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Facebook Games: Where Monetization Gimicks and User Growth Matter More Than Good Game Design

by: Michael Hartman ; edited by: Benjamin Sell ; updated: 5/25/2012 • Leave a comment

In theory, Facebook is a wonderful platform for potential games. What a pity the potential has been squandered thanks to the developers' voracious appetite for more users at ANY cost. Quality gameplay? Irrelevant. Good UI design? Pshaw. Good user experience? Not important. Sad.

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    Games Are Supposed to be Fun, Right?

    Before I even get started on what will admittedly be a very ranty article, I want to put forth a few statements that the reader should know in advance. I believe:

    1. Games should be fun.
    2. Game user interfaces (UIs) should be easy to use and accessible.
    3. Good Gameplay is the top priority of game design.

    If you do not agree with the above, you probably won't agree with this article. That's fine, but at least you were warned!

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    What's My Point?

    While reading this rant, you might be tempted to think "This guy is just an angry gamer, I'd like to see him do better." I can't promise you that I have done any better, but I have at least tried: Coin 'n Carry.

    My general argument is this:

    1. Marketing is not more important than gameplay.
    2. Good UI design should not be sacrificed to make your "customers" shill for you.
    3. Monetization gimmicks are not a replacement for making money the old fashioned way: earning it.
    4. Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is not gameplay.

    Obviously this article is just the opinion of one guy. My 20 years of experience designing games is relevant, but it doesn't mean I'm automatically right. It would be easy to counter every one of my points by saying "if these games are so bad, how come they have millions of users?" To that argument I can only respond: They used to say the same thing about AOL.

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    1) Marketing Is Not More Important Than Gameplay

    When I play a Facebook game, I feel less and less like a gamer and more and more like an employee of the developer's marketing division. It feels like half my gameplay time is spent sending messages to friends, asking friends to click on links, inviting friends to play, or otherwise pimping the game in one way or another.

    no room for you  

    EXAMPLE: In The Sims Social, you cannot build rooms, buy certain types of furniture, advance certain quests, or do much of anything without the direct contribution of your friends. I'm serious.

    If you have ever played any of the "real" Sims games, just think about how absurd that is. Think of every single time you built a new room, advanced one of your "wishes", or did a whole host of other core gameplay elements. Now imagine instead of actually getting to do those things, you had to wait until 2 to 10 friends:

    1. Happened to be online.
    2. Happened to be checking your messages.
    3. Happened to have the same game installed.
    4. Happened to feel like clicking the link..

    What a titantic PAIN IN THE NECK. I just want to build a room for crying out loud! Why do I need permission from 10 of my friends to keep playing this game?

    Why do they do this? Simple. They want your friends to see these constant wall posts of yours asking for help. They want you to beg your friends to install the game so they'll click on the links that let you trudge inexorably forward in the game.

    Making you enjoy their game is not as important to them as making you publicize it.

    I'm sorry, but that's just sad.

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    2) Good UI Design Should Not Be Sacrificed to Make Your Customers Shill for You

    Game developers spend an enormous amount of time learning about user interface (UI) design. A poor UI can ruin a great a game, and a good UI can make a mediocre game actually enjoyable. The general goal is simplicity and accessibility. You never want to force players into unnecessary clicks or keystrokes, and you definitely don't want to make something deliberately cumbersome or annoying. You endeavor to give players the information they need, at the time they need it, so they can utilize the game UI to best effect.

    Facebook games completely ignore these general rules of good UI design. They sacrifice them on the altar of "MOAR USERS!!!!"

    I'm going to ding The Sims Social again for an example, but it is certainly not the first, nor the last, to do something lame like this.

    ui fail   Imagine you are about to do something fun in The Sims Social. Perhaps you want to build a room or advance a quest. You've saved up tons of various items so you should be able to do it. But wait... nope... it doesn't matter how much money you've saved, or if you have 50 of every single resource in the game. Sometimes the game literally requires that you get 2, 4, or maybe 10 friends to click on a link you post on their wall.

    But that's not all! To post this link on their wall, you have to choose their name from a drop down list of EVERY SINGLE FACEBOOK FRIEND YOU HAVE. If you have 200 friends, but only 20 of them are playing The Sims Social, it doesn't matter. The list they give you will be ALL your Facebook friends. Friends who actually play the game are not differentiated in any way, nor can you sort or filter the list by friends who play The Sims Social.

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    But Why Would They Do This? Why Deliberately Have a Bad UI?

    They WANT you to send requests to friends who don't have the game installed. The fact that this is bad and inefficient for you doesn't matter to them. They are happy when you spam someone new, because that might bring them a new user. Who cares if this sucks for you, their current player? You're already playing so you don't matter. The new shiny thing over there is more important than the one they already have in hand.

    A good UI would tell you which friends have the game installed.

    A great UI would also show you the last time they played the game. This way, you'd know which friends were the best ones to ask for help.

    But the typical Facebook game's UI is not designed with the player in mind. It is designed with marketing goals in mind. It is a completely backward bizzaro world where convenience and utility are no longer the primary goals of UI design. As is the case with so many other gameplay elements, the point here is simply to force you to shill for the company.

