No new game company has been more successful over the past couple of years than Zynga. From Mafia Wars to FarmVille, Zynga has essentially defined the latest generation of games on Facebook. It almost goes without saying that Facebook has become a ubiquitous, nigh-indispensable element of so many people's social existence, and it is the rare Facebooker indeed who has not fielded requests and seen status updates from a Zynga title. I played Mafia Wars off and on for at least a year.
Now comes FrontierVille, in many ways Zynga's most sophisticated project yet. Like other Zynga games it is brilliantly designed and meticulously executed in its ability to lure you onto a never-ending virtual treadmill. Hardly any electronic code is more purely diverting than a game like FrontierVille.
But I don't find it meaningful or rewarding. There is no mental stimulation or biomechanical pleasure here. Rather, I find this entire category of games both insidious in their appeal and annoyingly blatant in their attempt to commercialize their users - to turn players into payers.
You see, FrontierVille and its ilk do not feel like games at all. Instead they seem like lucrative business models that are being sold and packaged in the form of a game. There is a big difference. When you talk to most designers of great games they will tell you something along the lines of, "We make the kind of games we would want to play." That never feels like the case with Zynga games. To me, a game like FrontierVille says: "We make the kind of games we think can best attract and monetize the most number of people with credit cards who don't mind dropping $10 or $20 once in a while for a virtual tchotchke."
Obviously, millions of people don't mind at all, and FrontierVille taps into the same veins of design and recurrence as earlier Zynga games. The setup is that you begin alone in the forest with a couple of chickens and you must tame the wilderness by clearing brush and cutting down trees before you can build a cabin, plant crops, raise animals, attract a spouse, have children, and build an Old West-style settlement.
Like other Zynga games FrontierVille is designed around a few core concepts: Keep the players coming back multiple times a day, keep encouraging them to invite more friends to the game, and keep giving them reason to pay a few bucks here and there. You can play FrontierVille free and without badgering your friends to come play with you all the time, but your progression will be slow and meager. If you really want to feel like you're getting somewhere you need to keep inviting more friends or start shelling out some cash, or both. I paid $20 for 170 virtual horseshoes, which I used to unlock advanced farm animals like cows and oxen and better flora like peach trees.
Whether you pay or not, FrontierVille is built to keep you coming back at least a few times a day. You expend energy points to perform actions like feeding pigs, chopping trees, or whacking snakes. Once you're out of energy points you can wait a couple of hours for your pool to replenish or eat virtual food (from your crops), or spend real money to get more energy. That real-time structure is perfectly suited for how people use Facebook, which is to check in now and then (or all day) on what their friends are up to.
In the end all great games, like all great entertainments, involve a bit of manipulation - doing things to consumers that they may not be completely aware of on a conscious level. And perhaps Zynga games like FrontierVille are not manipulative at all in the sense that they are so transparent about how they operate.
With other games you pay either upfront or by a monthly fee, and then you have access to the whole game. With FrontierVille, you never really have access to the whole game. Instead you keep paying here and there and inviting more and more friends to keep seeing a little bit more of this frontier wilderness that you will never fully master.
But you'll have fun doing it.