Zynga’s CastleVille: Let’s put social games to the fun test

Nov. 05, 2011 | 9:15 a.m.
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Yvette from CastleVille, with the game's slogan "Create Your Happy Ending." (Zynga)

The coming launch of Zynga’s CastleVille is spurring new debate over whether social games are truly fun.

One side — let’s call them the Intrinsics — says the ceaseless clicking that social games require is ultimately shallow. The opposite camp — the Extrinsics — says millions of people who play social games every day wouldn’t be doing it if they weren’t having fun.

Who’s right? We asked Nicole Lazzaro, a psychologist and an expert on what makes games fun to play. Lazzaro, who has spent years dissecting all manner of bestselling games to discover the essence of fun,  boiled it down to four ingredients.

Put simply, fun games engage players’ curiosity, allow players to socialize with friends, challenge players to overcome obstacles to achieve goals and somehow relate to people’s lives in a meaningful way. In her opinion, the vast majority of top games have three, if not four, of these elements.

So how do social games, including Zynga’s FarmVille, CityVille and soon CastleVille, score on Lazarro’s fun meter?

On the first factor — engaging players — social games aced the test.

“These games are highly engaging,” Lazzaro said. “They do this by providing over-the-top rewards.”

nicole lazzaro Zyngas CastleVille: Lets put social games to the fun test

Nicole Lazzaro

To see what Lazzaro means, try clicking on anything in CityVille, a game played by about 12 million people a day. Coins and stars explode onto the screen, and the game spews out a tintinnabulation of victory bells. Zynga has a term for these bits of digital confetti — “doobers.” And they serve to trigger endorphins in the same way that slot machines reinforce player behavior.

The games also “delight and surprise” (game design jargon for doing something players didn’t expect) through a trick used in the casino business that psychologists call the intermittent response loop.

Sometimes, players get a bonus item, along with the coins and stars, that can be used elsewhere in the game — an extra bit of energy, a piece of Halloween candy that can be traded for a haunted house, and so on.

“Not every click produces this reward,” Lazzaro said. “It encourages people to click even more in order to get to that jackpot.”

Social games also score high on the friend front. For some, the engagement is minimal: I send a gift to you, and you send it back to me. The end. Most of the time, players aren’t even playing at the same time and the interactions are delayed. Mark Skaggs, a Zynga senior vice president who produced FarmVille and CityVille, calls social games the “TiVo for relationships.”

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Yvette with animals in a scene from Zynga's CastleVille, the latest title in the company's "ville" games that include FarmVille, CityVille and others played by millions of people every day. (Zynga)

For others like Lana Sumpter, the game is a vehicle for people to gather, kibitz about their lives over headsets on Skype and form strong friendships.

Social games don’t do so well creating enough of an interesting challenge, the third element of fun, Lazzaro said. Because they need to appeal to a wider population, most of whom don’t see themselves as gamers, social games have to be easy, at least initially.

“A lot of people start a social game and leave because there’s not enough of a challenge to keep them there,” Lazzaro said. “The achievements are so quick and shallow that players don’t even have time to reflect on how trivial the activity was.”

Ouch! We’ll take that assessment as a “Has Room for Improvement” grade.

Finally, in what Lazzaro calls “intrinsic fun,” most social games fail almost completely. Intrinsic fun relies on players wanting to do something for the sheer fun in doing it.

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CastleVille's cast of characters. (Zynga)

Extrinsic fun is tied to rewards. Like Pavlovian pigeons, players perform tasks primarily to get the rewards. Some game designers, including Chris Hecker, believe game mechanics that rely too much on extrinsic rewards run the risk of becoming a grind.

“Extrinsic fun relies on collecting points and badges,” she said. “Intrinsic fun, what I call hard fun or serious fun, relies on engagement beyond just rewarding players to click.”

