228: An Offer You Can't Refuse

An Offer You Can't Refuse

According to Zynga's figures, Mafia Wars now claims 26 million active players, many of them playing online games for the first time. But thanks to Zynga's shady business practices, the browser game may not be the best ambassador for the form. Allen Varney dives into the seedy underbelly of Mafia Wars and learns firsthand how hard it is to walk away.

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From TFA:
"I meant to document more Mafia Wars abuses, but the truth is I've been too busy playing it."

FAIL.

That's fucking awful. You could have told us more and done your job as an author and instead decided to shortsheet us because you decided gaming was more fun. Well that's just great.

You're grounded. There's an interesting story there and you decided to ignore it. Come back when you're willing to do the job.

What's that flying over your head? Whooooosh!

I loved this article. It was fascinating to read about Pincus & Zynga - I feel a little naive that I knew nothing of either one of them before this. I remember learning about Boll & German filmmaking from your equally interesting article Boll vs. Wood - you've got the investigative journalism chops! ;)

Pretty much sums up why I don't like facebook or play Mafia Wars.

Of course, now it has emigrated to MySpace... but it makes it easy to filter friends!

XXX Has invited you to join his mafia!

"Oh, really?"

[delete friend]

APVarney:
What's that flying over your head? Whooooosh!

Edited b/c I was being rude. I apologize.

You're the author and getting the point across is your job. Saying that I missed the point misses what I was saying entirely. Considering how much meat is on this story, what you wrote was a cop out, or unfunny, but at the very least lazy and your response to it even moreso.

You spend all this time not talking about how the guy who owns/runs this game is a knuckledrager (1.5 pages give or take), 'interrupt' the article so you can go play the game, then give us maybe a page on what kind of asshole the man is who runs the machine and then finish it with 1) a poor segue about how you could do more but are going to go play again that 2) doesn't tie into your intro very well with 3) this aside:
"Or, rather, I'm unsatisfied when I'm not playing, which isn't the same. "Addictive" is used as a synonym for "good," but these games aren't good, only compelling. You don't exactly have fun playing; you just feel bad when you stop."
which is very well said but again, doesn't tie into the rest of the article.

Your article is scattershot and could've focused on either a) your addiction to this thing or b) what a dick the guy is who made it but instead tries to jokily play off all the things you didn't do.

And while I'll admit my initial post was very harsh it doesn't take away from what my point is; namely, that I understood exactly what you were doing when you wrote
"I meant to document more Mafia Wars abuses, but the truth is I've been too busy playing it" and what you were doing wasn't that good.

Well okay, anonymous guy, you've found a wide-open opportunity to write and sell the article I should have written, more informative and better focused. And given your genial wit, it's bound to be comedy gold.

Smokescreen:

"Or, rather, I'm unsatisfied when I'm not playing, which isn't the same. "Addictive" is used as a synonym for "good," but these games aren't good, only compelling. You don't exactly have fun playing; you just feel bad when you stop."
which is very well said but again, doesn't tie into the rest of the article.

Your article is scattershot and could've focused on either a) your addiction to this thing or b) what a dick the guy is who made it but instead tries to jokily play off all the things you didn't do.

And while I'll admit my initial post was very harsh it doesn't take away from what my point is; namely, that I understood exactly what you were doing when you wrote
"I meant to document more Mafia Wars abuses, but the truth is I've been too busy playing it" and what you were doing wasn't that good.

to be honest, there's very, very little to the game itself. it's almost JRPG in it's climb to level, collect infinite amounts of detritus, and objects become trivialised by continual upgrade paths. there are better JRPG's, and there are better games as well.

personally, the greater issue is that all the games share a common API, making the possibility of zynga being infinitely more voracious with social networking games in the future, especially if nobody notices that all the games play almost identically. While farmville has a very different flash interface, it still shares a lot of the economy mechanics of the previous games, each game's IGE relies on effort/reward to install itself as a compulsion, rather than as a pure achievement reward, there's a continual emptiness of achievement, the hollow victory of achieveng a level, of gaining coins and killing vampires and running a mission 20x to gain 'mastery', to socially promote yourself and the medium.

to be sure, it's a cash-cow for someone, and both the active playerbase, and in tandem, the use of microtransactions is something that every other game company in the world is looking at as an example of corporate currency for videogaming.

which, for escapist is something that should be scutinised as being wholly bad for the industry as a whole. besides that, the implementation of GF points/rewards systems in mafia wars and in farmville, where it's not as evident, deflating the core mechanism of the game in order to promote 3rd parties and buy your way ahead should be more alarming. but, everyone knows about DLC. rock band has DLC. everyone loves rock band, so everyone should love DLC. QED ?

