2015, May 3: Zynga - How NOT to End a Game

Ayakashi: Ghost GuildFor a company that specializes in mobile social gaming, Zynga has a lot to learn about the proper way to end a relationship.

In March this year, Zynga announced it was going to shut down four of its mobile games at the end of April. One of them, Ayakashi: Ghost Guild, just happened to be one I was playing. This gave me the opportunity to observe how Zynga went about the process of closing a game that had not only thousands of players, but also thousands of fans -- judging from the numbers of websites featuring fan-fiction and original artwork of characters from the game. What I saw was neither pretty nor polite.

Ayakashi: Ghost Guild was a sort of card collecting game, with players able to battle with one another and to participate in large fights by banding into guilds. Players in guilds communicated often, and many of the guilds established chat rooms and other means of communication that was outside of the Ayakashi game itself so they could co-ordinate attacks and strategies for large fights. The game had a set storyline for individual players to follow, and monthly special events for players to participate in either individually or as guilds, with each event allowing a chance to find or buy unique characters and cards for the game that generally counted more for bragging rights than for practical game use.

The first sign of change started in early February when the daily prizes, a nice little extra for the players, stopped being given out. This was no big deal in itself, but became noteworthy a week later when the currently running special event ended... and was not replaced with a new special event. This was the first warning flag for myself as a game player; and, after a week of silence, I checked the support pages and found nothing was statedly wrong with the game at that time. It was during this time, I found out later, that a number of other players had actively emailed representatives for the game at Zynga and received a variety of emails that all basically said 'everything is fine, new events will start soon.'

Ayakashi: Ghost Guild included an announcement system specifically for posting messages to all the players; this was used by the game administrators to announce prizes and new events, and to occasionally make special announcements. Three weeks after the last special event ended, this announcement system was still silent. When the current leader of my guild started to field questions regarding the lack of new events, I once again checked the Zynga support site for the Ayakashi game, and discovered that the event announcements at the support site itself actually stopped listing events back in January... it didn't include the events that had actually been run during February.

Two days later, the support site had a message announcing that Ayakashi: Ghost Guild, along with three other Zynga games, would be closed at the end of April, and that Zynga would offer a form of credit to players who notified them and asked to be moved to a game that was not shutting down.

This message was never sent through the game's announcement system -- the one specifically meant to tell all players important news. By posting it on the support site only, Zynga could claim they made the necessary effort to inform players; but by not announcing it within the game to the players directly, they left most people playing the game in the dark about the fact the game was being shut down. This is important: despite the game being lined up to be shut down, within the game players were still being offered the ability to purchase special items or 'gold' for use in the game... and players who didn't know the game was ending continued to buy these items. Even when Ayakashi was pulled from the Google store so no one new could start playing it, the in-game purchases continued to be advertised to the players who were still playing.

Ironically, one of the last features Zynga added to Ayakashi before deciding to kill it was a message board system within game to allow players to post short messages -- and charging in-game 'gold' to have those messages highlighted and displayed in the front screen of the game itself. These messages showed how slow the word of the shutdown was to both spread to the majority of players, and to be accepted. Most thought it was just a rumor at first. By the third week of March, most people posting to the board were still commenting on their progress in the game and swapping jokes with other players. It wasn't until mid-April that the coming shutdown was a topic that was being constantly mentioned; and even then, there continued to be people who had no idea the game was ending. Zynga had still not made the announcement through the in-game system for all players to see. It is extremely likely there were players who didn't know the game was ending right up to the end.

Some players were mad; more were sad; many felt cheated. The in-game chat had many people trying to get their friends to switch to other non-Zynga games before they lost the ability to communicate to each other. Still, Zynga had a chance to make thing right. Up to the end, they could have announced the end of the game and the offer to switch players to another game within the Ayakashi announcement system; and, even after the end, they could have re-directed players to a page explaining this for a week or so, allowing those who were still unaware of the end to make the offered switch.

But Zynga didn't. On May 2nd, one day later than announced -- with the in-game chat full of hopeful messages speculating that maybe Zynga changed their corporate mind about shutting down the game -- Ayakashi: Ghost Guild died in a simple and inelegant way. Zynga turned off the game's servers so that players trying to start the game now receive an endless connection error... and still no explanation that the game was shut down for those worldwide who were never told.

Zynga's actions in the shutdown of Ayakashi shows that the company was worried about legally covering their rear-ends against complaints by players about the end of the game, but that they were okay with the idea of letting players continue to spend money and time on a game that would soon be worthless. This, at least, seems to be the main reason the only announcement of the game ending was posted to the support page, rather than using the in-game announcement system that all players would see.

For a mobile game to succeed, and ultimately for an online gaming company to succeed, they have to have a customer base that trusts them to be there. This is especially true for companies that create games in which players are encouraged to form a community. Zynga has lost a lot of trust. I known that I, personally, will never bother to look at another game by them.

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