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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.

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For their part, Zynga isn’t likely going to be very good at defending itself. They’ve got a formula that’s currently making them rich. They’re going to be very slow to want to mess with the system. Just as IBM was out-maneuvered by the wily newcomer Microsoft, and later as the blundering Microsoft was outfoxed by many smaller contenders, being successful in a new and quickly changing market can be a curse. You need people that can innovate and adapt to stay ahead of the curve. And if Zynga employed those sorts of people they wouldn’t have needed to swipe their game designs from other companies.

The Zynga challengers are coming. I’m sure right now there is a small team of people coding away and dreaming of taking a bite of that Zynga cash. Here are some things those challengers might try:

More Flexible Usage

Farmville is bad at letting the players enjoy the game at their own pace. Sometimes you don’t have a mind to play, but if you don’t log in your crops will wither. Sometimes you’re in the mood to play some more, but there’s nothing left to do until your crops are done growing. This is a nice mechanic for Zynga, since it encourages people to play on terms that benefit the publisher by obligating them to keep coming back for lots of short sessions. (So they can see lots of different ads.)

But anyone that discovers a game that’s just as “fun” as Farmville (has the same action / reward cycle) but can be played in a more convenient and friendly way is going to be drawn to leave their farm behind.

More Appealing Presentation

Farmville looks bland and stale. The music is tedious and the sound effects are nothing special. Compare this to the stuff churned out by PopCap. The PopCap artists are masters of making alluring interfaces, engaging visuals, and catchy tunes.

External Applications

I don’t know if they pioneered it, but PopCap has been doing this for years in order to rope in gaming neophytes. You entice someone into playing a fun Flash-based game, but then offer them the chance to try a “standalone” version with some extra features. Suddenly you’ve got people downloading and buying games.

Note how all of these changes will gradually turn some people into more avid gamers. Sure, some Farmville players will click away on their virtual farms forever, but for those who really enjoy the action-accomplishment-reward cycle of videogames, they will naturally be open to new and more rewarding experiences. Once you have a group of people who understand the market and can make informed buying choices based on their personal preferences, you have gamers. And more gamers is good.

All that needs to happen is for someone to apply the Zynga social model to something more entertaining than Farmville. And if you can’t make something more entertaining than Farmville, you probably shouldn’t be trying to make videogames to begin with.

Shamus Young is the guy behind the Shamus Plays series here on the Escapist. You should go read that right now.

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