Anyone who's friended me on Facebook knows that sending me a request from inside one of the many games that are offered on that platform generally results in that request disappearing into a black hole...usually because I've blocked that game, or, if I hadn't previously blocked it, it's damned well blocked now. I've put up a note on there to the effect that "it's nothing personal," I just don't care to partake in what I've referred to in conversation with Sabrina as "those wanky-wank Facebook games." I have to tell you, I was mightily disappointed when I saw Google+ start to offer games, too; there went my hopes of a games-free social networking haven...
And yet a lot of people play those games; so many so, in fact, that Zynga, one of the biggest makers of Facebook games (even if they just steal most of their ideas from competitors) was able to pull off a gigabuck IPO on the strength of their revenue from these games. (Their stock price took a nosedive initially, but, according to the charts, has been steadily appreciating recently.) Facebook, seeking a huge IPO of its own just months from now, in turn, depends on Zynga for a bunch of their revenue...and other game makers contribute their share, too. Heck, for awhile there, Sabrina was pumping money left and right into games like Farmville and Frontierville; it was all the begging she did for me to get her more prepaid game cards, in fact, that finally made me just get her a prepaid debit card from Walmart into which I load more money each time I get paid.
Obviously, these games appeal to a lot of people, to the point where they could be considered addictive, as one of Cracked's famous "list" articles will tell you. And they pretty much all have a "premium" currency that you can only get by paying real money (such as "FarmCash" in the case of Farmville), which you can use to get all kinds of goodies that aren't available any other way, or "short-circuit" some quest or task and get to the rewards faster (TV Tropes calls the latter "Bribing Your Way To Victory". And here's where I start doing one of two things:
Because these games really aren't all that complicated, when you come down to it. (Mostly they're written in Flash, with some server-side components somewhere.) Ian Bogost proved that when he created the Facebook game Cow Clicker, purely to spoof the Zyngas of the world. The game was so friggin' stupid as to make Farmville look like EVE Online by comparison...and yet it garnered fifty thousand users and actually earned money. There's a moral to be drawn from this story... (Hint: What did P.T. Barnum say was "born every minute"?)
Sabrina's latest game addiction, Wizard 101, is kind of like what would happen if Blizzard and Zynga had a one-night stand and wound up getting pregnant with a "kid-friendly" MMORPG. The game uses a lot of the standard World of Warcraft-style tropes, and it purports to be the story of a young wizard in a magical academy (yeah, stop me if you've heard this before). The combat system involves playing "spell cards" like a simplified version of Magic: The Gathering, and there's a crafting system, and pets, and quests (both the "FedEx" type and the "kill ten rats" type). But where it gets all Zynga-like is the fact that there's, you guessed it, a "premium" currency, "crowns" as they're called, which is only purchasable with real cash and is the only way to get certain things like henchmen to help you win battles. (This is on top of the monthly subscription fee you pay to get into any areas of the game beyond the initial one, even though the game is allegedly free-to-play.) And, boy, does Sabrina bite...not only blowing much of her biweekly money allotment on crowns, but begging me to get her their prepaid cards (some of which come with bonus goodies). Since the game's publisher, KingsIsle Entertainment, is privately held, I have no idea what their financials look like, but they claim 20 million registrations and 12 million unique visitors per month, so I gotta think they're doing pretty well.
And now the "Zyngaization" meme is starting to affect even other established MMOs; a case in point is EVE Online, with its "Noble Exchange" and its new premium currency (Aurum), that has generated plenty of backlash from the player base but also has to be earning CCP at least some money. I wouldn't put it past, say, Blizzard to do much the same thing, if not in WoW itself, then maybe in Diablo III when it comes out. Like it or not, game companies are scrambling to make money, and if they think this will help, then they'll roll it out without a second thought.
Just try to keep the presence of mind to block it out once in a while.