Why Facebook Games Fail: A Lack of Fun
The slot machine mentality of game design is what limits Facebook titles, and the reason they’re so prevalent on Facebook and not elsewhere is because there’s a massive install base of people interacting with friends. Zynga’s entire model, emulated by Outernauts and others (such as Gameloft, with its Monster Life title that’s basically the exact same thing as Outernauts, but available on iOS), is not and never has been to make a fun game. That’s the trouble. Zynga sees free-to-play as a means to getting players hooked. Hooked players spend money. The nature of the game is incidental, which is why you see so many Zynga games that are just slight iterations on the core mechanic: play just long enough to start to like it, then be forced to quit unless you’re willing to pay or recruit others. Only the first one’s free, man.
We’ve seen free-to-play work successfully. There are games out there like DC Universe Online that have excelled in free-to-play without hamstringing people’s ability to enjoy the game. Tribes: Ascend uses the F2P model perfectly, providing a great experience you never have to pay for if you don’t want to, but also including many avenues that allow for it. In fact, Hi-Rez’s game is so much fun, and the model so expertly crafted, that I actually feel grateful to the developer for providing it. I’m always able to justify spending money in Tribes, because not only am I getting something out of it — a perk or a weapon I’d otherwise have to slowly earn — I’m supporting a company that made a great game, and that never tried to pick my pocket in the process.
And Facebook games can be fun. It is possible. You Don’t Know Jack is a beautiful example, expertly trimming down the original trivia gameshow experience to a fast-burst of five questions. YDKJ even limits your play, giving you “free” games over time but not all at once, but they build up so that I always find I have some. Further, it does a great job of engendering a spirit of competition; it asks you to invite your friends so that you can challenge them, and even though it asks kind of often, I never feel hassled. Maybe because I’m much more receptive to a game asking me to do things to support its free-ness when that game is actually fun.
Meanwhile, Zynga titles and Outernauts are like old arcade cabinets, built to subtly screw the player whenever possible. The fundamental feeling of the game is different: YDKJ provides some laughs and some fun and then encourages me to spread the word or pay for stuff, and I don’t mind. Outernauts puts missions in front of my face specifically asking for me to bother people I know, or I can’t advance. It has items in its store that are basically unobtainable unless I pay for its other currency. And it uses these as roadblocks in the game, paywalls to my enjoyment.
Those are speed bumps to fun, and the trouble is, the game isn’t that fun to start. It doesn’t provide me any incentive to stick around.
Game developers need to get paid in order to make games — it’s a fundamental fact. But that doesn’t mean that the F2P model should feel like a constant attempt at psychological manipulation; it’s actually a disservice both to the player and to the developer to make a game that way, and it makes video games more like slot machines or cigarettes than interactive entertainment. The decline of Zynga and the struggles of other big-name developers to make headway on Facebook don’t point to a flawed platform or that casual or F2P is somehow a lesser model — it points to the idea that making games with the aim to addict people and then force money out of them doesn’t work. Your game is not a delivery system for micro-transactions, and if you’re designing that way, it probably won’t do well.
We play games to have fun, and we pay into those games because the transaction is worth it. Zynga has discovered that not including real fun in its design eventually means people leave their games, once the mesmerization from the flashy lights and music has worn off. Because unlike a slot machine, there’s no reward for playing Facebook games like these. If a game isn’t actually fun, why the hell would I want to play it?