Thursday, September 8, 2011

An Open Letter to Zynga

For a number of years, I have written strategy guides for games, specialising in Harvest Moon and Rune Factory, series that were produced for consoles and handheld systems. At the prompting of some of my fans, I became involved with Farmville and have been playing it now for over a year. More recently, again at the prompting of friends and fans of my game guides, I began to play CityVille. Although these games share some of the characteristics that endeared Harvest Moon and Rune Factory to me, there are some essential differences that are both positive and negative.

Positive aspects of games that use Facebook as a platform include the fact that the games are free to all players and the ability to change and enlarge the scope of any game as well as the ability to introduce new items and options. The positive aspects of this are obvious. The negative aspects only become apparent over the course of time.

Although Facebook games generally advertise themselves as 'free', a player has the opportunity to purchase items that require a currency that for the most part must be bought using real money. Often these items either are Limited Editions that are time-restricted. In other words, a player will have a limited amount of time to purchase them before the items disappear from the Marketplace. There is nothing wrong with the general principle of offering players special items of this sort. What is unethical, in my view, is the way Zynga has increased the number of Limited Editions, linking them to new options that bombard the player with invitations to purchase. Special 'sales' both of FarmVille Cash/CityVille Cash and Limited Edition items likewise bombard the player almost every time he/she logs into the game.

It can be argued that a player has an opportunity to demonstrate his/her support of a 'free' game by investing a little real money in it. After all, a console or handheld game can cost between $25.00 to $50.00. The difference, of course, is that, once purchased, a handheld or console game is complete and all new options and items are included, even if they must be 'unlocked' by the player's progress and advances in the game.

When I began to play FarmVille, it resembled traditional console and handheld games insofar as many of the options required a certain degree of progress in the game rather than being options and items that had to be purchased using real cash within a limited time period. Unfortunately, this has changed in the course of the past year. There is a certain appearance of desperation and greed in the manner in which both FarmVille and CityVille operate now and it may lead ultimately to the downfall of Zynga as a successful competitor in the world of Facebook.

Many players, including myself, perceived Facebook games such as FarmVille as a haven and sanctuary of peace, a place where one could escape the pressures and problems of the real world. Unfortunately, when the game itself places pressure on the player to use real money to purchase items and options before they disappear, the game becomes far less attractive, even when the player could afford to invest the money in the game. When the player cannot afford to invest limitless sums of real money, the game becomes frustrating and the endless stream of offers become rather unpleasant.

Let me use the example of a player who has been using my Harvest Moon and Rune Factory guides for years and who is an avid fan of those series. After a year on Facebook, she recently began to play CityVille. Within a matter of weeks, I received an email from her to the effect that she no longer would be playing the game as it 'cost too much money'. Note that the game itself remains free and in fact, in the original vision of the game, Quests are the method by which most items are unlocked. It is only because of the constant, unending stream of special offers and sales that this player was induced to spend more real money than she ever envisioned or intended.

Zynga may argue that no one 'puts a gun to your head' to force players to invest real money in FarmVille or CityVille. On the other hand, players are extremely susceptible to pressure to purchase 'premium' items when those items are time-restricted. This may benefit Zynga significantly at the start, but ultimately many players will do what my friend did.

About a fortnight after the first email, during which period my friend continued to play CityVille, after avowing her intention to end her participation, I received the following email:

'Just thought I should let you know I have had to Block CityVille from my computer. I was addicted and it was costing me too much money for this economy. I'm going through withdrawal now.
I did love playing!!!'

This player is not the only one who either has blocked the game or simply refuses to log into the game after spending far more money than any Harvest Moon or Rune Factory game would cost. Investment in Facebook games is a very slippery slope with almost imperceptible descent at times. For example, FarmVille recently has begun to offer a 'free gift' of a Limited Edition item when one purchases ANY amount of FarmVille Cash, including the purchase of a dollar's worth of FV Cash. These items now consist primarily of rare Zoo Animals for the new Zoo option. I have no doubt that many players who previously resisted the temptation to purchase FV Cash have been drawn into the investment by these seemingly benign and small purchase options.

The problem here is that the offers continue to proliferate and, combined with the frequent sales that offer FV Cash at a discount, can lead to rather excessive spending on the part of players who never intended to allocate a significant part of their 'entertainment budget' on Facebook games.

One can justify a certain amount of spending by comparing it with the vices of others. When one does not smoke or drink and, if disabled, is unable to go out to dinner or to the cinema frequently, one could argue that an investment even of $20.00 in a Facebook game is not excessive. It may not be excessive, but can one afford it? The answer in many cases, is negative. Furthermore, I believe that Zynga has a moral duty not to engage its loyal fans in this sort of constant marketing pressure.

Players of Facebook games often fill the gaps in tneir real lives with the small pleasures found in landscaping their virtual lands or making progress in the game. These games, however, should be a blessing and not a curse. Few players have unlimited real resources to place at the disposal of Zynga. Ultimately they, like the player who solved her problem by blocking CityVille, will reject the games completely in favour of console or handheld games that hold equal pleasure and enjoyment without the constant pressure to SPEND, SPEND, SPEND.

The world is experiencing an economic recession of sorts and, while virtual purchases can act as a fulfilling substitute for real purchases, this is not true when the virtual items require significant investment of real money that is needed to LIVE in the real world.

I continue to play FarmVille and CityVille regularly. While I love the themes and Limited Editions, as well as welcoming sales of FV Cash and CityVille Cash, realistically I am not in a position to make any significant investments in these games. I do believe that I have exhibited my support of these games in the past.

Why do the themes have to be SO limited in terms of time? Why can't Zynga offer a new theme every two months rather than every week or fortnight? Why are Limited Editions in CityVille available only for 5 days? That sort of time limit is unconscionable, in my view.

