Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

25 March, 2010

It’s the same future we’ve always had…
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:00 PM

The big discussion the last several weeks has been about social gaming. A big tipping point was the GDC earlier this week; social games, as personified by Zynga, came to the forefront and became the poster- and whipping-boy for different people in the game industry.

So, are social games the future of the industry? Are good old MMOs done for?


If you’ve been relying on my infrequent posting to keep you up-to-date on game industry news, here are a few references for you to get caught up and understand things from the point of view of traditional game developers. This has been an issue brewing for a while, but the topic has exploded across many news sites and blogs recently.

Soren Johnson, a designer on Spore, wrote a pretty good summary. It seems that social games have supplanted casual games at the conference. A lot of traditional developers are looking askance at these upstart games.

The infamous Dave Sirlin posted a piece showing the contrast between social gaming and indie gaming. An interesting read showing the two sides, and why Zynga’s “dis” during the Developer’s Choice Awards struck so deep later in the conference.

My own perspective

I’m coming into this as a very experienced game developer. For many people in this situation, their biases are going to be along the status quo. I’m also an indie at heart, so I will also tend to be on that side of the split that erupted at the GDC.

However, I have spent a fair amount of time looking into social games. The only reason I have a Facebook account was to check out games. (Note: if you need to get in touch with me, Facebook is the worst way possible besides using a dead email address.) I have actually wanted to make a game for Facebook, but it’s a stalled side project. So, I’m not completely ignorant about social games.

I’ve also been supportive of microtransactions, but understand that this business model isn’t the only solution, and that it’s easy to abuse this business model. (To be fair, however, you can abuse any business model. This is a problem with the developer, not the business model.)

So, given this perspective…

Fashion in the Game Industry

No, I’m not talking about jeans and T-shirts, also called “the game developer’s uniform.”

The more I work in the industry the more I realize that the industry works along the lines of fashionable trends. Something comes along with the potential to disrupt the old ways and someone latches onto it as a competitive advantage. Examples include shareware, FPSes, MMOs, Asian (Korean) games, mobile games, user generated content, and now social gaming. Something shows that this new disruption is popular and/or profitable. People who identify the trend early talk about how great it is, usually to convince someone to give them money. As investors give money to people, others start jumping on the bandwagon: VCs don’t want to be left behind in the hot new field, and other developers will use the right buzzwords to secure funding. Often there will be a breakaway hit that people hold up as the standard, and others rush to copy. Large companies might feel the need to become a major player to not appear outdated, so the acquire a related company for a lot of money which ends up chumming the waters for further investment. Eventually the dust settles and trend is either accepted or rejected, and is no longer seen as something unusual that needs to be emphasized. Then the process starts up again with the next hot trend.

There are three twists to consider: First, by the time big money starts flying, it’s usually too late for most people to capitalize on a trend. Think social games are the future? It’s too late for your little rag-tag group of garage developers to carve out a large niche, although if your game idea fits within the field it might be easier for you to find money. The second issue is that the best ideas don’t always win; it’s often the people with better PR, name recognition, or VC connections who cash in big on the latest game fashion. Third, the trend becomes self-perpetuating. If you just took a few millions from investors to follow the latest trend, you’re going to be talking up that trend to put your current investors at ease and help you land future investment if/when needed. Even if someone privately has doubts about the future of social games, they’re going to tell you that social games are cooler than zombie pirate ninja cowboys if they took money to build a social game back when it seemed like a good idea. This is simply protecting the value of his or her company and is important if that person want to see a big payday or even get investment for the next crazy venture.

That passed, and so may this

It’s also important to understand that a lot of these trends aren’t new by the time someone starts talking about it. Even though some people think that MMOs started with WoW, or EQ, or UO, or even M59, most informed people know that online games had a long and glorious history before them: text MUDs, PLATO, games on proprietary networks, etc. The big graphical games didn’t “invent” online multiplayer games, but they are what got people interested in talking about them. People always talk about a specific game being the first “real” or “mainstream” or “widely-accepted” game even if it wasn’t the first in a particular area because it resonates with them and their ideas, whereas they didn’t notice previous examples.