Some examples of games that deliver on serious fun, according to Lazzaro, are Dance Dance Revolution, which has helped a number of players lose weight as they scramble to match patterns on a dance mat. Another is Striiv, a key-chain pedometer that lets users translate steps into progress in a game as well as donations to clean water, polio vaccinations or preserving rain forests.

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Jason Brown

Jason Brown, vice president of player insights for Zynga, says the company routinely asks players why they play. It’s a valid question, because more than 200 million people fire up a social game at least once a month, even as entertainment options proliferate.

“It turns out, our games tap into some fundamental drivers of human happiness,” Brown said. According to theories put out by psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt and others, humans are happiest when they a) sense they have control over their environment; b) are connecting with friends; or c) feel they are challenged but making progress toward a goal.

Social games help people feel all three, Brown contends. “They’re free. They’re great entertainment. And they’re a way to stay in touch with their friends.”

The upshot? Fun is ultimately in the mind of the player.

— Alex Pham

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33 Responses to Zynga’s CastleVille: Let’s put social games to the fun test

  1. salina says:

    i want this games in my facebook.i forgot my facebook psacod.

  2. jessica says:

    when is this game playerable on facebook ? let me no plz it looks wicked kewl

  3. James says:

    What a terribly bland article. I’d hardly call this an investigation of whether Zynga games are fun. This is nothing more than an ad for CastleVille.

  4. debbie says:

    when will this game be available ?

  5. James says:

    lame waste of time, just like casinos

  6. castleville says:

    when will be available

  7. Juliedole says:

    You guys should check out karma kingdom on facebook, has more of a purpose than castleville in my opinion :)

  8. Deann says:

    You use the word free, maybe it is but then you put the things we could really use in the pay section. Most of us have so much time on our hands because we are out of work or on a very small fixed income. The game is fun, until you hit a brick wall because something you would like to have has to be payed for.

  9. crystal cascanette says:

    looking for neighbors how to get more!!

  10. farted says:

    I farted :/

  11. Brenda says:

    Like the game, but mine won't accept the neighbors or request…

  12. Isabel says:

    I have problems with my game …. error, refresh, error, refresh

  13. brianna says:

    yea i love my happy ending

  14. gary says:

    this is exactly what my daughter loves, looks like a hit gary eason friendswood

  15. Jan says:

    The game has issues,it wont load for a lot of folks and that includes me. I bought a game card and crowns and i cant even play the game.I have seen posts dated back to 11-15-2011 with this problem and it is still not fixed and seems to have gotten worse.

  16. holly says:

    i like the maiden

  17. teresa Dailey says:

    Have trouble with hooked mission it won't collect the fish needed. And also the I'm killing Rats mission it won't collect the snakes. Please help me on this! Castville game.

  18. sherry kraszewski says:

    i love this game havent been able to play in many days. i cannot get my game to completely LOAD….please help

  19. Jennifer says:

    love the game, but hate FB so would like to know how to play not on fb.

  20. Beverly Edwards says:

    I finish a quest but the game doesn't reconize that it is finish. It would be nice if the game wouldn't go to another screen to post when you are done in another kingdom. And is it possible to make the gold trees so they can't be chopped. Every day I am regrowing it. Thank You.

  21. rinzelle says:


  22. diah nuraini says:

    to enter in my castleville in facebook is so slowly. why that's happend?

  23. psassie says:

    cannot post for help items whats going on ?

  24. lmeadows says:

    just want my facebook games to freakin work!

  25. marlyn says:

    good game.

  26. s burton says:

    Sometimes, after a day at work dealing with complex issues, a shallow game such as Castleville, Farmville etc can be quite relaxing.. like playing cards and other games except you don't have to engage with others if you prefer not to at that time.

  27. Brenda says:

    my computer stops me from playing zyna castleville

  28. panda says:

    I got sucked into Castleville for the same reason as others, but when the buildings started to require asking for parts like clay to make mortars instead of stuff you could make yourself like wood planks, stone blocks, gold bars, bronze bars, steel bars, and iron bars I got frustrated with something that was supposed to be a game being so much work and quit.

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