Archive for the ‘ Editorial ’ Category

Cafe World Removes Free Roofs

When we were poking around Cafe World for our post about the new vampire items, we noticed something strange. There used to be a full screen of 14 roofs available in the outdoor store, but now there are only 12. Or so we thought. We checked, and sure enough, we luckily snapped a screenshot of the roofs section of the outdoor store, when it went live:

Now, compare that to the roofs store today (you can click on either image for a full-size look):

There used to be a few roofs players could buy with Cafe Cash, OR buy with a huge number of coins – three to nine million coins, to be exact. The coffee house roof, the french style roof, and the pirate ship roof are the three that could be purchased in both ways.

But now, the coin versions of the coffee house and the french style roofs have been removed. Players can only obtain them via Cafe Cash. The coin version of the pirate ship roof is the only one of the three remaining, for sale for nine million coins.

So… what happened? Is this another error, like the FrontierVille ribbon removal? Or did Zynga discover that if they gave players a free method for obtaining an item, no matter how lengthy, players will continually opt for that route?

Our stance is that social game companies charging for premium items or features is fine. We’re believers in the free-to-play, pay-for-item business model, and we believe it is very consumer friendly. Considerably more consumer friendly than a company charging $60 up front to access their game before the player even knows if they really like it or not. But this model only remains consumer friendly if the social game developers behave themselves.

Where we have a problem is when a company makes a pivot like this after the items or features are live. Once something is released, there is a consumer expectation of permanence, as long as the offer isn’t specifically labeled as limited or temporary. Once players are involved in real-money transactions in a game, it is scary to see supposedly permanent shop items removed with no notice. It reinforces the belief that the developer does not respect their players.

How can we feel secure spending our money in a game when Zynga changes the rules on the fly for what is paid and what is free, and changes the rules for what is and isn’t for sale? If Zynga wants to run tests by releasing both paid and free versions of some items, that’s fine. But they can’t change their mind halfway through, and quietly make changes without any kind of alert or notice. Or at least, they can’t behave this way and expect to continue receiving business from those players that notice.

How Zynga Treats Their Players Poorly: An Example

NOTE: This post has been updated. Please scroll to the bottom to see the latest developments.

A lot of ink has been generated about Zynga and their peers. Social game companies seem to take it on the chin from all sides. The enthusiast gaming press is dismissive (to put it kindly) of the entire social game space. The mainstream press only seems interested in talking about FarmVille to report on how many millions play during work hours, and how people are “conned” into spending $100s.

Given that we are a social games blog, our stance on the medium should be pretty clear. People are free to spend their downtime and their disposable income any way they want. Some people go to movies, others buy traditional video games, and some buy exclusive items for their virtual farm. These are entertainment purchases – if someone enjoys their time with the item or experience they bought, then it is not any less legitimate than anything else. So, to reiterate, Social Game Central considers itself a friend to Zynga, Playdom, Playfish, Crowdstar, and all the rest.

But… that doesn’t mean they get a free pass.

Below, we’re going to outline, in a high level of detail, one specific way that Zynga has treated their player base poorly in the name of making more money in their newest hit game FrontierVille. But first, it’s important to understand the most common ways that social game makers monetize their free-to-play applications:

Social Game Monetization Crash Course

1) Exclusive Items
By far the most common. Nearly all social games include a personalization aspect. Players have a space to decorate and arrange how they like. A variety of free decorations will be available, but players can pay to buy decorations as well. They are usually more elaborate, or have specific themes.

2) Allow Players to Play More
In many free to play games, every action a player takes cost “energy,” which slowly refills over time. This limits how much a player can accomplish in a day or single play session. Players can pay to get extra energy to keep playing. Many players do this to finish off a big goal they were working towards, or to surpass their friends.

3) Bypass Pain Points
This is where things can get a little dicey from a consumer advocacy standpoint, because these pain points were put into place by the developer themselves! For example, it used to be kind of a pain to harvest fruit from trees in FarmVille. So Zynga implemented a paid feature that allowed players to harvest from all their trees with one click. Another example: In Crowdstar’s Happy Island, it takes days to “build” some attractions. But players can pay to build them automatically.

Where & How Zynga Crossed a Line
So, now that you have some working background on how these games most commonly make money, let’s talk about FrontierVille and its ribbons, and why this serve as a case study for Zynga not having enough respect for their players.

In FrontierVille, the high-level goal is to settle on the frontier – chop down trees, build a frontier town, raise a family, etc. In a first for Zynga, the backbone of a game is a fun and robust system of story-based missions or quests. These quests are varied, and ensure players always have something to do. Players might be required to bake a cake, or raise some chickens, or build a school house.

