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Zynga isn't the problem. Scared gamers are.

Opinion: Steve Boxer meets with Farmville dev and discovers it's not quite the bogeyman we all think...

Committed, self-confessed hardcore gamers have acquired a new bogeyman in recent years: Zynga. As far as they are concerned, the creator of the likes of FarmVille and CityVille on Facebook represents all that is wrong with videogames in the 21st century.

Zynga, they would say, makes shallow, derivative games, designed to suck in those with too much time on their hands - typically frustrated housewives and teenagers who are too apathetic even to play Xbox 360 or PS3 games.

Zynga would hit back with some impressive facts: 240 million people play their games worldwide -- that's four times the population even of this overcrowded island, and about 22 times as many as World of Warcraft's subscription base - and 54 million play Zynga games every day.


The company generated over $1 billion in income last year. Small wonder it is being hailed as the model for what videogaming will become in the future, and why the Zynga model is being trumpeted by some commentators as one that will supersede the existing games industry.

Which, of course, is something hardcore gamers find immensely troubling and threatening. They would counter by pointing out that if Zynga games were all we could look forward to, we might as well go back to playing board games - there's nothing in any Zynga game that even vaguely resembles any of things that actually make games fun.

Their games are all about the time you put into them and, though they are nominally free to play, once they get people hooked, they aggressively encourage users to pay for special items. And swamp their Facebook friends with spam-like requests. Plus, FarmVille is the most original game the company has made - CityVille is a dumbed-down take on Sim City, and it's physically impossible to create something frsh and new from starting-points like Texas Hold 'Em or Bingo.

In the flesh, Zynga are perfectly nice people, who really don't come across as bearing some sinister agenda. Their mantra is that they are all about social gaming: getting people to connect with each other via games. When I was a kid, that's exactly what I got from spending half my life in the arcades with my mates - before I was old enough to go down the pub, I was still learning social skills by taking on my peers at Double Dragon, Choplifter and RoadBlasters. The trouble is that often, the social element of Zynga's games seems to be intended to piss players' friends off, rather than to encourage bonding.

And despite the impressive number of people who play their games, and the company's commensurately impressive income figures, it is possible to question its business model. Gaikai's David Perry puts it succinctly: "What's crazy is that everyone forgets that the games industry makes all its money from the big games. They so easily get carried away with: 'Oh, they had millions of users.'


"I thought it was funny when Activision was challenged on Zynga, about why they aren't doing what Zynga is doing. And they were like: 'We make more money from just downloadable content than their entire company does from all of their games. Yes they've got lots of users, but we make way more money than they do.' It's the Skyrims and the Call of Dutys: that's where the money is in the games business."

Zynga's recent results bear him out: from revenues of $1.1 billion for the financial year, it made a loss of $404 million. Admittedly, that includes a $510 million payout for "stock-based compensation" - it performed an IPO in December 2011, valuing it at $7 billion rather than the previously mooted $20 billion.

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