In the specific case of social games, we’ve had these types of games around for a very long time. The type of gameplay you see in Farmville is the same as what we’ve seen in a lot of what used to be called browser games in the past. There have been a lot of games on Facebook that used similar gameplay systems as well. We just now have a company with superior PR skills able to brag effectively about numbers and get noticed.

(As an aside, this is one of the problems I have with identifying trends and getting investment. My long view of history lets me see patterns. I’ve been terrible at anticipating how people without the perspective of history will react and am taken by surprise when big checks start being written.)

But, as I pointed out, social games aren’t the first type of game to do this. At one point everyone was sure MMOs were the absolute future of gaming. EA even went so far as to turn Origin into an online-only studio, despite having some beloved single-player franchises there. I’ll let the story of what happened to Origin speak for itself about how trends don’t always pan out as people expect.

I think another problem is that people focus too much on big numbers. An insightful post about the Tamagochi craze over at Kill Ten Rats puts things in perspective. Tamagochi sold more than Gameboy at the time, but which has been more enduring? As I’ve said many times before, the focus on bigger numbers means that sometimes we lose the real perspective. Being popular isn’t the same as being good or being right.

The problems with social games

So, let’s dig into the meat of the matter, shall we? What’s wrong with social games?

The first problem is reflected in the name. The “social” part of the name comes from the fact that these games are generally available on social networks, like Facebook. But, there’s very little real socialization as Dr. Bartle describes Socializers. (Again, imprecise terminology muddies the waters in game development.) Some people wave this complaint off claiming that these games focus on “asychronous multiplayer” experiences. I have to wonder if you can really call a game “social” if most of the social elements are incidental to the gameplay. Some people have commented that most of the games tend to be single-player games, with a few social “tokens” to pass around.

But, it’s these “tokens” that bring up the next problem. These games encourage you to recruit your friends to get in-game bonuses, which is really just spamming. When Facebook first opened up their API to allow developers to create applications, the developers took advantage of this by making players (sometimes unwillingly) spam their friends. As people got tired of seeing a huge number of “vampire bite” messages waiting for them, Facebook slowly restricted access. If you were to start a new social game now, you would not be on an equal playing field to the existing games that took advantage of more liberal policies in the past.

The other big problem is the hyper-focus on money to the exclusion of all other concerns. Now, I am one of the first of the “creative types” to understand that games are a business and need to make money. I did help edit a book on that very topic, after all. But, one just has to read about the “suggestions” being offered to maximize profits, as reported by Dave Sirlin’s post I liked above, and you can see that the focus is on profit first. I think it’s important to understand psychology for game design to help people enjoy themselves and to watch out for harmful manipulation, not as a how-to guide to get players “addicted”. While people may complain about MMORPGs exploiting similar psychological weaknesses, at least there’s the social elements to consider. After all, throwing back shots of hard alcohol alone at home is considered harmful; doing the same at a bar with friends, on the other hand, is an acceptable social activity if not taken to excess.

It’s the economics, stupid…

As I said above, I’m a fan of the microtransaction business model. Actually, I’m actually a fan of any business model that allows more people to participate in our games so that we can have a wider variety of games. I believe it’s not the business model that is harmful here. 3DO showed it’s just as easy to squeeze more money out of people with a subscription-type game that charges based on daily usage with Meridian 59. And, we’ve seen the trend of subscription-based games starting to add more “value-add services” to squeeze more money out of players. Again, it’s not the business model that screws people over, it’s the company behind the business model.

If you want to point a finger at the economic problem, I’d say one should start with the “offers” that were highlighted in the “Scamville” article. What made this work was making people think they were getting something for nothing. It was a surprise when they found themselves getting billed via their cell phone for something they didn’t know they were signing up for. (To be fair, this is hardly unique to the offers mentioned in the article; many of the “get a cute wallpaper” or “download a farting elephant!” ads you see will actually sign you up for a subscription, too.)

Is Zynga is an innocent party here? Perhaps, but some quotes on record by the CEO, Mark Pincus, don’t indicate that. As he said, …I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I dont know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it. (Transcription errors in the original source linked.) While I can certainly sympathize with needing revenues fast for your small company, I also know it is possible to get revenue without forcing your users to download malware.

