The idea of social gaming has existed since the Lydians shuffled sheepknucklebones in fiercely competitive fashion, or opponents slumped their shoulders over a black and white board sometime in the 6th century. Social gaming today has slightly different connotations however, though the same principles of longing for competition and striving for greatness or some underlying need to connect apply.
Hence online social games are not a new phenomenon, as one could argue that they are merely a spineless and disingenuous progression from the tradition of MMORPG or early LAN gaming. What differs is that this phenomenon – legitimised as such by its rapid escalation and expanding popularity – is not just a niche in the market, not just limited to an avid group of enthusiasts who patiently wait for the weekend to dust-off a pen-an-paper campaign. Instead, online social games have expanded demographics for the medium to include anyone from your average Luddite, all the way to good old grandma.
Questions are then raised naturally; whether all this is a good thing for video games, whether it benefits the market or if it is the beginning of dumbing it all down. I am not an elitist, ever since managing to get my Grandpa to steer in Pole Position, but I can’t help but wonder about the relentless requests from Farmville or Crime Cities. If you wonder too, read on for facts, figures and elucidations on the dawning of this new cultural phenomenon.
Players, Numbers and Stats
Zynga is perhaps the most notable of all companies, though it is worth mentioning Playfish, based in London UK and owned by EA, and Playdom. Hardly surprising that big game-companies should get involved in this section of the market, since it shows promising results; most understand that enticing players with the free-to-play and micro-trans models can draw in wider audiences.
Zynga’s filibuster business practices are hardly news, ranging from creating fake accounts for fake glowing-reviews, plastering poker ads on their new app or unashamedly ripping-off other developer’s ideas. Zynga’s revenue is estimated at 200 million, with their most popular game Farmville drawing in the crowds and cashing in about 60 million. Playfish has an estimated revenue of 75 million, with Pet Society being their most successful title, while Playdom’s Sorority Life brought in about 7.1 million.
The growth of player base, age and gender is also notable. At least 5% of the player-base is made-up of senior citizens, over 54 years old, and middle aged players make up a large portion of that pool, accounting for over 30% (Inside Network). Women form the overwhelming majority in terms of Facebook app usage, being 70% in popular games like Hotel City or Social City. 35% of players have spent money on these games.
Finally, cost to profit margins are huge when games such as these cost as little as $100,000 to make. Online social games are estimated to pull in about 3 million dollars in 2012, considerably growing from the 2 million in 2009 and accounting for 2% of the industry as a whole.
Winner is You
Jonathan Baron, designer and producer of Air Warrior at Kesmai, published a paper in the 1999 GDC outlining the importance of “Glory and Shame” in multiplayer games, highlighting how the two emotions are mutually exclusive when reaping the rewards. Player A is shamed by B, B wins which leads to glory and acceptance by the long-standing community; a sense of achievement, winners and losers like in any game that counts.
It’s difficult to determine who wins and who loses in Farmville or Cityville; though there is some method of determining best governor it isn’t really important. There are no victory conditions, no way of really competing, none of the basic design-elements for a game. Just collect energy and upgrade your buildings without any sense of purpose. Everyone is a winner.
If Valve is about innovation and quality, then Zynga must equate to its antithesis as Marc Pincus openly admits his focus on bringing in the dosh. No innovation, simply copy a successful product in large quantities; everyone has drawn inspiration from sources in the past and video-game developers are not excluded, but copy in this case means a near-exact match.
In a presentation at the 2010 Web 2.0 Summit, Pincus gives some insight on future growth-strategy stating the need to ‘Lower the barriers for play and fun and increase the social payoff’ effectively announcing more watered-down, non-threatening products which everyone can connect and relate to.
Don’t let some new-age first-grade teacher fool you, the kid who’s still standing after the music is over is the loser: we need one in every game.
Impact on Gaming Industry
With EA’s Playfish buyout or Atari’s GO launch, it is inevitable that other major developing companies will eventually seriously consider going the online social games route. For Playfish it means more resources with which to develop games, better marketing and all that comes with a big brand name. For other companies, and particularly smaller ones, it means catching-up with a rapidly growing market and one which may provide more economic gratification.
Micro-transaction, huge boosts in revenue, cross-platform potential and Facebook could make the difference for a game-studio just starting out, and, although viable, large studios would want a slice too. Then there are the low costs for developing such apps, all which weigh up positively against the riskier business of some more demanding console or PC title.
Warren Spector, of System Shock and Deus Ex fame, recognizes the shift as a positive one, an important development in the future of the gaming industry. Other designers, like Cory Davis, see social gaming come to the forefront as triple-A titles. It’s difficult to call out whether this is true, though many popular FPS’s like Arma or Teamfortress are quickly adapting to the new business model. Does that mean you’ll get soccer-mums or fish wives complaining in the middle of your co-op? Time will tell.
Do we then embrace the latest craze in gaming or happily dismiss it as a passing fad? Though many types of people play these games, as shown, it seems that most avid gamers do not speak favourably of the new evolution in the medium.
An article on socialgamestudies.org maintains that people had the same adverse reactions before video-gaming became so popular, hence a case of deja-vu or history repeating. Back then though game designers had a bee-in-the-bonnet of creating the best possible games, coupled with an enthusiasm for new ideas while fiddling with new technology.
I am not sure that social games introduce any particular innovations to gaming, apart from new business models and generally new ways of cashing in.
Author's own experience