I Can Explain Zynga's Decline After Playing FIFA 13

Everyone's got some genres they're not really into. For me, it's always been puzzle games and sport games. Puzzle games are good at making me feel frustrated if not stupid. Not a fan! And sports games, well, I usually figure I'd rather actually play the sport than watch it.

I grew up playing all sorts of sports. I played college soccer. There's something wonderfully simple and straightforward about kicking a ball. There are no menus, no controls that abstract something I can do naturally and perhaps more elegantly with my own body. There's just flow.

Still, as someone who writes about games for a living, I can't justify ignoring entire genres. I'd miss important games like Portal or Madden. Not ideal! So I decided to overlook my usual aversion to sport games last week at the EA Summer Showcase and I gave FIFA 13 for the iPad a try.

I approach mobile gaming with some reservations, like many. Sure, there are plenty of great games that manage to take advantage of the limitations of the touch interface, but sometimes you're playing something that's dumbed-down and not as full-featured-if not less precise-than a console version of a game.

Gamers obsess over optimization because we don't just want to win, we want to win as fully as possible. Lack of precision gets in the way of that desire. And many of us are masochists who enjoy being challenged by complicated systems: the more obstacles, the more gratifying the eventual victory will be.

So when you have a medium that challenges the way games typically exist and redefines the rules for what is necessary to have to have a 'good game,' as mobile titles do, it's no surprise that people lash back. Change is scary!

FIFA 13 is a mobile game, through and through. My character's direction was controlled by a pseudo joystick on the bottom left corner, and motions beyond that were dictated through a wheel with specific actions like "pass" and "slide" on the right corner.

I Can Explain Zynga's Decline After Playing FIFA 13

Only a handful of actions were available but this made all the difference. I didn't have to worry about advanced maneuvers or what button did what and how: I could just jump in and enjoy the game. The game seemed simplified, but it allowed me to think about less—which makes learning a new game feel less overwhelming. Smooth sailing. Or, well, smooth dribbling.

Curiously, the touch interface added the feel that I was gliding through the pitch. It's not exactly running, but gliding carries a similar spirit. That's not a feel that can be captured as easily through a gamepad.

Still, in spite of the ease of controls, I found myself having trouble getting through the defenses of Arsenal. The AI seemed very capable, almost overly so—at least, for my virgin digital cleats. It's good to know that there's challenge awaiting in the stadiums of FIFA 13, though.

I was initially surprised at how much fun I was having, but it makes sense. The more barriers of entry you remove from something, the more likely someone is to be able to dig in and enjoy the experience—regardless of how many initial reservations they may have. We've seen a similar mentality of emphasizing usability in Apple's OS and consoles like the Wii where simplicity hails.

A week before the EA event, I met Kotaku's own Kirk Hamilton for the first time. He's a cool guy, that's why he has his own fan club.

One of the things we talked about was how Zynga had dropped almost half of its stock value. For many of us, this news wasn't shocking: Zynga seemed like a bubble waiting to burst.

Only a handful of actions were available but this made all the difference. I didn't have to worry about advanced maneuvers or what button did what and how: I could just jump in and enjoy the game.

Kirk had a theory about why it happened, and we bemoaned the inability to test it because it seemed so plausible. He postulated that Zynga's fatal mistake was developing a series of Ville games that gradually rose in complexity, and this was why users stopped playing their games.

So someone starts off with good ol' Farmville and they go, "Hey, this is neat, and it's not too complicated. I don't typically play games, but I'm totally into this. I like this." But like any game, they grow tired of it and need something new. They notice Frontierville, which is similar, but slightly more involved. They play that.

Then they move onto Cityville: which is similar, but a step up from Frontierville. Suddenly someone might be okay with stepping out of their comfort zone and—gasp!—trying a non-Ville game. They think to themselves, "What else is there? Woah, maybe I could try Sim City Social." And they realize, "This is much more enjoyable than the Ville games! I'm never going back! But where do I go from here?"

"Hey. There's a thing called Sim City. It's supposed to be like this other game I like, Sim City Social, only better."

Boom. A casual gamer was slowly graduated onto the 'big boy' games. And all because ostensibly, Zynga was trying its best to develop games that more closely resembled 'actual' games.

It was an interesting idea—but that's all it was, an idea. It wasn't until I played FIFA 13 for the iPad that everything fell into place. There I was, tearing the field up like Ronaldinho, when the thought hits me: I'm having fun, so maybe I should try FIFA on consoles. Why not?

So maybe Kirk is right about the way casual games acted as a gateway drug for 'core' games. Who knows! What's more clear, though, is that next time I won't be so hesitant about trying out a FIFA game with an actual controller thanks to the iPad version of FIFA 13.