Zynga's as much a video game company as any of the interactive entertainment field's brightest lights. Of course, given the firm's primarily business-focused approach to design, it's also the devil incarnate to some. But the real irony that many people miss is that the outfit may inadvertently be one of the best things to happen to gaming since the invention of the home console.
Say what you will about titles like FarmVille and CityVille. Those games are designed to keep players hypnotically clicking away like slack-jawed idiots. Among the industry's fastest-growing and mostly wildly popular titles of all-time, they're also helping make true believers out of millions. And, for that matter, these games are finally communicating the pastime's appeal to generations of clueless bystanders who've spent decades convinced that gamers are still socially awkward dweebs who spend 20 hours a day twiddling away on Atari-2600-era joysticks.
OK, so tending virtual crops or building an online crime family isn't exactly the height of artistic expression, and in many ways a marked step back from today's growingly more high-concept, intellectually sophisticated, culturally aware and literate blockbusters. But face it: It's these simple, idiot-proof and engaging concepts that make sense to all, as well as their inherent intuitiveness and appeal, that are increasingly helping to push gaming to the forefront of mainstream awareness. And, while we're at it, inspiring more designers—including individuals from a more diverse group of cultural backgrounds, nationalities and ages than previously seen at any point in history—to take up the craft of game creation than ever.
Thank them 10 years from now when a new generation of enterprising young teams working out of their basements and fueled by Ramen are pumping out incredibly deep and thought-provoking, yet simple to pick up and play offerings ideal for social settings that make even modern-day classics such as Braid, Limbo or Swords and Sworcery look like prehistoric carvings crudely scribbled into cave walls. Or, while we're at it, you meet your future husband/wife/World of Warcraft life partner when someone starts talking raising simulated sheep or managing animated homesteads over drinks at happy hour.
Note from the deputy editor:
I asked Scott Steinberg to assess Zynga's video game company bona fides, but that was yesterday, when we were spurred by the report that Zynga snatched EA's number two executive for a senior position. That was yesterday. Zynga moves fast and made news again today for purchasing Wonderland Software, creators of the game Godfinger. Zynga has been averaging one new game studio purchase a month, including prestige acquisitions of the creators of Words with Friends and Drop 7. That Zynga farm of developers keeps growing, one macro-payment at a time. –Stephen Totilo, Kotaku
Mind you, Zynga has obviously come under immense criticism for its cash-centric design methods and gameplay strategies, which often put making money before ensuring that players have a keenly-balanced gaming experience, or can enjoy particularly new and novel features. But much as players like to romanticize it, gaming's a multibillion-dollar business that's long been dominated by firms that prize accounting over artistic integrity – what, you think EA brought back NBA Jam, Microsoft aims to make idiot-proof motion controls the new high-tech gaming standard and Nintendo's suddenly resurrecting The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time out of purely altruistic motives? Putting the exploitation of new technologies, trends and devices above the chance to push the boundaries of creativity is a proud, time-honored tradition: From classic-era Atari's multitude of home Pong variants to Capcom's endless [Insert Meme Here] vs. [Which of Our Franchises is Currently Selling Best] crossovers, it's the same fundamental principle.
Storied history and franchises aside, corporate giants like Electronic Arts and Take 2 aren't powered by sunshine and magical rainbows, and have to pay for the dozens of avant garde experiments (Mirror's Edge) and aeons-long development cycles (Red Dead Redemption) that eventually lead to BioShock-level brilliance somehow. Check Rockstar's softography prior to Grand Theft Auto, or Harmonix's before Guitar Hero – you'll see plenty of foul balls before they ever starting belting out home runs. The difference with Zynga is simply that it's not content to play by the old industry rule of thumb–-1 hit pays for every 10 flops-–and instead focuses on the bottom line first. One might argue that, while sacrificing the quality of a player's experience is inexcusable, the overall concept is actually a much saner approach to game making, offering predictable revenues and successes than can be funneled into making better sequels, spin-offs or fueling the launch of original, more innovative outings down the road.
It's easy to vilify corporate giants, especially in the wake of Guitar Hero's recent relegation to the benches, given their seemingly single-minded pursuit of cash and knuckleheaded willingness to grind even the biggest and best franchises into the ground in order to turn a quick buck. But if you look at what Zynga is saying and doing as of late, it's making the right insinuations, intimating that it will put all the cash and talent it's amassing to work building deeper, more engaging titles that just happen to be tied to the world's most popular and readily accessible online platforms. In other words, it's allegedly cranking away on what will hopefully be some pretty kick-ass games that more players of all skill levels – including traditional game players – can access from a greater range of touchpoints and devices than one could've dreamed even just five years ago.