It’s also telling if you ignore the fluff and start looking at what really matters for businesses: money. A lot of people throw around the fact that Farmville has 60 millions players whereas World of Warcraft “only” has 11.5 million. But, only 3-5% of those 60 million (that is, 1.8 to 3.0 million) players are actually paying anything. Compare this to 100% of WoW’s players. Looking at revenue, things are even more stark. According to Blizzard Activision’s 10-Q filing, MMORPGs (that would primarily be WoW) earned the company $1.233 billion (with a B) in 2009. Compare this to Zynga who has a wide variety of games but according to one analyst looking at payment processing made $250 million (or $0.250 billion to use similar units) in 2009. Put in that perspective, one can see that people are getting carried away with the wrong big numbers.

(Thanks to Spinks for the link about the number of people who pay. Read her insight on Why I hate Farmville, and where is social gaming taking us?)

So, what does it all mean?

Ultimately, I see social games being yet another fashion for the game industry. Yes, people are talking about it as the future, but as I pointed out, most of these people have a vested interest in this being true. Once we peel back the layers, it’s easy to see that a lot of the noise is actually PR bluster.

What lessons do we take away from this? First of all, I don’t think we should ignore social gaming and social networks just because it’s mostly hot air at this point. There might be a real future for social games, but I suspect they’re going to be a separate thing. From the looks of it, social gaming seems to be absorbing what we called “casual gaming” in the past. I’m fine with that, because casual games didn’t kill off all other sorts of games.

And, even though I don’t use Facebook, it is an important part of a lot of other people’s lives. Adding “social features” might be a good idea for some games, particularly online ones, that can use the features to give players a better experience. Plus, allowing them to advertise to their friends might be a good idea, too. :) Just as long as we keep in mind that some of the more exploitative features, such as making friends “sign up” just to open up features is not good design.

In the end, we’ll keep seeing games we like being made. Again, I put my faith in the independent developers. They’ve been keeping “dead genres” like adventure games and epic RPGs alive for a long time, even when publishers don’t see the profit in making more of these types of games. Given that we’ve already seen indie MMOs by passionate people, I don’t doubt we’ll continue to see MMOs come out for years to come.


  1. Apologies for not posting more often. I’ve been focusing on a new contact that has been really interesting so far.

    Also, bonus points to anyone who recognizes the reference in the fourth heading without using Google. Of course, it might depend on the translation you read. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 25 March, 2010 @ 6:00 PM

  2. Good summary although in my case you’re preaching to the choir.

    I think in all this the most disappointing moment has been Raph pointing to the harvesting system from SWG as being basically the same: set harvesters up, log out for a day, log back in to see how much stuff you’ve gained.

    He’s correct but he also misses the point. A harvester only SWG would have been crap. It was fun because it hooked into an immersive virtual world which gave the numbers meaning.

    Comment by Stabs — 25 March, 2010 @ 9:24 PM

  3. I concur. I like to look at gaming as a non-gamer, by which I mean someone who plays games but doesn’t define himself by that activity. It’s not a tribal thing for me, just one of many interests. From that perspective, the current hoohah over Social Gaming looks much like one of the numberless fads and fashions that blow through all entertainment forms, year in year out.

    That is in no way to dismiss Social Gaming as a phenomenon, but it really is just another iteration of the endless drive consumers have to find ways to pass time and producers have to make money out of them. Most of the kind of stuff I’m interested in in other fields – music, writing, film – come from what Brian calls “independents”. People who have something they want to express, in other words. Artists.

    MMOs may be pretty expensive and time-consuming to make but then, so are movies and there’s absolutely no shortage of great indie films, often made on the tiniest of budgets. Producing and distributing music used to require a vast infrastructure. Now anyone can do it from their bedroom. Gaming, whether “Social” or “Traditional” won’t be that much different.

    In the end I’m confident that there will be an adequate supply of all types of game to meet all aesthetics. So, no need to panic.

    Comment by bhagpuss — 26 March, 2010 @ 4:19 AM

  4. Lovely article, as usual. Oh wait I mean “great, insightful, tightly-written” — I forget you Americans don’t say lovely unless it’s about a bunch of roses. Have a virtual one of those too, since it’s the tail end of DAW (and I just noticed and you’re the first dev in my feed to post today).