yeah. fridge logic. i should also point out that mafia wars is essentially a very simple game to cheat with as well. given the amazing influence, it's trivial enough that you can have a greasemonkey script installed that will progressively play the game for you, process all the thousands of spammed "look at me playing mafia wars" home-feed items, and collect the takings, fight players, declare wars, etc.

for a greasemonkey script, it should not have more than a million users. arguably. but it almost really does have that many users, simply because the staged progression is almost monotonous and very tedious. and for players who have been on longer than the first month, you'll find that a significant amount of the 500 odd 'friends' do have bots playing instead of people, who can do shared jobs in under a second of you posting to your social interface, etc.

as a social mechanic to the game, knowing there's a good chance that 1 in 10 is a bot, makes the AI/NPC interaction a more complex animal, since you're not really playing against zynga's bad code, or shoddy API's, the reliance on collecting newer, better, more trivial rewards to boost your attack rating by 5, to reach 31,000 means nothing when you can be completely mobbed by a repeat attack from a player with 60k attack, who didn't even notice you were there, they were probably at school, daycare, their job, watching tv, replacing diapers, doing laundry, eating lunch, etc.

having the game overrun with bots is problematic. you can still collect the ~300,000 (inventory items are ranked by weapon/armor/vehicle, the attack/defense value is weighted, so only the first 500 items apply, and better weapons become rarer drops, i.e. 1/100 to 1/500 to 1/1000, etc. rewards) items in the game needed to progressively defend yourself against casual and concerted attacks, but it takes time. time most people don't want to spend. and can't spend. won't spend either. it is after all, a game.

in MW, it's progressive effort, extended over years. i.e. you can get to level 500 in 2 weeks or 3 months or 2 years, even level 1000, or higher. but it's meaningless to a degree. the game relies heavily on the JPRG fight mechanic, and allows twinking characters, i.e. a much older account gifts 500 overpowered items to a new account that only fights other characters, etc. putting twinks against bots, means little, since both players are essentially driven there by the flaws in the social mechanics, reward mechanics, and the fight mechanics of the game. and while zynga might address some issues, MW is their ball of wax construct that makes them money, they will not fix any of the problems of their little machination while it still makes money for the lower rung players who think they can progress through the system as it stands.

i don't even know if you can leave mafia wars in facebook, it's not really an option. you can ignore the postings, and you can disband from the group invites, and ignore all the application warnings, but it's still there. they still know who you are. those 2,000 people you might charitably call 'people'/'friends' will still be there, waiting for you to fight in some random scuffle against 6 other random people, waiting for you to send them some trivial reward to feel obligated to play, etc.

I loathe these games. Trying to find some boredom-killer apps on the iPhone revealed dozens of these things, too. As soon as I see that I have to recruit someone to proceed, it's deleted. As a rule, too, I play no games on Facebook. People don't even realise that they're all practically trojans, waiting to seize some important information on your Facebook and screw you over somehow.

Also:

APVarney:
Well okay, anonymous guy, you've found a wide-open opportunity to write and sell the article I should have written, more informative and better focused. And given your genial wit, it's bound to be comedy gold.

I don't think he really understands irony or sarcasm. It's difficult enough cia the interbutt, moreso when you're an idiot.

Hey Allen. You know I am a fan. Interesting to see you tackle this.

I find Zynga fascinating. But what I find equally fascinating is the hardcore game community's -- devs and gamers -- response to the games that they make.

I would toss out for your consumption the argument that this (the Escapist, etc) is not the proper audience to judge Mafia Wars from a game standpoint, and so I appreciated the inclusion of your friend. But I think looking at these games from the standpoint of a hardcore audience, or even merely someone who is familiar with playing and analyzing hardcore games, is perhaps the least interesting thing to do with the subject. Even though they're called games (because they are) and they look like games, it's fundamentally apples and oranges -- like saying that a kite has no value because it's not a B-52. I'm not saying that's what you did here, but I think that's a challenging dimension of presenting Mafia Wars to an audience of hardcore gamers.

I think that Mafia Wars itself says fascinating things about what bar of embodiment and challenge is that is sufficient to generate a fantasy experience. Zynga is showing us that, literally for millions of people, it is very very very low -- or they've just found an exceedingly efficient way of generating that fantasy. Because people are finding it deeply satisfying with the sparsest game and symbolic triggers the business has ever seen, though you could get into an argument I suppose on whether SpaceWar! was simpler.

