Words with Ex-Friends

By Mitch Krpata
Sunday, July 17, 2011 at 10:00 am
Zynga's Words with Friends: killing friendships, one word at a time.
"It can't happen to me," I thought, even as I watched others succumb. Even as they were picked off, one by one, still I assumed that it was somehow their fault -- that they were done in by an inner flaw, and not by the ruthless nature of the enemy. So I kept telling myself: "I'm different. Better. Some higher power is watching over me."

But sooner or later, everyone's number comes up, and it finally happened to me. I'm hooked on a Zynga game.

To salvage what little pride I have left, I will preface by saying that my drug of choice is not Farmville, Cityville, or Whatever-the-hell-else-ville they're pushing these days. I've heard that "I'm not on Facebook" is the new "I don't have a TV," so let me assure you that my reason for not being on Facebook has nothing to do with snobbiness and everything to do with terror of other humans. It's only a side benefit that I'm also immune to Farmville. But Zynga didn't get to be a company with a 10-figure IPO for nothing. It took them less than a month to find me on my iPhone. And they did it with a blatant Scrabble rip-off that probably took one day to put together.

Whether or not it's apt to call what Zynga does "social gaming," my introduction to Words with Friends was definitely social. As in, my friend Pat told me that he was hooked on the game, and, rather than suggest he seek counseling, my response was to immediately download it. He's my friend! How could he steer me wrong? It seemed like a slam dunk.

I love word games as it is, and count as a high point in my life the time I finally beat my mother at Scrabble after decades of futility. (Today, she will deny that this ever happened.) Plus, I'm terrible at most video games. As a professional writer, I figured my chance to dominate had finally arrived. I envisioned myself waving a finger like Dikembe Mutombo every time my opponents brought another weak-ass monosyllable to the board, only to brutalize them with something like "ZYMURGY."

Before the first game was over, I realized that I had not known what I was in for. Pat routinely pummels me with questionable words such as "toroid," "halite," and "stane" -- two of which, I should point out, have just been underlined in red by Microsoft Word. In Words with Friends, they are devastating WMDs: Words of Mass Destruction.

In Pat's analytic approach, the game board is a puzzle to be solved. How can he maximize his point value every time? The answer is mathematical. The words themselves are almost secondary. Whereas my approach to word games has generally been to come up with the most entertaining words I could. If my choice is placing a single letter X on a score multiplier and getting two different instances of the word "AX" out of it, or playing a relatively low-scoring but amusing word like "FART," I will go that way every time. I haven't won a game yet. It is lonely down here with my principles.

But there's another competition I've lost thanks to Words with Friends, and that's the one that pits me against the voracious corporation ("voracious" -- now that would be a great word to play). The free version of Words with Friends came loaded with oodles of obnoxious, unskippable ads, one of which ran between each turn. I can't imagine any one of these fetched more than a fraction of a cent, but multiply each one by a few dozen of impressions per game, and a couple of different games running at any given time, and suddenly you start to see how any given user is worth quite a bit to Zynga. In a sense, I was almost ripping them off when I decided to fork over the $1.99 to go ad-free.

That's right. I willingly gave Zynga money. But some things are worth paying for. The experience is much better now. I am losing games far more swiftly. As far as I can tell, unlike with Farmville, Zynga won't be hitting me up for more money any time soon. I've bought Words with Friends, and our transaction is complete. The situation would be a lot worse if I could pay for better letters without losing my turn. "We see you're eyeing that triple letter score. Buy a Z for only 99 cents!" I'd probably need a second mortgage by now.

Uh oh, I might have given them an idea.

Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. He routinely plays Words with Friends locally against himself, and loses. Read more of his scribblings at his blog, Insult Swordfighting.
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