    The thing with trends is that by the time most people notice there *is* a trend, it’s peaked and is passing. They’re so much easier to see in hindsight.

    And if the social gaming craze/trend is passing and becoming more rational, hurrah. I’m tired of stuff slapping an “I’m social!” label on a product that ends up just being a thinly-veiled way to get me to spam my friends. I don’t like spamming my friends at the best of times, and I’m not a huge fan of entities (like facebook) that seem to exist purely for that function. I know, I know, facebook has lots of good sides, but it’s … I dunno. Makes me squeamish, especially the games on there.

    Then again it took me several years just to accept twitter. My signal:noise capacity is fairly small.

    Comment by Ysharros — 26 March, 2010 @ 4:50 AM

  5. I just think there’s too many ways to designate games and in the end those expressions just become parody of themselves.

    Say F2P and you automatically hear about how they all are gimmicks to squeeze as much money as possible. Say social games and you automatically hear about scam games.

    Maybe it’s useful somehow to have so many different categories but I just find this confusing in the end. Like you pointed the name is mostly linked to the platform and not to the genre.

    I don’t think mafia games were called “social games” before. Now they’re on Facebook and using poorly the API and magic! It’s now part of the social games family.

    I had similar problems with Golemizer. Should I say it’s a browser game, MMO, virtual world, F2P, indie game … It’s really all of this but based on the words I choose the the perception is different.

    Now that the tag “social games” is accepted as the new hot trend maybe it would be worth to try to narrow its scope a bit. Just “appearing on a social network” seems quite too large and misleading. Unless it’s really the only condition to receive the “social game” tag?

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 26 March, 2010 @ 6:38 AM

  6. Excellent article, touching on a lot of things I’m ruminating on lately. I’ll chime in more later, but for now, I’ll chip in a hearty “YES, someone get it!” to the notion that chasing trends isn’t a good way to make money. It *might* work, but more often than not, chasing bubbles just winds up with catching knives… to mix financial metaphors.

    Comment by Tesh — 26 March, 2010 @ 5:09 PM

  7. Great write-up, Brian, you summed up most of the stuff I was writing on this same subject, albeit more succinctly and less rambly-ly.

    I do think there is a lot of potential in social network games, but chances are it won’t come from Zynga and the like. Like you say, they’re in it for the money, not to make good games. As you very well point out, most of the big names in SNG are actually not that good, as games go.

    I do think that SNGs teach us more traditional game developers a valuable lesson, and that is that there is ample room for market growth, there is a market for simpler games that might not appeal to the ‘hardcore’, and there’s a lot of good in lowering or removing the barriers to entry to gaming.

    Comment by Destral — 26 March, 2010 @ 5:51 PM

  8. I start from the perception that the typical people playing the games on Facebook are pretty much the definition of “casual gamers.” By my lights, that means people looking for a few minutes of simple and non-antagonistic play that lets them keep in touch with friends.

    “Social” in that sense doesn’t imply only the Socializer type; it means anyone interacting with friends whom they would like to keep as friends by playing a game with them (as their time permits) that doesn’t get too hardcore or competitive.

    So a social network like Facebook is the perfect platform for such games, as distinct from the monolithic, multi-million-dollar AAA executables for which a user’s manual is a requirement and which are generally about violent destruction. What sets off the klaxons for games like FarmVille isn’t the gameplay; it’s the monetization model.

    Why, then, did Choice Award developers howl at Zynga? Are their ways of taking people’s money so much cleaner?

    As I’ve seen them, the Facebook games are playable without ever paying the developer a cent. If you want to progress faster, you can receive in-game currency by choosing to give your name and some info to an advertiser. Well — to what extent is that really different from microtransactions, which also encourage players to break the magic circle? In what way is that optional action worse than Massive or EA selling in-game advertising to real-world third parties that players can’t avoid?

    I’m glad to see more developers entering the social network game space. I hope that will mean more games and a wider choice of games available there. Everybody wins from that.

    But it seems to me that those developers who do choose to venture there had better either pony up a more ethical model for making money than the Zyngas, or they lose the privilege of considering themselves any better than the Zyngas.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 26 March, 2010 @ 11:34 PM

  9. Stabs wrote:
    It was fun because it hooked into an immersive virtual world which gave the numbers meaning.

    Agreed, context is everything. I think this one reason why Facebook games have done well, because there’s a larger for the context of the game in the social network. I still hesitate to call this “social”, though.

