Posted on August 3, 2012, Jim Sterling You’re No Better than Zynga
(This is another edition of /RANT, a weekly opinion piece column on GameFront. Check back every week for more. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect those of GameFront.)
This week, gamers raised their hands in celebration as news of Zynga’s inevitable downfall greeted their eyes and filled their brains. “Ding dong,” I imagined they cried, “the witch is dead.” Indeed, the creators of FarmVille, whose CEO famously stood against innovation and proudly celebrated the freedom of a business to “be evil,” has finally learned what happens when you take and buy and consume without ever thinking to build something for the sake of long-term security. The company is suffering because it built itself on a foundation of quicksand, relying on a tiny amount of paying users for revenue and an insecure relationship with Facebook for stability. Companies like Electronic Arts can fold its arms and smugly preen that Zynga — a company it was attempting to rival with its own Facebook offerings — is falling to pieces. However, is it right to sneer at Zynga as if this were an anomaly, or should Big Z’s recent failure be taken as a lesson for us all?
Gamers who despise the casual market know exactly who to blame for Zynga’s downfall — those no-good soccer moms who have ruined videogames by sometimes buying one or two of them. Damn those casuals and their stupid videogames that are never fun! I observed some of these folks when I wrote about Zynga’s troubles on Destructoid. There was a recurring attitude that Zynga’s problems are all thanks to the casual market, which sucks, and therefore should be ignored forever. However, that wasn’t the root of Zynga’s problem. The root was in its excessive catering to the casual crowd. Excess is the issue, and I think it’s something we need to be wary of in all avenues of the videogame industry.
Zynga’s problem stems not from the fact that it appealed to casual gamers, but that it appealed only to casual gamers. It built its future on the fad crowd, forgetting that fad crowds only last for as long as the fad is in fashion. It never attempted to reach out to more avid and regular players of games. It went where the easy, quick, ready money was. It went after the people who will spend a load of cash on whatever the “in” thing is, because they want to be like everybody else. The problem is, whatever is “in” will eventually be “out.” We get bored very easily, and can turn on something as quickly as we embrace it. This is especially true of the casual market, which can fly from fascination to fascination at the drop of a hat. There’s no loyalty there. Nobody is dedicated to FarmVille, nobody loves CityVille — they are infatuated with it. It’s a shallow and vapid relationship, one that will be abandoned when something else comes along. Zynga certainly learned that when it impulsively bought Draw Something at the peak of its success … then watch that $20 million investment fade away when users got bored and dropped off like flies.
This is not, however, an issue unique to Zynga, and while other publishers are more diverse in who they appeal to, they should not let that fool them into thinking what happened to the FarmVille publisher can’t happen to them. The issue of excess, of sinking all your resources into the next big thing with no attention paid to the future, is a very real threat to many companies in this industry.
Just take a look at THQ. Its financial woes are no secret. A few years back, when casual gaming was still the hot new craze, it did pretty damn well off of licensed games and family titles. Fast forward to 2012, and those very games are now being jettisoned by the company due to the financial risk they carry. Ironically, it’s more thanks to the hardcore games, the games publishers like THQ ignored, that the company’s still hanging on. Its disastrous attempt to get in on the wacky peripheral craze with the uDraw tablet very nearly killed it.
Activision rode the Guitar Hero train until the audience could take no more. In a single year, the company had put out ten Hero-branded games as it tried to capitalize on the franchise’s success as much as possible in the shortest amount of time. Rather than build a brand with longevity, Activision’s modus operandi seems to be that of a kid with access to unlimited ice cream — gorge and gorge and gorge until it’s sick, then wander off while others have to deal with the mess left behind. So it is that the Guitar Hero series is on hiatus, Warriors of Rock proving to be one game too many, and RedOctane suffers the consequences. Activision is on track to do this with Call of Duty as well — while I think the backlash for Modern Warfare 3 was ridiculous, I am starting to see why people are starting to act like it’s poison to them. One CoD game a year for almost an entire generation is going to kill off everybody’s excitement for it eventually. COD is becoming mundane, and eventually that too will have its one game too many.
The downfall of COD may be hurried along by the cavalcade of other companies pushing and jostling for attention with their own gritty realistic first-person shooters. This year’s E3 would have been almost satirical if it hadn’t been done with such a straight face. Press conferences were littered with guns, guns, guns as companies threw out their Far Cries, Medals of Honor, Black Operations, Cryses and Halos. This rising excess, this building of one single entity to such a pressure point that it has no choice but to explode … it’s everywhere. Zynga was the most extreme example, but it is far from the only one. As companies try to compete with World of Warcraft by BEING World of Warcraft, as unique IPs become homogenized to appeal to broad audiences, we see the excessive nature of publishers putting too many eggs in too few baskets. And I think we’re all getting tired. I think the audience is being drained of its energy, its patience for this shit.
And it happened once before. The North American videogame crash of 1983. Too many games, too many machines running them. Audiences bewildered by excessive amounts of product. A barrage of companies leaping on the next big craze and eating more than their fill with wanton, gluttonous, hedonistic abandon. Rushed games as publishers demand titles be released to capitalized in prior success stories. Computers offering better choices and superior games, growing as a competitive entity as gamers start to realize the console market is fucking them. Does all this sound familiar?
I am not saying the videogame crash will happen again. What I will say is that the pre-crash industry is back. It took over two decades, but it’s absolutely fucking back. And as I wonder what company will next be forced to bury its games in a landfill in New Mexico, I take a look at the publishers laughing at Zynga, looking down on the company that got it all wrong, and promising users that it’ll be here to stay.
And all I can think is … you’re no fucking better than Zynga.