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Paying to Own, Paying to Compete: Monetizing the Social Game

No one wants to buy the win. They want to own the world. Oh, and preferably a much better world than their neighbor's.

Okay, so maybe on the face of it, a game like Zynga's Cityville (one of many spin offs of the wildly popular Farmville) and Sid Meier's Civilization World (a transformation of the classic video game into a social game format) only vaguely have some things in common.

Both games focus on the development of cities, creating buildings and growing populations, in order to show your opponents that your civilization is superior to theirs.

But wait a sec, CivWorld is obviously a game about showing off your prowess in evolving a superior civilization, while Cityville is a co-operative playground in which I own my own city, build it, and help others in building their own cities. There's no competition in Cityville, right?

Not so fast, though, while CivWorld might be more of a traditional “game” in that it has an end goal, a way to win, along with clear rules about how to achieve that win, really there is a potentially more subtle competitive aspect that underlies Cityville as well. And frankly that aspect of competition is why Cityville's monetization will probably remain more financially lucrative for Zynga than CivWorld ever will be for 2K Games.

The distinct difference between each of the games' more competitive aspects is their reward for the player. CivWorld allows me to both compete and co-operate with other players in order to win a game of Civ that might take a week or so to complete. Cityville allows me to develop a city of my own that I can develop, organize, and arrange in order to peacock for my fellow players. That peacocking and its seeming permanence makes all the difference in terms of the game making a lot of money.

What these “freemium” games boil down to is a chance to play a game for brief snatches of time throughout my day, while offering the option of making purchases to “enhance” my “gaming” experience.

Cityville's enhancement rests nearly exclusively on customization. Since the game is played by purchasing residences, businesses, and agricultural products with the game's own virtual money in order to build an economy, much of the focus for the player is in buying useful and productive materials and organizing them within a limited space. Real money largely only enters the picture if I want to purchase unique (or “rarer", since City Bucks are most easily acquired by purchasing them with actual money) buildings. Cityville can be (and, of course, is) played entirely for free, and there are loads of options of things to buy that won't cost City Bucks. However, given the time necessary to invest in completing community buildings with only the aid of friends (who can send you one required item at a time that are necessary to “complete a build”) and that there are also loads of items that can only be purchased via City Bucks, if you really want a unique city that is the envy of all of your friends, you are going to have to spend a bit of real money.

In this sense, Cityville plays into a “keeping up with the Jonses mentality". And it encourages such a mentality through some rather overt ways of provoking players to encounter their fellow players' play areas. In other words, the game keeps you peeping over the neighbors' fences to see what they've got. In addition to the limited pool of energy that you are allotted over time in Cityville to build, harvest crops and other goods, and collect from your businesses, the other way to acquire the ability to “do more” in a brief gameplay session is by dropping by other friends' own cities to “help them out.” When you do so, you gain additional energy, goods or money, and a nebulous “friendship” level. Visiting others also (and more importantly in terms of Zynga's bottom line) reminds you of what you haven't got.

By contrast, CivWorld is a slightly more traditional game. Blending co-op play with competition is a slightly different direction for the series better known to the hardcore gaming crowd. Players take on the role of a single city or village within a larger civilization (say, Spain or France or China) in order to cooperatively develop that civilization faster than the other teams (or civilizations) that you are competing with. Since this is a Facebook game and a “freemium", there is (and this is still in its beta form, mind you, so the details of how and what you can spend for may change) a monetary option for players as well.

Since the game features the standard Civilization systems that need to be worked in order to achieve victory (the development of an economic system, a cultural presence in the world, scientific knowledge, and a military infrastructure), 2K has found a way to give you something to do to help those systems along when you drop by for a few minutes play. A number of mini-games (a pipe matching game for building the economy, a picture matching game for culture, and a maze to navigate for science) add bonus gold, culture, and science to aid in your civilization's development.

This is one of the places that real money becomes “useful” in the game, and the place where it most likely becomes really problematic given the goal of “merely winning” the game rather than offering some ability to demonstrate ownership of your virtual space.

CivBucks can be spent to purchase extra moves in these games, giving your civilization an edge on the competition (or maybe the ability for a less successful or efficient civ to catch up). Additionally, CivBucks can be spent on a randomly assigned number of Harvests (which operate more or less like the energy pool in Cityville, since they allow you to do something that produces the products needed to develop your civ), allowing your city of village to do its part in advancing the overall civilization much faster.

You might see at this point the lack of allure in spending money on “turns". In a game that admittedly you are going to invest several days of off and on playtime but that is still transient in nature (since there is victory conditions and resolution), why would you invest real money just to win? If this were some sort of tournament style of play in which a cash reward was dangled at the player at the end, then, sure, maybe so. But the impermanence of the competition is really troubling for shelling out hard cash. Additionally, as a player that may be unwilling to invest so irrationally, such purchases by other teams are going to make the game less appealing to play -- leading one is to assume that victory was bought rather than achieved through better play.

It is ownership of property, virtual though it might be, that makes Cityville the more reasonable game to drop a few bucks on. When you drop a few dollars to buy a virtual version of the Eiffel Tower to erect in the middle of your city, it will be there next week, next month, next year. Oh, and people are going to look at it, admire it, and maybe even envy it.

CivWorld seems only vaguely aware of the necessity of such fashionable and aesthetic concerns, the real heart of the social games, in that it does feature one permanent “space” in your CivWorld account, a throne room that carries over with you from game to game. The throne room can be customized to feature, well, a throne, but also a variety of décor for that space. Again, CivBucks can be spent on Gems that are used to purchase such décor. However, as far as I can tell, no one but the player can view this space.

While you can view other people's towns in the game, there is very little to encourage you to do so (and no reason at all, nor, again, as far as I can tell, no ability to visit a throne room). When offered a dowry, you may visit another town to locate a spouse (that gives bonuses depending on their occupation: farmers give crop bonuses, artists give culture bonuses, etc.), but there is hardly a reason to stick around the town for any longer than it takes to select a good mate. The problem with CivWorld's towns is that they all look identical to one another graphically. Your farmers house will look like another civ's farmers house. Their museum will look like your museum.

Basically, what Civ needs to recognize if it wants to make any money is that no one wants to buy the win, they want to own the world. Oh, and preferably a much better world than their neighbor's.

In that sense, selling turns, which represent only fleeting advantage, makes little sense. This is about virtual property. Make it pretty. Make it imposing. Make it impressive.

If players could buy skins that carried over, like the throne room, from game to game for houses that matched the architecture of their civilization of choice that might be something with a real world value. Such things would sell to the small number of peacocking players that want to drop dough on virtual playground. Let them decorate with heads on pikes, unique scenery, moats and drawbridges, Chinese gardens, elephants and monkeys, anything, as it were, that lets the player put their personal mark on the world, to say that “I was there.” Build a traditional game around customization, not vice versa.

But most importantly, the other players need to see it, need to have a reason to see it (which requires some more substantive or more frequently utilized gameplay mechanic than the dowry system), and need to be able to recognize that this space is yours. The social game is won through ownership, not play.


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