    Ysharros wrote:
    I forget you Americans don’t say lovely unless….

    No worries, some of us have an international perspective and can appreciate the word. :)

    Then again it took me several years just to accept twitter. My signal:noise capacity is fairly small.

    Agreed. That’s one of the things that’s turned me off of Twitter as well. You either have to pay attention all the time, or you lose the context in a conversation and miss the interesting parts.

    Dave Toulouse wrote:
    I don’t think mafia games were called “social games” before.

    Yeah, I’ve also heard those games called “X-Wars” games. There were plenty of those types of games for the browser for years. They worked on the same principle: get people to “recruit” others to join the site so that the the game operator could sell more advertising. The difference is that Facebook (and other social networks) made it so much easier for people to recruit (spam) your friends, thus making it much bigger and more profitable now.

    Destral wrote:
    I do think that SNGs teach us more traditional game developers a valuable lesson…

    Agreed. There’s a reason I spent some time studying the games, even if I don’t find them all that interesting myself. I haven’t tried out Farmville yet, I have to admit.

    Bart Stewart wrote:
    “Social” in that sense doesn’t imply only the Socializer type….

    There’s a reason why I referenced Bartle here: because they were based on observation about what goes on in MMOs. Most of the types thrive because of the multiplayer nature of the games. The Socializer isn’t the only one that interacts with other people: Achievers often want recognition and Killers need targets. Socializers are special in that they chat with people directly and form social bonds. (Explorers are an odd bunch, in taht they

    In this way, “social games” are social in the same way Killers are Socializers. I think it’s imprecise terminology, and it confuses the issues.

    Why, then, did Choice Award developers howl at Zynga?

    In general, I think the complaint is that it appears that money is the first and only motivator for a lot of social game companies. People have accused various social games of actually degrading the game in order to get people to pay more. The uproar at the Choice Awards reinforces this: Zynga was bragging about how they are financially growing and would be able to even hire the developers in attendance.

    I hope that will mean more games and a wider choice of games available there. Everybody wins from that.

    Yes, just like the influx of game developers and publishers did wonderful things for the Atari 2600 in the early 80s. Er, wait…. ;)

    Seriously, though, I agree that a lot of the “hate” toward social games is overblown. There are some good things to learn. But, that doesn’t mean that some concern isn’t justified here.

    Interesting discussions, though. Keep ‘em coming!

    Comment by Psychochild — 27 March, 2010 @ 5:37 PM

  10. /AFK – Njub Edition

    [...] Psychochild sees far… far… far into the FUTURE [...]

    Pingback by Bio Break — 28 March, 2010 @ 12:06 PM

  11. The Best Of The Rest: No Drama Edition

    [...] finally the Psychochild dumps his beautiful brain thoughts over the topic of social gaming in another excellent article. Marry me, Brian. [...]

    Pingback by We Fly Spitfires - MMORPG Blog — 28 March, 2010 @ 3:31 PM

  12. I think its total bull that zynga won that social games award.

    Evony deserved to win it 9000 times over and I don’t know anyone who would disagree.

    Comment by Kriss — 28 March, 2010 @ 9:36 PM

  13. I agree with most of what you wrote, but the most interesting thing to me about social gaming is not the current crop of games (ha, sorry about the pun) but the distribution platforms–ie, the social networks. Despite what anyone thinks about the hype, social sites as a gaming platform really is something new in that regard.

    400+ million users on Facebook is not a fad, and it has no precedent that I’m aware of. That’s reach that you can’t achieve any other way (except on mobile, but it’s fragmented by carriers and hardware). I’ll certainly be looking to leverage that distribution potential.

    Comment by jason — 29 March, 2010 @ 6:58 PM

  14. You summed up a basic marketing discourse in your own experience very well. Although you draw similarities between fields that can not be compared to each other in terms of financial success (Tamagochi vs. Gameboy, Farmville vs. WoW). But I see your point using them to illustrate the dimension of possible measurements. And for that purpose they serve well.

