I’ve been playing Scramble With Friends pretty much since the day it launched, because—well, because I’m a word nerd. Endlessly fascinated by the human history petrified in the words and phrases that survive from earlier times. Did you know we started saying “Bless you” after a sneeze to scare off the Black Plague? That “malaria” is from medieval Italian for “bad air,” because the ancient Romans thought you caught it from the stench around swamps?
But I digress. I always do.
The point is, Scramble delivers real value for a busy word fiend like me. If I play 20 minutes a day, that’s about 100 hours a year. Hollywood would charge me
$500 for that much entertainment value, and even the degenerate, shambling old book industry would find a way to hit me up for forty or fifty bucks. But this ultra-modern mobile gaming industry,
supposedly with its finger on the great collective pulse, hasn’t figured out how to get me to cough up a dollar. Why not?
Let’s be clear: Zynga would like to take my dollar. Specifically, if I pay them a dollar, they promise to stop interrupting my merry Scrambling with ads I don’t want to see for products I don’t want. I never click on any of these ads, and Zynga knows I don’t, because nobody else does either. But sometimes I do, accidentally, because they vary their ad-dismissing strategies in complex ways designed specifically to make me accidentally click on them. I never buy anything, but Zynga makes some fraction of a penny every time, as if I did.
So do I have this business plan right? Zynga creates a product that’s genuinely valuable, and they give it away. And the way they’re going to make money is by throwing up obstacles in my way, which I’ll either accidentally bang into now and then, for which they’ll earn fractional pennies, or pay them to get rid of, for which they’ll earn a dollar. Zynga isn’t selling games—they are selling annoyance removal.
Only in digital would we accept a shakedown economy like this, where creators sabotage the experience they created. Imagine a nightclub where they don’t charge you at the door—hey, it’s free man, come on in!—but they keep tugging at your sleeve the whole time you’re inside, until you pay them to go away. Or imagine buying a car, where the car is free, but every morning when you hop in, there’s a different salesman in the front seat who has to be dropped off somewhere before you can go to work.
I’m not naïve; I know there’s sick money in interruptive mobile gaming ads. Fruit Ninja alone makes $400,000 a month. I’m just saying let’s get to better solutions—for players and for sponsors. There’s no fundamental reason sponsors can’t be integrated at a level that brings quality to the user experience. Fruit Ninja is the same game if it’s Dole’s Fruit Ninja—and it’s a better experience, because it’s totally free, and because every time you level up, you could get coupons for free fruit and discount machetes. Everybody wins.
Integrating sponsors isn’t just about making ads that are impossible to ignore—that’s short-term thinking. It’s also about creating a better user experience than the old advertising model. And that means setting publishing goals, not just ad metrics goals. Everyone understands the measurable world of clicks and plays and impressions and the holy grail “viral video.” But if you set your sights on proofs of momentary attention, you will create shallow, forgettable, even accidental experience. Your numbers will look marginally better than last year, and you will have to do it all from scratch again next year.
Wouldn’t a smaller, but passionate, army of advocates trump a passing glance from a million eyeballs? If you set engagement goals—did people like it? did they share it?—it’ll guide you to produce quality. And, through quality, you’ll build audience, a loyal, re-addressable community of fans and advocates, instead of momentary spectators. That’s a tangible, long-haul asset. You can do this on behalf of sponsors, too, though we’ve been trained to think you can’t, and, thanks to sponsor dollars, those games can be truly free, and shareable, and help incubate your non-sponsored games.
Whenever you see “You can click away in 15 seconds,” or “Skip this ad,” remember who exactly is holding you hostage here. It’s clear from the language, they know damn well they are junking up your experience. But they don’t have to—this is a confession of an inability to sell you a product you want at a price you’ll pay. For the record, I’d gladly pay Zynga a dollar to continue playing, if they made me do it—say by shutting off the tap after a free month of playing. I’ll pay them for the experience, but I won’t pay their protection money—it only encourages the bastards.