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.
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.
CEO Mark Pincus and co. are no fools: They know that players have more options in terms of titles, platforms, devices and entertainment options than ever. The company is also well aware that's it's increasingly fighting for a share of your time, not just your wallet. So now it's growingly hiring away experienced game industry talent-–John Schappert, Brian Reynolds, etc.-–and buying up useful studios in hopes of rolling out a newer, deeper and more immersive wave of social experiences-–call them anti- or hyper-social games if you will. These amusements will still feature the best of what social games have to offer: Instant gratification, multiplayer interaction, immediate accessibility, long-term persistency and casual approachability. But beneath the simple veneer of doe-eyed characters and shiny objects to click on, they'll have all the depth, complexity, massively multiplayer interplay, community engagement and lasting rewards of traditional video game titles.
To stay relevant going forward and keep up with the flood of new games invading Facebook daily—most of which are easy to abandon, because they don't cost you anything and take minutes to enjoy, making them ideal for the commitment-phobic-–the firm not only has to deliver higher-quality gaming experiences that players actively want to seek out and spend time with. It also has to build games that emphasize value and convenience, and around which communities can easily be formed, giving you a reason to keep tuning in instead of scampering off to play Angry Birds at the gym.
From Kingdoms of Camelot's hardcore leanings to Ravenwood Fair's PC/console-style expansions and Heaven's Diner's location- and photo-based challenges, social games are clearly evolving. Zynga realizes it has to keep up, and invest in high-quality, top-tier gaming experiences as much as new technologies to maintain pace, especially as its own audience of players matures and their gaming tastes become more sophisticated. In effect, this will eventually make the firm an entertainment and intellectual property (IP) company as much as any software maker, comic book publisher or Hollywood studio.
There's a reason gaming's most legendary developers continue to defect to the social space, and it's not six-figure paychecks and lightning-quick development turnaround times alone. As Loot Drop's Brenda Brathwaite so elegantly pointed out in her GDC rant, the industry is on the verge of a fundamental sea change as social gaming continues to explode in popularity-–even amongst those who wouldn't consider themselves gamers-–and companies like Zynga are standing on the front lines of what promises to be both revelation and revolution, ushering in an entirely new and different (possibly better) era of game design and development. (Isn't the ultimate point of creating games to bring pleasure or make a statement to as many as possible?)
The good news is, given the growing level of competition, fan expectation and sheer alternatives players can readily turn to if disgruntled or disenchanted, these firms-–the few and the proud-–have no choice but to storm the proverbial beach. Frankly, they'll get their Armani-clad kiesters shot full of holes if all they do is stand around trying to hawk licensed dog tags and branded bomber jackets instead.
For companies like Zynga, cash will always remain king, as keeping waves of money flowing into the bank gives the outfit incredible wherewithal to acquire the talent and technologies it needs to grow and survive, not to mention chart its own future, which-–based on recent moves-–obviously involves leveraging the skill and practical real-world experience of games industry veterans. Were Zynga simply to view itself as a software or service provider offering a vanilla experience that plays to the least-common denominator, or content to stand around collecting a paycheck by simply exploiting new business models and technologies and/or regularly churning out nondescript and sub-par branded titles, well… Let's just say that, given the state of today's gaming industry, even the mighty social giant wouldn't stay on top of the game for long.