In one specific quest, players are required to create two presents:

Presents are created by combining two in-game items, ribbons, and cloth:

Sounds reasonable enough, right? Cloth is obtained by visiting your neighbor’s FrontierVille towns, and players could create and send their neighbors ribbon as an in-game gift free of charge. There is just one problem – ribbon has been removed from the game’s free gifts tab:

Hmmm… a conundrum! Almost the only way to receive ribbon, an item required several places (more on this in a sec), was via a neighbor gift. But now it can’t be gifted. Surely this is a mistake on Zynga’s part? But wait… look in the cash store. Players can now buy a ribbon, for 4 horseshoes (about $0.50). There is almost no other way to obtain this item.

So, players need four total ribbons to complete the mission above. The mission might as well be named “Spend $2!,” because it is nearly impossible to complete without paying up. There are a few other in-game ways to obtain ribbons, but they are arduous and require a healthy helping of chance/luck.

What’s worse is that ribbons are required all over FrontierVille. Remember this is an item that players could previously create and send to other players, once per day. The same day that feature was removed, it was introduced as a PAID item. The game’s schoolhouse lessons require ribbons:

Players need 91 ribbons to complete all the school house lessons – nearly $45 worth. Although these lessons are at least tucked away in the school house itself. Unless players pony up for ribbons, the missions that require them will forever sit on the left side of their screen, pestering the player and reminding them that they remain incomplete.

We don’t begrudge Zynga monetizing their games. They need to, and have every right to. But it is essential they do so with respect for their player base, and not contempt. This means:

1) Not removing previously free items and reintroducing them as paid.

2) Not introducing missions or other critical, progress-stopping barriers that require items that are paid or obtained in-game very erratically.

UPDATE: A FrontierVille community manager stated Wednesday that the ribbons were removed from the free gifts tab “in error” and would be returned today, Thursday. As of now (12:00 PM PST) they are still missing. There has been no formal word on whether releasing Ribbons as a paid item on the same day they were accidentally removed as a free item was also an error. We have reached out to Zynga for clarification.

Several (15+) topics on the official Zynga forum complaining about the Ribbon change have been locked, with this same message – that the free ribbons would be returning today.

In the 6+ months we have been covering Zynga game religiously, we have never seen a paid item accidentally released for free in error.

UPDATE 2: The ribbon returned to FrontierVille’s free gifts tab at around 3PM today. Zynga declined to comment on this story officially, but did reiterate to us privately that its removal from the free gifts tab was not intentional and was done in error.

We still question the timing of the free gift disappearing the same day an option to buy went live, especially given the company’s well-known practice of performing frequent revenue tests, but we take their response at face value and are glad to see free ribbon gifting make a speedy return.

Where Zynga’s Treasure Isle Went Wrong

As most Treasure Isle players have probably noticed, Zynga is beginning to charge for more and more of the game’s maps.

SGC’s stance is that charging for maps in this nature is very disappointing and sets a scary precedent for social games in general. These maps are the game – this is one of the first examples of Zynga charging money for core content, instead of cosmetic bonuses or other optional boosts. It’s the equivalent of Mafia Wars charging for two of the six chapters in a new expansion, or a Farmville farm expansion only available via FV$.

Most social games (Zynga’s included) give players a choice. If you want a new Petville room, you can gather up more neighbors, OR buy it with cash. If you want more Mafia Wars energy, you can wait for it to recharge, OR buy more with cash. If you want a Farmville dog, you can pay a very large number of coins and jump through kibble feeding hoops, OR buy one. Users can use cash to bypass pain points.

The problem with these new maps is that they remove this choice. You have no choice – if you want to fully complete Treasure Isle, you have to pay up. This is a first, for Zynga. Why not allow premium maps to be purchased with a large number of hard-to-find gems *or* cash? Or make them unlock at a very high level, but allow players to pay to access them early? There are a number of more player-friendly options.

As we’ve said many times, we don’t begrudge any social game company for charging for virtual items. These companies are businesses, and have employees to pay. They offer up a tremendous amount of content free of charge. But what Zynga seems to be forgetting is that users need to feel good when they purchase something. If you buy a fun, elaborate Farmville or Petville decoration, it’s fun to gain that big item. It’s fun to leapfrog your Mafia Wars friends by using a few energy packs. Paying cash to access basic Treasure Isle maps is very much missing that feeling of fun.

We can appreciate that to some readers out there this editorial might read as “News Flash: Company Charging for Items – Users Complain,” and there is certainly an element of truth in that. Rather than being happy about all the free maps, we are worried and upset about the paid ones, which can certainly be construed as an overly developed sense of entitlement.

The issue here is that Zynga itself set the initial precedent. What we’re now seeing is a change in the established practices & a shift towards a model that is less player-friendly. If Farmville had told players 5 weeks after launch “We’re glad you like our game! Continue to enjoy it for free, or pay $5 to expand your farm,” then these Treasure Isle maps wouldn’t offend our sensibilities to this degree.

Social games have been truly free to play up to this point… players could pay to increase the fun factor, but never had to pay for game access itself. We’re concerned about what will happen to this young industry if that sentiment no longer exists at the largest social game maker.