March Mayhem this year has casual/social networking game developer Zynga standing toe-to-toe with industry juggernaut Valve. As of this writing it's much too close to know which way things will go, but it's amazing to see the fans of casual flash games being so passionate about their chosen title.
Out of curiosity, I fired up Zynga's mega-popular Farmville and gave it a try. It has a modest charm, although in terms of gameplay it doesn't give us anything we haven't seen already in an early-90's PC strategy game, although played at a gentler pace. It encourages playing in ten minute sections several times a day as opposed to playing in a single evening-long binge like veteran gamers. The game will run on just about any web-enabled PC on the planet, and it does a good job of teaching you how to play.
So Zynga took a simple game dynamic we're all familiar with and made it available to everyone, and suddenly they have a cash cow and are a major force in the industry. The game itself is probably more popular than any of the traditional titles from which its core gameplay was distilled.
The popularity of Farmville advances a thesis I've been working on for years: Gaming is the best form of entertainment (ever!!) and a lot more people would take part in it if the barrier to entry wasn't so high. But the masses don't have a good way to find out how fun it is. Once they do, it's generally prohibitively expensive to get started. (That can't be helped on the console side, but PC developers could certainly stop making things worse.) And even once you find out about games and have the machine, games do a bad job at welcoming the truly uninitiated.
What I'm worried about is that publishers will see Zynga's success and wrongly conclude that these people are playing Farmville and Mafia Wars because the gameplay is uniquely fun. This is the wrong lesson to learn. Zynga is simply going after a demographic that's been largely ignored for the past three decades: People who aren't already gamers. This new surge doesn't mean that simple management games with adorable graphics are the wave of the future. It means that years of advertising hardcore games to hardcore gamers in hardcore gaming communities has made the hobby far more insular than it needs to be. The next move should be to see what other kinds of games these people might like to play.