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Drawing conclusions from a social gaming fad

I'm not sure what schadenfreude looks like, but let me draw a crude sketch for you.

At the end of March, a game called Draw Something started appearing on smartphones. The game was a Pictionary-style game for two: One player is given a word to draw on their phone, which the second player then tries to guess. Antlers! Tugboats! Octomom! The game ends up being an exercise in communicating by pawing pictures onto a touch screen, which is actually fairly challenging. It really is fun, at least for the first 30 or 40 rounds.

The game exploded. Draw Something had been downloaded 50 million times in 50 days, and more than 15 million people were actively playing it on their phones. The American start-up suddenly looked like takeover material, and soon it was being bought by Zynga, the controversial creators of FarmVille, for a cool $200-million (U.S.). And then – within weeks – its popularity plunged, dropping a full five million players.

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Sucks to be Zynga. But the world of social gaming is bleak and fickle. And if anyone should have known, it's them.

Draw Something is what we call a "social game," a term fraught with lousy connotations. The social-gaming market has been dominated by "free" products that offer little gameplay, but constantly press players to spend money on "upgrades."

The archetypal social game, of course, is FarmVille, a game that asks players to perform repetitive tasks to improve their digital farmland – or pony up real cash to do the same. The "social" angle comes in the form of comparing your farm to the next farm over, and endlessly haranguing your Facebook friends to come play too. FarmVille's numbers have been declining as well. According to AppData, a usage-tracking site, Farmville's daily traffic has dropped by 600,000 in the last month, down to 4.5 million users.

FarmVille might not have advanced humanity, exactly, but it was profitable, turning Zynga into a company valued in the billions. Its success, in turn, spawned a digital gold rush, with imitators big and small trying to replicate its free-to-play, pay-to-get-ahead magic. The result was an entire category of irritating, spammy, entertainment-free diversions, junking up social networks and clamouring for your money. Copying other companies' products isn't uncommon in this space: Those with long memories might remember Scrabulous, the shameless Scrabble clone that flourished before being lawyered into oblivion. Zynga itself gained an unsavoury reputation for all but cloning the work of competitors who tried to enter the space.

But Draw Something was a breath of fresh air. Hardly a simple Pictionary clone, Draw Something has a creative, collaborative vibe to it. Since the goal is to get a message across, players are challenged to draw clearly and guess well. It was ahead of the curve in another respect too: Built from the ground up as a smartphone app, it takes full advantage of the touch-screen medium. In fact, you can't play it on desktop computers at all. It connects to Facebook to find your friends, but otherwise it never sends you to visit the site. (This should make Facebook nervous.)

So, how could a game that gained 15 million players in a matter of months lose one-third of them even quicker?

In part, design weaknesses were a problem. Gameplay is slow, which is fine when you're playing five games at once, but quickly wearying when 20 friends want to play. Word choice is limited. You can only draw Octomom so many times.

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Users also ran up against a hitch that has nagged humanity for some time: Hell is other people. Users had the choice of playing against their Facebook friends, or anonymous, random Internet denizens. Would you like to see some finger-drawn reproductive bits? Then do I have an Internet for you.

More to the point, Draw Something couldn't escape the curse of social gaming. The free version bombards players with a never-ending rotation of ads for other social games (Restaurant Story? Tap Paradise Cove? Tiny Slots?) and offers schemes to buy in-world cash. A $2 paid version spares you these indignities.

Now comes word that, under the aegis of Zynga, Draw Something wants to make further money by selling words that people guess to advertisers. In fact, the game was already asking people to draw words like Google and Audi, gratis.

This is not a terrible idea in and of itself; commerce is culture, after all. But as advertisers like the NHL, an early client, encourage users to share their hockey-themed creations on Twitter and Pinterest, the influx of user-created branded images could spark a backlash in short order. But if Draw Something's numbers continue to plummet, it might not be an issue.

It's ironic that Zynga finds itself on the hook as users abandon a game it just paid $200-millionfor, even as it searches for ways to wring it for dollars. After all, the company was a pioneer of unentertaining entertainment for the listless. Social gaming has become a wasteland of pointless exercises and money grabs. Is there any wonder that the people have become accustomed to picking these things up, poking at them, then dropping them? The social-gaming picture isn't pretty, and Zynga helped draw it itself. It should have been able to guess what it meant.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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