    Your observations regarding trends can be transferred to any other economical field. Take Sub-Prime or Britans real estate bubble, that even swapped over to Spain. Whenever a trend occurs, your best bet is to avoid that trend, although riding the wave usually seems unavoidable, especially when the longer the trend stays in force.

    Therefore I would add something to your observation you did not explicitly mention, although you somehow say it in between the lines.
    If you missed a trend, you should directly head into the opposite direction. Usually the market tries to catch up with the trend, binding most resources thus leaving the opposite field unattended.
    Since covering the opposite field takes it time, you are probably just in time, when the trend declines and the demand turns in your favor.
    Besides, during a trend usually the opportunity arises to cater an unsatisfied demand of the opposite. If everyone wears black, those who like to be independent will ask for colour, which might either be expensive during the trend or at least low on supply.

    Hopefully you do not mind me bringing up a concern regarding Facebook that I already mentioned at Spink’s.

    In countries with a high level of job protection (Nordic States, Germany), social networks are monitored very closely by the employers.
    Keep in mind, that in some countries we do get hired mostly for Lifetime, and it is nearly impossible to fire someone, who worked several years for the company or has a family to feed.

    Most Human Resources departments already have units specialised on creating online profiles of applicants. A lot lot agencies already offer their services in either, searching or deleting your online profile. Just Google for “Reputation Management”.
    During the actual weak economy it even starts to become an approach to drive people out of their jobs.

    Because of this development, we actually see the trend, that people with reputation sensitive jobs tend to avoid social networks, moving to business networks.

    From my personal experience I could give you half a dozen examples of cases, which you would not think of. In most cases you do allow conclusions to your way of living, without noticing it.

    Long story short, although they praise social gaming as winning story, there are other trends that can cut down it’s success in at least some fields.

    Comment by Usiel — 30 March, 2010 @ 2:30 AM

  15. I am a Facebook user(mostly to keep in contact with friends and family). I am not however a player of the “social” games. I did try the City of Eternals beta a bit, but even that only lasted a week. My biggest beef with such games is the requirement of getting your friends involved in order to better your own standing. I was drawn into this on Myspace with the mobster type games and found myself with over 300 “friends” that I really didn’t know and quickly regretted my decision to grow my friends list to support a game. I have since abandoned Myspace for Facebook as more of my actual friends and family were there, at the same time I decided I would not destroy my account in the same manner.

    The problem is a good majority of my friends play these things and I end up with “friendly” requests to contribute to their game by signing up. “I need two more friends so I can build a barn for my horses” “you don’t even need to play, just sign up so it adds you as my friend”. This is why Farmville has the player count it has, you feel obliged to help your friends. I asked my wife why she plays the games she does and she says she doesn’t even find some of them to be that fun while she’s clicking through, she just likes to help out others… Really?!?

    There are 2 games I play on Facebook, Scrabble and Bejeweled Blitz. Neither one of these requires you to expand your friend base to be completely enjoyable and neither one spams your friends with unwanted noise, well Bejeweled can if you always want to post your high score, but I always choose no thanks unless my score is simply amazing. =)

    Comment by Fumbles — 30 March, 2010 @ 7:16 AM

  16. jason wrote:
    400+ million users on Facebook is not a fad

    A fad is measured by how long it lasts, not by the popularity. Pet Rocks were once very popular, making the inventor a millionaire by most counts, but eventually that went out of fashion. (For the most part…) It’s too early to really say if Facebook is a fad or not, I think. But, it is certainly very popular.

    But, there are a few snags here. For one, how many of those accounts are real? I’ve heard of people creating multiple accounts for multiple reasons. There are also accounts that aren’t used very much; my own Facebook account gets checked once per week. Another person told me that the CEO of his company only keeps a Facebook account around to look trendy; he merely logs on and accepts all friend invites without reading messages.

    …it has no precedent that I’m aware of.

    I just registered for a bogus ICQ account and was given the number 599,322,209 (commas added for readability). Does this mean that ICQ has nearly 600 million users? I doubt that, given that I just created a bogus account for this specific purpose.

    Finally, there’s the risk of putting your fate in the hands of a third-party platform holder. The industry is rife with examples of how a middleman comes in and squeezes profits. I’ll point out my perennial favorite link: Brian Hook’s Pyrogon Postmortem. The summary: experienced casual games developer gets squeezed out as the portals dominate and take larger and larger cuts. The introduction of Facebook Credits should have a lot of social games developers keeping an exit strategy in mind.