I urge any players who agree with this 'open letter' to add their comments and urge Zynga to give serious consideration to these issues. Thank you.

Freyashawk de Conde


  1. I'm actually the kind of player that ignores cash items and just scroll past them. Though I can see how it can be overwhelming. While I don't mind new themes on a two-to-three week basis, I agree that they should last more than a week, perhaps at least a month.
    What I actually hate about Zynga (and other) games is the constant need for friends. After placing a new building I then need a few days of wall posting and sending requests to get all the needed materials. And even if we can get some materials from buildings (marble, gold platings ...), they aren't needed in new buildings, where we need new things, like coconuts.
    Another thing I hate are withering plants. I'm only planting things that grow a day or more, so that I'm sure to have enough time to harvest, even if I forget the exact time when it's ripe. It would be more fair if the plants didn't wither, but lost quality and we'd get less money/goods out of them.

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  3. Appearing in Zynga Forums for more than a year, one can find entries citing the greatest grief experienced in the Play of FarmVille relates to managing inventory issues of Bushels gained in the harvesting of crops. The raising of the Bushel inventory to its current level of 400 Bushels occurred initially in the growth pangs of a time when there was just one farm, the Home Farm and only 3 Craft Shops (Spa, Bakery and Winery). Today, there are 3 more farms, and way more than a doubling of the initial number of crops included in recipes of the 7 Craft shops (Spa, Bakery, Winery, Pub, Restaurant, Sweet Shoppe and Craftshop). Today, the 400 Bushel limitation is fraught with quirks such as having to toss out bushels whenever going for Crop Mastery. With more than a doubling of Craft recipes, there are also Baskets of fruit harvested from trees, even wool from sheep, fertilizer from pigs, and jugs of milk. To the 400 Bushel limitation, the Silo with its possible expansion on each of 4 farms offers an additional 400 units – NOT for Bushels but for Baskets, Jugs and other types of inventory. Consider one example experienced by all in Crop Mastery: In harvesting as many as a few thousand crops required in gaining Level 3 Mastery for the Raspberry crop, repeated sharing of Raspberry Bushels must occur to maintain a Bushel inventory of 399 or less. Much more than meets the eye causes one to question just what the skillset of Zynga Developers is. If motivation comes from grabbing for money, perhaps even from personal gains related to bonuses or compensation tied to performance in advance of an Initial Public Offering (presumably planned in the very near future), Zynga may need to stop and recant their errant ways, or at least offer some indication of how they can take responsibility for shortfalls in the game play experience of its Players. As a first-year Player of FarmVille, I remember Zynga having returned Farm Cash in instances of Players who had built-out multiple Nursery Barns. The endgame cannot presume that there is always another tomorrow and, apparently, another not-so-smart consumer waiting to learn what does not work.... Not likely to endure continuing setbacks, many really good Players, Players who also offer real world help such as the kind spearheaded by Zynga for Haiti and continuing through major additional fundraising campaigns, have long ago exited the Play of FarmVille. None of my current neighbors have planted the current seeds offered to Farmers making real cash gifts to benefit the cause of combating World Hunger. But I keep holding on to the larger premise that the social gaming of FarmVille has enough constructive pieces - pieces that really do help bring virtual gaming into a practical training implementation for both youngsters and oldsters. For the young and for the old, there is value in putting one’s mind into something as intriguing as that of a Farmer and the never-ending chores known by a Farmer. Responsibility, consistency, and motivation are all keys to good character. As the workload of a Farmer is, indeed, never ending, a Farmer has to determine a purpose to all that is done in order to continue, seemingly endlessly, seldom with any 'down time' (even when experiencing an illness of unusual severity and sometimes even ignoring a Doctor's orders of complete bed rest). Zynga Players may note that they have a similar experience as relates to their completing Quests in FarmVille. But the difference is huge between the two worlds. Indeed, the Farmer knows “Doing it” is often only possible when the Purpose is not just stated but also accepted and/or at least agreed upon and fully integrated with one’s own training and experience. If a Farmer just “flows with the flow,” the Farmer knows that he/she will indeed flow down the drain just as water that flows towards the lowest point. Indeed, the Farmer knows the error of poor judgment: Stepping into quicksand, a sinkhole of unplanned, un-purposed action is easily experienced as a kind of hell. Indeed, do ask any Farmer. Then ask Zynga…

  4. And now do ask Zynga…

    Zynga's own creation, "A Very FarmVille Christmas" says it best in a holiday video released to promote the newest farm, the Winter Wonderland.

    Santa compliments Noah, an auspicious FarmVille Duck, upon being accidentally pommelled by a chicken experiencing yet another failed attempt at flying. ‘A fryer with a taste to fly,’ the chicken was attempting to fulfill its Christmas dream wish, As the story line develops, Noah is congratulated by Santa in having sent the best ‘Dear Santa’ letter. Santa noted that Noah asked just one Christmas wish: That all of his friends be granted their wishes. Not having made any wish for himself, Santa champions Noah as having sent the best Dear Santa letter of all, stating: "Giving is a gift unto itself." And then Santa admonishes the chicken in thinking that his dream to fly cannot become true. Santa states, “In Winter Wonderland, every dream becomes true.” So, please Zynga… help in making known the purpose of FarmVille gaming elements by introducing each with a mission statement. Why is there need for a Winter Pen that matches the purpose of its counterpart? Does one transfer animals between the two pens and then store the ‘off-season’ pen? If that be the thinking, there is not a selection to store it. There is only a selection to sell the pen. Does a Farmer dispose of the off-season pen, only to re-build it come summer time? There is need for all FarmVille Players to have receipt of a Customer Appreciation letter, one that includes a gifting of that which Zynga covets most: FarmVille Cash. Play on!