GDC 2010: "Fear and Loathing in Farmville"

Note: title of this post shamelessly stolen from Soren Johnson’s twitter feed

This is my first GDC, so maybe they are all like this, but woah it feels like there’s a war going on.

You’ve got Zynga and the social game types doing games like web sites. Lots of metrics and user analysis and iterating versions based on behavior. This process is apparently entirely new to game developers and terrifies them.

Here are some examples from the Zynga talk of their process of trying out features with a few thousand users at a time, and changing their game on what works best: They’ll make the link an unreadable pink since that’s what users click on. They’ll rip two steps of their tutorial since more players stick around if they do. They aren’t really doing game design so much, it is more web like, but it’s working for them obviously.

On the other end you’ve got Chris Hecker (see Charles’ “Rewards Bad” post) mocking this directly and saying Zynga is basically turning games into dull reward treadmills which will ultimately lead to them being slot machines. Quoth Hecker:

“If you are intentionally making dull games with variable ratio extrinsic motivators to separate people from their money, you have my pity.”

And THEN you’ve got Jesse Schell (of the linked-everywhere talk about getting points for everything you do). He referenced his previous talk and explicitly said – this is Brave New World. He said, literally, this is a “war”, defined four types of games designers and clearly labeled the “persuader” type as the bad guys – no secret again he was talking about Zynga et al. He’s all “YOU HAVE TO PICK A SIDE, good or evil” and the audience is cheering (some anyway).

It’s all really over the top and you’ve got a real sense that many game developers view social games as a threat to game design as a discipline.

I hope more of these talks make it online, because it’s all pretty fascinating.

I have a very hard time blaming them. The most played game on the planet is a spam scam wearing a Harvest Moon For Morons wrapper. Over 70 million people play Farmville each month. By this estimate, more people play Farmville in a month than have ever played Tetris. Think about that.

It makes me a better person that I have never played Farmville or any of its ilk, I am convinced of this.

It’s not social games as a threat to game design, it’s money driven treadmill games that’s a threat to game design.

A coworker identified a similar problem with a money driven free to play social game, in which they specifically destroyed the balance in key ways at times in order to persuade the player’s to pay money to fix their own game balance.

It is a war. It’s suits versus the creative people.

I still don’t know what to make of Farmville, which is to say it’s gotten more “game-like” in the past several months, no doubt due to the influence of folks like Brian Reynolds being on staff. It’s a big step up from the old Travian-style free-2-play model, but it’s still insidious, and Zynga proselytizes way too much for my liking.

Oh, and for reference, here’s the Qt3 discussion with Andrew Mayer about Farmville:

  • Alan


I’m not at GDC this year, but you’re not the first person to tell me that it felt like there’s a war going on for the future of the games business. A couple of colleagues pointed to the simultaneously defensive and cocky speech from the Zynga guy at the IGF awards - his offering the prospect of employment to all these people making art games or real games seemed very out of place.

Is this just the old establishment feeling resentful that millions of people prefer Farmville or is there a real retrenchment against the idea that their art and craft is being bastardized?


I hate Farmville and its ilk so much.

Trash-talking indie developers was foolish, not because he offended indie developers, but he offended people who sympathize with and admire indie developers, such as most of the developers I know. Being condescending to a vocal, sympathetic, yet financially poor part of the development scene (that’s not even competing with you!) only creeps out those who would consider working for you.

If this is the attitude Zynga takes to those trying to make something cool and interesting for (in most cases) little or no money, why would anyone who believes that games are more than a way to extract money from bored people want to work for them?


The family of social games have very low development cost relative to return, at least with the kinds of numbers being posted by the Zyngas of the world. The attention of the traditional publishers is rightly focused on that space. When you compare the ongoing diminishing rate of return in AAA titles versus these social games, the picture doesn’t look pretty for the usual GDC attendee. Bitterness is assured, now and for years to come.

Does it really make sense to declare war against somebody with more money than you?

How big is the potential market for web-based carny games, anyway?

You mean months to come. Fast development times mean the boom-bust-normality cycle for social games will happen quickly.

Here is what will happen.

In the next twelve months the world will be inundated with thousands of Farmville clones.

