For those of us who lived through the dotcom crash of 2000, plummeting tech stocks are nothing new. But I can’t remember ever seeing a company lose 40% of its value in just a few hours — and that’s what happened to Zynga Wednesday afternoon.
The online gaming giant’s share price, which once stood as high as $16, has been trading in the region of $5 recently — until it released its second quarter earnings report Wednesday, and the price wilted like an untended FarmVille crop to $3 in after-hours trading.
Investors, it seemed, had finally lost patience with Zynga founder and CEO Mark Pincus, and his vague explanations of how the company will continue to grow.
I can’t say I blame them. I like Pincus; I knew him back in the days when he founded a great little social network called Tribe, which plugged the gap between Friendster and Facebook. But I also saw him interviewed on stage at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference last week in Aspen; it was hardly a bravura performance.
Pincus spoke haltingly; he was much more precise in defining Zynga’s challenges (for one, the smartphone boom has created an environment where people spend less time in his games) than in identifying solutions (there isn’t even a rough launch date for a FarmVille mobile app). No wonder a cheeky Twitter executive tweeted Wednesday that Zynga engineers were always welcome to come interview at his company. (The tweet has since been deleted.)
Gaming vs. Gambling
So how can Zynga right itself? Where do the future revenue streams lie, in a world where people are simply playing less Draw Something, having fewer Words With Friends, and slowly stepping away from nearly all of the Villes?
As I see it, there are two main possibilities: legalized gambling on the one hand, and smarter, more compelling, more original games on the other.
Gambling — or real-money gaming, as Pincus calls it — is a potential solution the CEO returns to a little too loudly and a little too often. As he points out, Zynga is already home to the world’s largest poker game, its biggest slots and bingo enterprise. Why, all it would take is a change in the entire federal regulatory environment, and Zynga would be a virtual Caesar’s Palace, but one the size of the entire Strip!
Investors aren’t buying it. Zynga is no Vegas casino, no offshore operation. It’s a company firmly rooted in California, with nearly all its customer base in states where gambling is illegal. Pincus is hardly the CEO to talk multiple governments into making a change to gambling law that would hurt the casino lobby. (One wonders if even Steve Jobs could meet that challenge.)
The End of Following
That leaves better-written, more compelling, more original gameplay. I’m told by Zynga sources there is a movement in this direction already — but that it’s hard to change the culture of a company with a tendency to either buy its games outright or be heavily influenced by others in its creativity, to put it mildly. (I hear jaws dropped and heads shook all around the Zynga building when The Ville, a game not entirely unlike The Sims, was unveiled.)
Pincus is right to say, as he does, that games should be social, simple to pick up, effortless to start playing, and capable of being consumed on the go, in bite-sized chunks. Do that and your audience is almost limitless. I give Zynga a lot of credit for shaking up the stodgy old computer and videogame industry with this model.
But he’s wrong to believe, as much of the evidence suggests, that games should be dumbed-down clickfests and meaningless reward loops. The great thing about gaming, especially when it’s social, is that it lets our imaginations soar. It lets us have fun by playing someone else — and playing the role of someone else.
I would argue that some of Zynga’s most successful games have been its smartest — the ones that sneak in some self-improvement while you’re enjoying yourself in your downtime. The Scrabble-like Words With Friends bestows an appreciation of the English language; Draw Something hones artistic skills, however mildly; FarmVille teaches agriculture, of all things. None would look particularly out of place in the classroom next to fully educational games such as Oregon Trail.
More Fun, Less Marketing
That pleasure wears off fast, however, when those titles are stuffed full of ads for other games, overly-eager requests to hook you up with more players, and nudges towards virtual goods purchasing. (The first two, plus a poor and completely unnecessary redesign, are the reasons I’ve been able to shed my long-standing Words With Friends addiction in recent weeks.)
I’d much rather drop a few dollars on a great game than constantly be on my guard for commercial purpose within it. Wouldn’t you? In-app purchases need to be super subtle, obviously optional; the game environment needs to tease our minds rather than our wallets.
For instance, my wife is addicted to DragonVale, a Zynga-esque game by Backflip Studios about breeding dragons. Ask her why she keeps returning to it, and she’ll tell you about the thoroughly silly descriptions you get to read when you buy a new dragon. There was attention to detail in the writing, and it paid off.
Mobile is a vast new frontier for gaming; we don’t know half of what works yet. What we do know is that the world is getting smarter, to the tune of an IQ point a year on average.
Maybe millions of us are ready for Choose Your Own Adventure-style text quests with multiple players, or games where you compete to compose the catchiest tune on a simplified instrument, or a galaxy-wide empire-building god game you only get to play five minutes at a time. Who knows until we try?
I’d like to see Zynga throw a thousand wacky, creative ideas at the wall and see which ones stick. Stop trying so hard to make them all look the same. Iterate fast, fail fast, and win with something you never expected — rather than trying to provide a platform for other developers to win on.
With more than a billion dollars in the bank, the company can certainly afford to invest in good game design — and investors may buy that strategy more than the unlikely promise of legalized gambling.