The scamville stuff misses the mark too, though to be fair there's a good part of the industry, I think because of the kite-to-B52 comparison, that is predisposed to find a reason to hate Zynga... but the scamville series of articles became progressively more accurate as it went on, and started out extremely inaccurate. It's an extremely small proportion of people that wound up being scammed, and they (Zynga) did correct it when they became aware of it. The trouble is when you have 63 million people and are working with reputable partners (which SuperRewards actually is) those things can be difficult to track down. But the argument is complex -- it is a bit less than a third of their revenue that comes from lead generation, yes -- but it's only a small percentage of that lead generation that is scam-bent. We used lead generation in GoPets, too, and our users were thrilled with it -- because for a good number of them they could try out programs rather than paying money, and those programs (like Netflix) were perfectly legitimate. The scamville author tried to make a case that the legit offers will be pushed out by the scams, but that's speculation at this point -- it hasn't actually happened. And to focus on that small percentage of >30% of Zynga's revenue also conveniently bypasses the fact that 70+% of Zynga's customers are paying them directly for these game experiences.

Any rate, there is a lot of fascinating stuff about what's going on in this space. A lot of game developers have very secure and profitable jobs because of this company. A lot of players are getting access to games who previously (and currently) couldn't afford them. The story has many dimensions and is regularly misjudged by the hardcore game audience.

It's times like these I'm glad I'm Brazilian. Here the cool social network is orkut, not Facebook, so I don't have to worry about crap like this.

...for now. dun dun duuuuun

ErinHoffman:
Because people are finding it deeply satisfying with the sparsest game and symbolic triggers the business has ever seen, though you could get into an argument I suppose on whether SpaceWar! was simpler.

The simplest example, to my mind, is the primordial Facebook app Poke. (For non-Facebookers, Poke simply sends your friend a message that you've "poked" him or her.) Called "Poke," it feels friendly or mildly flirtatious, depending on the friends involved. If you kept precisely the same application functionality but called it, say, "Sexual Assault," people would get arrested. It's all in the single word.

ErinHoffman:
It's an extremely small proportion of people that wound up being scammed, and they (Zynga) did correct it when they became aware of it.

On the contrary, the Mark Pincus video clip shows he was aware of the scams from the start, and only pulled them when they drew public attention. No one has publicly revealed what percentage of Zynga's customers were scammed, but even "an extremely small proportion" of millions of players represents perhaps thousands of frauds. Until recently Zynga's Better Business Bureau rating was F, and it's easy to find many, many complaints about scams in Zynga's Texas Hold 'Em poker game dating all the way back to the game's launch.

And yet more reasons to stay away from social networking sites. Let's see, where does the list stand now?

1) Stakers
2) Criminals
3) Viruses and other bad programs
4) Waste of time
5) False sense of belonging
6) Pointless games that feed the machine(See #4)

APVarney:
No one has publicly revealed what percentage of Zynga's customers were scammed, but even "an extremely small proportion" of millions of players represents perhaps thousands of frauds.

Besides which, it all depends on what you count as a scam. Sure, maybe it was an extremely small proportion that were illegal scams, but far more of what it does is exploitative of its players. Anyone care to estimate the ARPU of Mafia Wars? Flash games with millions of players make tens of thousands of dollars. Mafia Wars has made hundreds of times that. I don't know about you, but that sets off my alarms.

I'll start by saying that I do actually play Mafia Wars and it works off the same principle as hundreds of other browser-based web games such as Tribal Wars, Mob Wars, etc etc. It all focuses around time and rewards. The "come back in x hours to receive y money and z skill points/troops/whatever" is the hook that gets people to continue playing. And for people on Facebook/Myspace who have never played computer games before, it is simply convenient. The problem is that these noobs are the same people who fall victim to scams involving buying in-game money with real-world dollars and then being surprised when Zynga or other scammers continue taking a monthly "subscription" from their credit card. I view people who give their credit card details out willy-nilly on the internet to be stupid and naive. The fact that a major online business such as Zynga has grown so quickly and profited immensely from people's stupidity is a shame. The trick is that spending money for in-game bonuses is a sham because, after all, it's just a game.

ShadowKatt:
And yet more reasons to stay away from social networking sites. Let's see, where does the list stand now?

1) Stakers
2) Criminals
3) Viruses and other bad programs
4) Waste of time
5) False sense of belonging
6) Pointless games that feed the machine(See #4)

Out of curiosity, would you count forums as social networking sites?

Smokescreen:

APVarney:
What's that flying over your head? Whooooosh!

Edited b/c I was being rude. I apologize.