One or two will be major successes (though I doubt any will hit Farmville’s numbers in terms of players or profit.)

A few will make a decent return.

95% will vanish without a trace and lose money.

The investors in that 95% who thought that social games would earn them solid gold cars and money hats will get the hell out of social games and chase after the next new fad.

Social games will recede into the background and become a perfectly normal, seldom-commented-upon part of the gaming industry.

AAA hardcore games will continue to be made (since they sold to an entirely different market in the first place.)

Overall the game industry will be healthier because it’s bigger and has a more diverse audience.

It’s the same cycle we’ve seen before with Web game portals, casual Web MMOs, cell phone games, iPhone games, 3rd party Wii titles, etc. When The Next Big Thing arrives everyone panics and claims it will suck up all the money in the world, strangling AAA hardcore games.

At yet that still hasn’t happened. That’s because investing in The Next Big Thing is inherently risky. By contrast hardcore gamers are an extremely reliable, proven source of revenue.

Zygna sponsored my local NPR station earlier this month with an ad seeking game developers. I’ve never heard a job ad on NPR before.

HumanTon – maybe. I don’t have any kinds of facts to back up a refutation. My instinct is that the alternative game development fads come all about in response to the fact that AAA game development is sick. It’s a patient on life support, and that problem has been growing for years.

Revenue isn’t profit, and profit in AAA game development declines every time the hardware gets better. Nintendo’s message with the Wii was that improving games by amplifying graphical quality (and thus expense) was a losing battle. I believe they were right about that.

The fad development cycles are signs of the beast trying desperately to evolve because the AAA ecosystem is drying up.

I totally agree with HumanTon. I would have written exactly what he did if he hadn’t beaten me to it :).

I’m a developer, and I don’t see social games as a threat. They are serving a very different market, and their function is quite different. I don’t see the rise in social games as any more of a threat than online gambling.

The games I make are entertainment. People make time to play them. Social games are time wasters. They are more what you do when you can’t think of anything else to do. That’s not the whole picture, but it seems to be basically that to me.

I think social games are more interesting in what we can learn from them. Where there’s crossover in their function, there are things to learn from their popularity. My girlfriend, for example, plays Farmville every day. She likes it because she can play it for a few moments when she has one, because it’s non-competitive, and because she can interact with her friends through the game, but she doesn’t have to be online with them at the same time.

Most of the games we make require more time to load than Farmville takes to play. They are highly challenging and competitive, which scares off a large segment of our potential market, and online play can be very stressful if you don’t know what you are doing. If you want to play online with friends, you typically have to arrange that as a special event.


In fact, Facebook’s ability to connect people is really pretty great. Hell, I’d much rather use freakin’ Facebook Connect in Battlefield BC2 and just have all my other facebook friends with the game already on my list. Instead I have to create another account (if I don’t have an EA account) and re-make a whole new friends list.

There’s nothing intrinsic to a game being on facebook that makes it evil, or bad design. But the Zynga games, and their ilk, are really shameless in their “designing to pull in dollars” rather than “designing for maximum fun/playability/approachability/whatever.”

I’d love for more game developers and publishers to use the powerful parts of facebook without thinking that it’s going to require making a “facebook game” as we now know it.

Someone tell this zynga guy he can shove his his job offer up his arrogant money-obsessed ass.

someone who makes a living from making ‘real games’ who’d rather shovel shit than work on crapware farmville shit.

Quoted for extreme truth. I couldnt agree more.

Preach on, Tim. Heartily agree. And as for the “meta” multiplayer gaming - it is something I’ve been wishing we had more of for a long, long time. It’s fun to game on your own terms but “surrounded” by friends. I can tell this is one of the appealing factors for my wife when she plays Cafe World - she likes to visit her friends’ cafes and have a look at what they’ve been up to.

At the same time, as you point out, it’s not really a competitive experience. Sure, my wife likes admiring other people’s cafe designs, but she doesn’t feel like she’s engaged in competition with them and if she did I think the game would lose appeal quickly. Instead, their work gives her ideas for her cafe. It is slickly done.

Correction, you fear and loathe Farmville and its ilk. :P