This Monday Zynga is closing down one of it’s games, Street Racer. As far as I am concerned Zynga is not a game company, but rather a business. And this event only shows how much this is true. Unfortunately, it comes at a grave price, in the “betrayal” of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of fans who are now doubly suspicious of online transactions.
To clarify, Zynga is shutting down Street Racer, a game much like their others, where players can spend real money to buy premium items. The announcement was made less than a week from the shut down date. In fact, it was probable that people, having been paid this week, purchased large amounts of the in game currency, only to find out that Monday, their purchase is worthless. Only in retrospect did Zynga back pedal and allow users to transfer their in-game currency to another Zynga game with a small bonus for their trouble. Well, at least you have likely stemmed the lawsuits, bravo. The problem is, these people didn’t want to play Farmville or Frontierville, they wanted to play Street Racers. (It is fairly clear these are wildly different properties, even if the gameplay amounts to the same thing.)
UPDATE: This isn’t the first time either.
Why was this a betrayal? Every time a developer creates a game and sends it out into the world, whether it is free or not, they are creating an unwritten agreement with the player. There are many points of this agreement, like that the game can be played or completed without cheating or hacking, but the most valid point in this case is: “If you spend your time and money, the game will reward you.” This agreement is actually the basis for all Zynga gameplay. You spend time, every day, and you spend money, and we will allow you to look awesome in front of all your Facebook friends. You will be able to make people you never see jealous, and will be bombarded with messages asking about all your cool stuff. It’s a valid and completely profitable idea.
Look how well it worked for Blizzard. The major difference between these purchases (point of interest – I have purchased not one but THREE Celestial Steeds. Two for myself and one as a gift.) is the company doing the selling. Zynga is completely focused on the bottom line. Even if a game has a million users, Zynga will likely shut it down if it is the most under-performing game in comparison to the other titans currently on the roster. Blizzard takes a different view, though they haven’t had to, one assumes they will follow the path set forth by companies more focused on the agreement than the bottom line. Other MMOs have merged servers, gone F2P, and even put out notices, months in advance of the servers shutting down. In the case of Tabula Rasa, not only did they give a great deal of warning, allow for transfer of playtime to ANY NCSoft title, but also created a wildly huge and fitting in game event to “end the world.” In fact other MMOs have continued to limp on for YEARS despite declining player bases because even with those small sums, it is still profitable to keep the servers running. Not a huge profit, but a small one.
Why is all this such a big deal? To be honest, most people who buy digital items in games don’t really understand the concept of ownership of the digital item. Companies like Zynga don’t go out of their way to explain it either. (To be fair, Blizzard does, but only deep within their ToS.) In online games, like WoW and Farmville, you don’t actually own anything. All those level 80s? Not actually yours. All those rooms filled with stuff in that Yoville mansion? None of that is yours either. It is owned by the company producing the game. Legally, they can do whatever they want with it. And you agreed to it in the ToS. In fact, Zynga is in no way required or obligated to refund or even offer credit for all those items that will be deleted on Monday. Just like if Blizzard shut down it’s servers tomorrow, they would not be required to refund me any money for my mounts and pets purchased off their store. Or the staggering amounts of time I spent in the game as shown by my /played. The problem is, since most people don’t understand that, they have spend possibly hundreds of dollars on things they didn’t realize were so ephemeral. I inherently don’t trust most digital purchases and thus stick to things I do trust, like WoW, iTunes, Steam and GoG. I know these companies will not leave me high and dry one day having wasted my money. These players so rudely shoved from their game though, they may not realize it. They are likely never to spend another penny on something they can’t actually own.
The difference comes down to if your company philosophy is to make money or make games. To be fair, one of the first things I was told when getting into this industry is that we are, at the end of the day, a commercial product. We have to make money to fund our salary and future development. But at what point does this go too far? At what point do you start treating the player like a bunch of idiot wealthy marks, only intended to be fleeced out of their hard earned money? This is why most game studios have the developers majorly people who want to make good, critically acclaimed, awesome games, and only a few sharks at the top. The sharks are there to take the product and make it profitable. (I honestly feel every company needs at least one or two sharks to succeed.) These two sides for a sort of checks and balances, so when the sharks get too sharky the developers say “But we can’t do that, it will alienate our players.” But companies like Zynga are out to make money. And if that means screwing over some players, oh well. They are legally protected and they have a hundred million others spending money into their coffers, so why should they care about a few million bruised players?
If Blizzard ever decides to shut down WoW, I will be inconsolable. But I trust Blizzard to give me time to grieve. Give me time for one last Kara run. One last Baron run. One last drunken revelry and duel fest in Goldshire. One day to move all my toons to their final logout points, and say goodbye. I will have had a good two years with my lovely Celestial Steed (and my various pets, I bought them all). I also trust that if that ever happens, I will know about it weeks if not months in advance. I am fairly positive that even if Blizzard does shut down WoW, they still want me to play whatever their next MMO is. They want me to be a return customer. So they go out of their way to not break the agreement. Zynga is all about the bottom line, and as such, they feel they will always have customers, always be able to draw new ones, and never have to worry about those they have betrayed. For a few years at least, they will be right. But what happens when the masses of betrayed become angry and vocal? What happens when they start convincing those new players not to play your game? Then begins the slow decline into nothingness. Blizzard has proven over years of making games they don’t just want to make good games, they want to make excellent games and excellent followers. Zynga just wants to make money.