Ian Bogost has a terrific essay about how video games are designed to be time-consuming and addictive, and how those qualities translate into revenue and goosed stock prices for company founders and other insiders.
if there is something dangerous about videogames now, it’s not the specter of players transforming into drooling sociopaths by enacting depraved fantasies. Instead of forensically dissecting the content packaged in games, we should look closely at the system of design and distribution that’s led them out of teen bedrooms and into the hands of a broader audience via computers and smartphones. It’s not Doom or Mortal Kombat or Death Race we should fear, in other words; it’s Candy Crush Saga, Angry Birds, and FarmVille.
He then explains how FarmVille’s free-to-play model makes money:
Former Zynga CEO Mark Pincus sought out every possible method for increasing revenues. “I knew I needed revenues, right fucking now,” Pincus told attendees of a Berkeley startup mixer in 2009. “I did every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues right away.”
Every horrible thing in the book included designing a highly manipulative gameplay environment, much like the ones doled out by slot machines and coin-ops. FarmVille users had to either stop after they expended their in-game “energy” or pay up, in which case they could immediately continue. The in-game activities were designed so that they took much longer than any single play session could reasonably last, requiring players to return at prescheduled intervals to complete those tasks or else risk losing work they’d previously done—and possibly spent cash money to pursue.
Yet despite this, FarmVille never got the kind of criticism that, say, Mortal Kombat did:
Zynga made hundreds of millions of dollars consuming smaller developers and building a gaming empire that boiled the blood of incumbents still wedded to the hits-and-commodities model…. On top of that, the legacy gaming industry still had to fend off all the old culture-war complaints about violence and delinquency—accusations that miscarried against a wholesome-looking, cartoonish farming game. Meanwhile, overnight successes like Zynga managed to enjoy the media-darling status of the technology startup world. FarmVille had cows and tractors. Your mom probably played it. It was wholesome.
And then, finally, Bogost draws a nice comparison between the sucker-punch dynamics of the game, the financial markets that allow guys like Pincus to get a big payday even as the company is failing. Very well worth reading in its entirety.