This news piece announcing Zynga's shut down of 11 games ran yesterday and of course it will engender a fair share of teeth gnashing and Zynga bashing.
IMO, this is an example of two seemingly contradictory positions living in harmony: business as usual and disruption of a marketplace. If you will give me just a marketing minute, I'll explain how, in this instance, these two positions are living together.
Business as Usual - Good Games Sell, Bad Games Don't
I'm neither a fan nor a hater of the company. But, I believe any teeth gnashing or bashing is off target. Why? Because all Zynga has done is what game companies have done for years. They shut down games that were not meeting sales goals.
This is part of running a business in interactive entertainment. Hundreds and hundreds of games release every year. Some games sell well and stick, most games don't make it. Or, as I like to say, "good games sell, bad games don't." The same goes for other forms of discretionary entertainment like movies, books, theater productions, music (well, in most cases).
Obviously, the games Zynga shut down were not performing well enough for the company to merit continuing to support them. It would be irresponsible to shareholders to continue pouring money and resources down these holes.
The "traditional" mechanism for such moves is the market and consumer choice. In the retail world, consumers withhold their purchases from bad products; weak products just don't sell through and retailers ship back returns.
What's different in this situation is the digital access and business model of Free to Play games.
Digital Democratization - A Disruptive Force
F2P, cloud-based games distorts the marketplace reality we have come to expect (good stuff sells, bad stuff doesn't sell). These are 24/7 live games with no barrier to entry or requirement of pay to play. This means that anyone can play a game for free, as long as they have access to the web or mobile ecosystem. People can choose whether, when, on what item and how much to pay...or not at all.
This democratization of distribution and access is part of the appeal and power in F2P, cloud based games. It's why I see this as the most disruptive force in entertainment. The downside is that it may mean easier development and release of games that are just not all that good. In the end, the adage holds, but with a slight twist: "good games perform at acceptable levels, bad games don't." It's essentially the same outcome...games come off the market.
The Same, But Different
However, the issue such outcomes create for F2P game companies is quite different - instead of having to eat millions in returns of unsold product, they have to deal with existing customers who have shelled out money on their product. Rather than dealing with the inventory issue, they have to deal with a customer relationship issue.
It is unfortunate that some players out there have invested money in their games and now can no long play them. But, that has been their choice. I'm not aware of any contract that exists for a company to maintain a product or other entertainment form in perpetuity. Eventually all forms of software become old and no longer merit support. It's business economics and reality. But, a company still needs to manage its relationship with its customers.
HOW a company chooses to handle this is critical. On the one hand, companies can communicate their intentions via advance warnings, providing customers with ways to "capture" their memories (or beloved virtual pets) and providing thank you rewards for their loyalty that helps them establish themselves in another game world. On the other hand, they can post a page one day that notifies customers that their game is no longer available.
I'd venture to say that while customers won't be entirely happy in either situation, the former does a much better job of acknowledging customer value and loyalty than the latter.
(NOTE: I don't know how Zynga handled these shut downs).
All in all, this highlights the challenges companies face as try to adapt themselves to the digital democratization of distribution. Score a point for disruption.