January 25, 2012
Zynga's been taking it on the chin lately, both in the app market and the stock market. While I haven't the expertise to patter on the latter, the first part's a little easier to access and assess: Simply put, people are pissed. What it all boils down to is the company's reluctance to abandon the reliable and fiscally-proven "freemium" pricing model on each and every app it makes, whether free or paid. The in-app purchase (IAP) abounds, and folks are feeling slighted by the strategy. "Why," they ask, "should I have to pay to play when I've already paid to play?" That's a very good question. It's also completely misrepresentative of what Zynga's actually doing (at least as far as its flagship series is concerned). Take the company's newest "With Friends" headliner, Scramble. While it's an undeniably polished and engaging social word game (just like its franchise compatriots), it's garnered heaps of criticism for its IAP model. In the game, you're given a cache of coins, and -- regardless of whether you're playing the free or paid version -- you spend a piece of this virtual change for each game of Scramble you start or accept. More than anything else, that's what's ruffled everyone's feathers. The only problem (or, rather, lack of one) is that said limitation doesn't actually affect gameplay. At all. Take a look at the customer reviews for Scramble With Friends on the App Store. Even though the game sits atop the charts right now (helped along by Apple's recent promotional efforts and a sweet $0.99 sale), all the low-ranking comments echo the same sentiment. Words like "unworkable," "ripoff," "lame," and "FAIL!!!" are liberally bandied about, and it's pretty obvious that most of these folks submitted their arguments before actually giving Zynga's coin-per-clock system a chance to set in. Even for the most avid player (and I consider myself right there in that upper echelon), the free version provides more than enough coins -- 15 in total -- to keep you solving puzzles on the regular. Each three-round game takes a minimum of 12 minutes to complete (not counting the sometimes hours-long waits between turns), and you get a new coin every 20 minutes. For what it's worth, I've been playing Scramble With Friends Free since the day it launched, with an average of six to 10 active matches going at any given time. I've never come close to exhausting my coin supply. Meanwhile, the paid version doubles that rate of return, making it even more unlikely that running out becomes an issue. (And, for those few who literally play Scramble enough to make it an issue, consider the server costs involved and Zynga's historical difficulties keeping its tens of millions of active matches online and updated 24 hours a day. If you're going to treat Zynga's servers like my Xbox-addicted idiot roommate hogs our house modem, then sure, go ahead and pay a little bit extra.) If all that's true, if Zynga's really not there to make you (re)pay to play, then why'd they even bother including the maligned mechanism in the first place? Here's a hint: It's not to rip you off. Nope, the truth is far less sinister. Annoying, maybe, but not underhanded or unheard of. See, Zynga's only trying to sell you their various in-game
cheats powerups. You know, just like they do in Hanging With Friends. Just like they do in Words With Friends. (While the balanced competitive spirit inherent in puzzle-based, player-versus-player games might be tipped by such features, I have no qualms with a company providing them to fans willing to shell out whatever extra cash they cost. In fact, as a fan of Zynga's series myself, I'm quite happy with their limiting these options to IAPs -- The games would be no fun if everyone used powerups every time. And hey, if I'm so good you need help to keep playing, then go for it -- I welcome the challenge!)
So why is the coin system so different -- and more outwardly "penalizing" -- in Scramble than it is in Hanging? For the same reason it's different in Hanging than it is in Words.
Think about it. What Zynga's doing here is kind of remarkable. They've got three extremely popular titles in the "With Friends" family (four if you count Chess, which I don't), and they're using each as a test bed for gathering valuable data on which financial model best suits casual gamers' particular (and peculiar) mobile mindsets the most. Whichever model generates the most revenue per player will become the company's standard going forward. It's that simple.
But, for some reason, the enraged masses will never understand. Inspecting the general tone of complaints against Zynga, it seems gamers expect the company to abandon almost every tenet of traditional gaming monetization. And that monetization's not limited to the mobile market, either; Console games have always cost cash to play, multiplayer server maintenance isn't free, and constant updates take lots of work and money to make happen.
More and more, people seem to expect the world for $0.99. Sometimes, provided they buy titles with no associated ancillary costs, they actually get it. Super Crate Box comes to mind as an inexpensive, non-support-based bearer of added value. You can play it forever. However, titles like that are the exception, not the rule, and almost all multiplayer games effectively rely on IAPs to help fund necessary back-end operations. A company needs to pay its employees, folks. TANSTAAFL? TANSTAAFL. We don't live in a pay-once-and-get-free-service-for-life type of world. That's not sustainable. Nothing is all-inclusive -- not now or then or ever.
I can't help but think all this IAP hate would ebb and fade and disappear if the App Store simply changed the framework's terminology and adopted console gaming's "downloadable content" moniker instead.
I've never heard of someone losing their mind or forsaking a game over a teeny bit of paid DLC.
$60 for a copy of Halo 3 and $15 for each new level pack: hours and days and weeks of fun, best buy you ever made. $0.99 for Scramble With Friends and the thought that one day, in the distant and unlikely future, you'll have to wait ten minutes or fork over another dollar to keep playing: hours and days and weeks of fun, worst purchase ever!
C'mon guys, get real. Give Zynga a break. Sure, they might be a shortsighted, scummy company with no artistic merit or morals, but they're not the bad guy on account of these IAPs.
"Freemium," after all, is just another word for "good business."
Scramble With Friends
Scramble With Friends Free
Hanging With Friends
Words With Friends
Chess With Friends
Super Crate Box