You're the author and getting the point across is your job. Saying that I missed the point misses what I was saying entirely. Considering how much meat is on this story, what you wrote was a cop out, or unfunny, but at the very least lazy and your response to it even moreso.

You spend all this time not talking about how the guy who owns/runs this game is a knuckledrager (1.5 pages give or take), 'interrupt' the article so you can go play the game, then give us maybe a page on what kind of asshole the man is who runs the machine and then finish it with 1) a poor segue about how you could do more but are going to go play again that 2) doesn't tie into your intro very well with 3) this aside:
"Or, rather, I'm unsatisfied when I'm not playing, which isn't the same. "Addictive" is used as a synonym for "good," but these games aren't good, only compelling. You don't exactly have fun playing; you just feel bad when you stop."
which is very well said but again, doesn't tie into the rest of the article.

Your article is scattershot and could've focused on either a) your addiction to this thing or b) what a dick the guy is who made it but instead tries to jokily play off all the things you didn't do.

And while I'll admit my initial post was very harsh it doesn't take away from what my point is; namely, that I understood exactly what you were doing when you wrote
"I meant to document more Mafia Wars abuses, but the truth is I've been too busy playing it" and what you were doing wasn't that good.

To be fair to this guy I do see what he is getting at I have read the article twice now and it does seem kinda scattershot, torn betwixt the twin suns of review and investigative journalism. As the former its pretty sparse and as the latter it does little except copy/paste earlier news articles from this site regarding how Zynga are complete scam merchants.

I think their some good points present but I feel the article would benefit from a more directed approach or even two separate articles. My opinion anyways

For me, the most compelling quality regarding "Mafia Wars" is that I can access it at work. To put it this way, though I'd rather play a game of "Dragon Age", there's no way I'd even consider doing it at work. When a game session can be broken into a 20 sec clickfest, it approaches the status of "guilt-free" time waster. In the time it takes to read a couple of paragraphs in a blog (or post a message in a forum), I can "achieve" some small sense of instant gratification.

I sense that "Mafia Wars"'s main competitors are Solitaire and Minesweeper. Sitting ducks as they are.

I don't mean to advertise, I just in the past few minutes posted a similar review based on a very similar game that rides parallel but remains very similar to Mafia Wars; "Vampire Wars". As I said in my own review, its an addictive way of gaming that's welcome change from the usual "There be the enemy, shoot the crap out them for shiny trophies and cake" prospect. No, games like this take us away from all that, I think its part of the reason why people find games like this popular.

Plus its based on a social netowkring site, so I think that the prospect of showing off to friends in a different manner might appeal also.

If your interested to see the review. Heres a link.

TheGreatGonzo26:

ShadowKatt:
And yet more reasons to stay away from social networking sites. Let's see, where does the list stand now?

1) Stakers
2) Criminals
3) Viruses and other bad programs
4) Waste of time
5) False sense of belonging
6) Pointless games that feed the machine(See #4)

Out of curiosity, would you count forums as social networking sites?

I would not, and I'll tell you why. While both are hubs for people to communicate, a forum is just for sharing ideas and opinions. Social networking sites, on the other hand, encourage you to build a profile, put all your information up for the world to see INCLUDING full name, home address, contact numbers, and schedules, which makes them essentially the walmart distributor for Stalkers-r-us. As I was explaining to someone earlier today, are the odds of someone tracking you down good, hell no, but at the same time, even if the odds of getting struck by lightning are one in 800 trillion, do you want to be the one to actually get hit?

There are enough psychopaths walking the streets out there, you do not need to make it any easier. And while the threat talks about the games involved, I'm not straying from that. All the games and quizzes and other BS lure people to stay there longer and put more personal information on their page. It cycles back to making them more accessable to other people, and there will always be people out there that will use that to harm them.

I am a certified network administrator, but the whole reason I went into the career was because I've always had a fascination with cybersecurity. And I'll say it again for all who will listen: Social Networking Sites Are Bad. Stay Away From Them. You do not know these people, we all know that what you see on the internet is more often than not a lie. Men are Men, Women are Men, and the Kids are the FBI, and that hot guy you've been talking to with the photos of his six pack abs on the beach surfing could be a psycho trying to lure you to his house to cut your head off and fuck your corpse.

/public service announcement

YES! I completely agree with you ShadowKatt! I'm becoming a Network Admin as well and don't have a Facebook or any kind of social networking profile. I don't have that many friends RL and can't imagine the point of making "fake" ones that I'll likely ever meet. And if I ever do by accident. I can guarantee you it will be awkward. And Women definitely are Men.Think of the word MMORPG: Many Men Online Role Playing [as] Girls.

 

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