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Zynga’s IPO yesterday marks a major milestone for the games business. It marks something more important and profound than validation of Facebook’s ecosystem or proof that the free-to-play business model is here to stay. It’s far simpler — in games now, just as in music, video and books, consumers, not media companies, are in charge.
Fifteen years ago, consumers worshipped at the altar of material advancements in technology, whether it was the iPod, DVD player or Playstation. As consumer electronics companies introduced technology that leapfrogged their predecessors in ways that were undeniably attractive to end users, a dependency was created. All of us were willing to tolerate non-standard formats, expensive software/media and less than ideal usability (storage, sharing, no ability to try before you buy) in order to get the latest and greatest technology. Over the past few years, that dependency has been forever broken in how we consume music, video and books. Yet, until Zynga arrived on the scene, the game business had remained unmoved by this user driven media revolution.
Zynga’s games (and those of its closest competitors) have far lower graphic fidelity than what you find almost anywhere else. Charitably, one might say that its games are graphically on par with PC and console games from 20+ years ago. And no one is going to confuse the quality of Zynga’s game design and depth of user engagement with beloved game titles that have populated the bestseller lists the past 25 years.
Yet here Zynga is, going public with a valuation near $10 billion. Zynga’s genius has been its focus on delivering games that fit today’s digital lifestyle. Zynga’s games can be accessed instantly — there is no brick or mortar or online store to visit, no waiting for the game to download, and no need to manage installation particulars. You simply hit a button and a few short seconds later you’re playing. You can effortlessly play Zynga’s games with friends — there is no need to make sure your friend has the same “system” or “OS”.
The user interface and user experience dynamics of Zynga’s games are designed to eliminate the steep, frustrating learning curves and ponderous manuals or guides that are typical of most hit packaged goods games. If you only have five minutes to play, Zynga can accommodate you. And in a world where time is quickly eclipsing money as the most valuable currency, this is transformative. Finally, Zynga lets you experience the game before having to pay for it, eliminating the angst and risk aversion that accompany any consumer choosing a $60 console or PC game.
By embracing today’s digital lifestyle, Zynga has done something profound. It has built a multibillion dollar company that creates products that almost no one particularly likes. Their virality is a forcing function of their design and is not based on word of mouth. Very few of their users ever choose to pay for the experience (and the length of time the games provide entertainment for the users could almost be termed disposable). This is not necessarily a criticism but rather recognition of the role these games have played in leading a fundamental disruption of the industry.
Better games are coming, if not from Zynga, then from the myriad development houses inspired by what Zynga has done. These will be games users fall in love with and want to share with friends, not because they were prompted to but because they felt inspired. Games whose graphic fidelity fire the imagination and whose designs prompt delightful addiction.
But for those games to succeed, they will need to nod their heads in acknowledgement to Zynga for demonstrating that the definition of a great product has as much to do with how it’s delivered, how easy it is to understand and how seamlessly it fits into the life of the consumer. The rise of the digital lifestyle demands more of us as software artists. It requires a service mentality. We must entertain our players on their terms.
Greg Richardson is CEO of mobile- and browser-based game developer Rumble.