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    3) Monetization Gimmicks Are Not a Replacement for Making Money the Old Fashioned Way: Earning It.

    energy   Most, if not all, Facebook games use the freemium business model (sometimes also called F2P or "free-to-play"). There are variations on the model, but basically it means the game is free to play, but extra content, features, customization, and convenience cost extra. This is a great business model and has a number of tremendous benefits. It is also a very tricky business model to use well, and when done poorly it really, really stinks.

    In the social gaming space, the industry average is that only 2% of users ever pay a single penny. When only 2% of your customers think your product is worth anything, that's not a good sign.

    If you wanted to improve your monetization rate, what would you do? Some possibilities:

    • Make the game more fun.
    • Give players more value for their money.
    • Create engaging content people are excited to pay for.

    quarter   All good ideas, right? So those are the kinds of things Zynga, EA, etc. probably do to increase monetization, right?

    Wrong.

    Instead, they come up with incredibly annoying gimmicks like "energy systems" that interrupt your gameplay every few MINUTES and nag you to buy more energy to keep playing. We have literally looped back to pumping quarters in a machine every few minutes to play a game, folks. Ridiculous.

    Oh but wait! Sometimes you can earn a little more energy by having lots of friends who play the game too. Great! Back to shilling for the company just to play for more than 5 minutes in a row.

    There are tons of examples of monetization gimmicks that are introduced at the expense of gameplay. Please post your own examples in the comments.

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    What About Those Offer Scams?

    mobile costs   While not as popular these days (largely because so many people got scammed by them), there was a time where Zynga made one third of their income from people filling out "offers" instead of buying virtual currency directly. Some of these offers were legit: like Netflix subscriptions. But a very high percentage of these offers scammed people into unintentionally signing up for SMS subscriptions, horoscopes, and all manner of other things they had no idea would cost them money.

    For years, Zynga and other social game makers made millions of dollars off these offers that were scamming their trusting and eager customers. The fact that the use of these offers persisted for so long is a further indictment of the mindset so many social game companies have towards appropriate monetization.

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    4) Carpal Tunnel Syndrome Is Not Gameplay.

    There should be more to a game than just firing it up and clicking your mouse a couple hundred times without any thought, pattern recognition, or strategy. A common criticism of Diablo and Diablo II is that all you do is click-click-click your mouse. While that accusation is true on the surface, in Diablo you are clicking with a purpose. You are thinking about positioning, using your powers, and a whole host of other things. There is a lot going on behind every single mouse click.

    Then there's Farmville. Day after day, you load it up and just click a few hundred times to harvest the same crops, till the same soil, and plant the same crop all over again. There is no thought behind this or strategy. It doesn't matter how you click, or in what order you click. All that matters is that you click, click, click until your wrist explodes. It is an orthapedic surgeon's fantasy.

    Even worse, when players complained about such painfully repetitive and mindless tasks, did the developers actually do anything about it? Well... kinda. But instead of a real fix, they went right back to point #3 and used it as an opportunity for a monetization gimmick. The "fix" for their own bad game design was trying to get people to pay their way out of it.

    farmville tractor   One of the best examples of this? The Farmville Tractor. Instead of giving people a way to do something more interesting than click the same ~200 squares a couple times a day, they implemented a tractor that clicks four squares at a time, but runs out of gas almost instantly. How do you get more gas? Buy it! Brilliant, right? Not long after the implementation of the Farmville tractor, usage started a steady decline. I don't think that is a coincidence.

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    This Is Not Just About Zynga

    zynga logo   Zynga is the dominant Facebook game developer, but this article is not just about Zynga. The other big players are guilty of these things as well. EA, Playdom, Playfish... it doesn't matter. It seems like everyone is guilty.

    So don't be fooled when you load up a game thinking things will be different because "Hey, this one isn't made by Zynga." Odds are the same lame tactics will be used to cajole you into nagging your friends into oblivion, and the same attitude of "customer experience doesn't matter" will dominate the game's design.

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    OHMYGOD! You Are 100% Right! What Can We Do?

    If you got this far and feel like I made a few good points, perhaps you are wondering what you can do about it. Believe it or not, there actually is something you can do.

    STOP PLAYING THESE GAMES.

    If you can't do that, at the very least:

    DON'T GIVE THESE GAMES YOUR MONEY.

    There are actually tons and tons of amazing free to play online games both on and off Facebook that do not use these sleazy tactics to pump their user counts. You can find some of them at sites like Big Fish, Kongregate, or Outspark.

    Look at a game like League of Legends. LoL is a big budget, mass market game that doesn't use any of the tricks mentioned in this article, and manages to still have millions of users and millions in revenue. You are never cajoled into nagging your friends to play, and there is no trickery involved in getting you to spend money.

    There are indie game companies out there that will care deeply about your actual gameplay experience rather than simply looking at you as a means to the end of recruiting 10 of your friends.

    The point is, don't sell yourself short as a customer. The quality of your experience matters. A good game developer will recognize this and respect it. If you are playing a game that spends more time making you advertise for it than having fun, that's not right. Don't support those games or those game developers. Uninstall and look around for something better.

    If you still can't find anything, post in the comments and I'm sure someone will help you find a better game that is more worthy of your time.

References

  • All screenshots taken by the author from The Sims Social, Mafia Wars, and Farmville.

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