entice those gamers into playing something more robust, not just make more games like Farmville. Let's talk about that some more. But first, a bit about grandma's washing machine:
When I was a wee little nerdling (this was back in the 70's, before being a nerd was cool) my grandma had an old clothes-wringer device down in her basement. She had a proper washing machine she used, but the wringer was a leftover from an earlier time before these fancy new automatic washing machines. To use a wringer, you'd wash your clothes by hand and then feed the wet clothes one at a time into the ferocious jaws of the wringer, which would squeeze the water out of them. It was hard work, the machine was noisy, and using it was mildly dangerous. But people used it because it was so much better than the alternative. (Try dunking your clothes in the water and then wringing the items out one at a time. It will destroy the skin of your soft, dainty, internet-surfing hands.) It was a bitch to use the thing, and people stopped buying them as soon as they discovered something better.
This is where Farmville players are right now. I tried Farmville a couple of weeks ago. After having played various strategy and sim games over the last twenty years, I found Farmville to be a simple game of action and reward, with little depth. But if I had played this game in 1988 I would have thought it was dynamite. (And for the purposes of this article, when I talk about Farmville I'm also talking about Mafia Wars and the other current-gen social games.)
Zynga "borrowed" their Farmville gameplay from other games, but what made them a success is that they perfected the technique that allowed their games to spread virally. This let them build a massive userbase in a short time. Now Zynga faces a bigger challenge than simply gathering a massive audience: Keeping it. Zynga is now at the point in a business race when the opportunists show up and begin using your own techniques against you. Everyone else has witnessed how to spread their game via Facebook, as well as the massive pile of cash Zynga has built up. They have both the knowledge and the incentive to duplicate Zynga's accomplishment. All they need is a way to lure Farmville fans away from their game of choice. This isn't much of a challenge, as Farmville is to modern games what a wringer is to a washing machine: It's awesome as long as you aren't aware of the alternative.