The Future of Casual Gaming According to Zynga

Zynga May Be a Juggernaut In The Casual Game Market, But Our Game Preferences Will Shape The Future

Today, I had the opportunity to interview Bernard Kim, President of Publishing at Zynga, to discuss the future of casual games. I was particularly interested in the direction that Zynga is headed in as they are a juggernaut in the casual games market. Yesterday, Zynga release their second quarterly earnings. Much to their delight, they had their highest revenue and bookings performance in their company’s history with $452 million in revenue and $518 million in bookings.  Further, in an online conference call, which you can listen to here, Zynga announced the acquisition of Rollic, a hyper-casual game company.

Image courtesy of Zynga

If you are not familiar with the company Zynga, I am sure you are familiar with their games. They are probably best known for the games Farmville and Words with Friends, but other popular titles include Dragon Merge! and newly acquired Toon Blast. With their recent acquisition of Rollic, which will close in October, they will be adding games like Tangle Master 3D to their growing roster. Given their success in the casual game market and their strategic position to move into the hyper-casual games market, it is safe to say that they will play a big role in shaping the future landscape.

One area that Zynga predicts future growth is in the hyper-casual games market. These are simple quick games that anyone can play with little instruction. According to Bernard Kim, “through player feedback, [Zynga] learned that some players want to jump into a game quickly without having to learn how to play.” Zynga is well-positioned to dominate this market with the acquisition of Rollic. Rollic has dominated the market with 250 million installs in less than a year. Rollic has even had games top the free apps charts in the US. This market is particularly valuable because 20% of new casual game players in the in-app purchase market begin as hyper-casual players.

Bernard Kim credits Zynga’s success to centering their “games around great gameplay and fun game mechanics.” A key to maintaining fun games has been to stay true to the aspect that made the game popular to begin with. As Zynga acquires new gaming companies, such as Peak, Zynga allows them to maintain some independence “each of our game teams maintains their culture, we do not tell them to add things or change things based on other games” says Bernard Kim.

As good as all of this sounds, let’s face it, Zynga has always had a rocky relationship with the “true” gaming community. They have a history of being disparaging and condescending to the Indie game community, despite creating games that are a very pale shadow of the masterpieces that we see coming from Indie developers. Raph Koster, an influential game designer (and a bit of a personal hero of mine), has been quite critical of Zynga claiming that they don’t make games, or at least not compelling games. I think that this is a valid point. So, do we want Zynga to determine the future of casual games?

Zynga’s business model is based around two things: in-app purchases and ads. If you want to play one of their games for any length of time, you are going to be faced with the decision of buying in-game currency, watching an ad, or in some games (Farmville for instance) pimping out your friends. I acknowledge the strength of this business model and have a deep understanding of the ways that the model leverages social capital, prestige, social comparison, and consumerism. Heck, these game mechanics were part of the focus of my doctoral work! But I think such persuasive computing techniques are best applied to social good, like decreasing online course attrition. Alone, it makes for a weak, borderline manipulative, game.

I might have gone into the interview with Bernard Kim pessimistic, but I actually left feeling optimistic. If there was one thing that Bernard Kim emphasized about Zynga it was their core values:

“We want to be wherever players are… Engagement and retention are our focus. We believe if players enjoy playing a game, monetization will follow.”

Therefore, the ball is in our court. If you hate ad ridden games, don’t play free games. Are you concerned about how much money a family member is spending on in-app purchases? Buy them a more compelling game. Instead of Farmville, try Stardew Valley. If we demand better games, we will get them, that is their bottom line. And if you like Zynga games, and are fine with the cost, then enjoy. But let’s, as a gaming community, own our choices and the future of casual gaming.

Share your thoughts in the comments below. Do enjoy Zynga games? Do you hate them? What are your favorite games? Share some lesser-known casual games that you feel deserve more love.