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.