    Again, I’m not saying that Facebook isn’t popular or that people aren’t making a good amount of money on the platform, but a smart businessperson exercises caution.

    Usiel wrote:
    Whenever a trend occurs, your best bet is to avoid that trend….

    The problem is that humans often have a herd mentality. As I said in the post, the industry runs on fashion. Even if being unfashionable is the right strategy in the long run, it’s not something that is going to be popular. Expect to have a hard time finding investment, for example, as VCs want to invest in the hot new thing making big returns currently.

    Long story short, although they praise social gaming as winning story, there are other trends that can cut down it’s success in at least some fields.

    As has been pointed out before, the privacy implications are one of the things that might put the squeeze on this if people start paying attention. Without easy access to information like lists of friends, this would make the viral (“spamming”) aspects harder, thus limiting success. We’ll see how that develops.

    Fumbles wrote:
    …she doesn’t even find some of them to be that fun while she’s clicking through, she just likes to help out others… Really?!?

    Yes. There are some MMO players I know that aren’t terribly interested in slaughtering goblins by the truckload, but they have a lot of fun in getting together with people and enjoying the social atmosphere. For your wife, I suspect that the game is an excuse to stay in touch with some friends that might not stop for a chat otherwise.

    There are 2 games I play on Facebook, Scrabble and Bejeweled Blitz. Neither one of these requires you to expand your friend base to be completely enjoyable….

    Also notable that these are previously existing games that migrated to Facebook so they already had a built-in audience.

    Comment by Psychochild — 30 March, 2010 @ 10:27 AM

  17. i think the issue of facebook possibly putting the squeeze on the developers is a very real and important danger that is often overlooked… especially because so many of the games on facebook simply cannot stand up on their own… they are horrible games and without facebook would be nothing… so this gives facebook a whole lot of leverage when it comes to getting their cut.

    i hadn’t thought about this before… but when i add this new insight to my theory of how facebook games are Inferior Goods.. found here – (comment #77)… then it becomes an even more dire situation for “facebook game” developers.

    since facebook games depend so much on facebook for their success.. and these games are barely games at all.. they can’t stand on their own… so there really isn’t an exit strategy… except maybe moving to another social network, or creating their own…

    Comment by Logan — 30 March, 2010 @ 1:58 PM

  18. Shut Up We’re Talking #60

    [...] games, bringing up a lot of opinions from around net including those of Raph Koster, Soren Johnson, Brian Green, and others. (Reading those posts will bring you up to speed.) This is pretty much the meat of [...]

    Pingback by The Ancient Gaming Noob — 30 March, 2010 @ 7:33 PM

  19. Psychochild wrote:

    “Even if being unfashionable is the right strategy in the long run, it’s not something that is going to be popular. Expect to have a hard time finding investment, for example, as VCs want to invest in the hot new thing making big returns currently.”

    I have mixed feelings about that, but probably due to our different perspectives.
    Finding anti-cyclic investors was that hard for me. I rather find developers willing to be unfashionable hard to find, even if finance is secured.

    Therefore I would say, the problem works both ways.

    Comment by Usiel — 30 March, 2010 @ 11:08 PM

  20. Usiel wrote:
    I rather find developers willing to be unfashionable hard to find, even if finance is secured.

    Fair enough. I suspect we do have different perspectives on it. I think some of the developer behavior can be explained because we’re fast-moving field. Some people don’t want to become too mired in “yesterday’s trend” for fear of getting left behind.

    I also wanted to make one other general comment. In the latest episode of the podcast Shut Up We’re Talking (what The Ancient Gaming Noob trackbacked above), they talk about social games. One common retort when gamers complain about social games is that “they’re not built for you.”

    I’m going to call bullshit, just like the podcasters did in that show. I’m a game developer who enjoys a wide range of games, even games I’m not very good at. One of my interests in the last few years have been Flash games. I’ve consistently ranked high on the Socializer. In theory, these types of games should be like crack for me. But, they just don’t. I think it’s as Karen from SUWT posts on her site, the real point here is integration with Facebook. I’m not a big fan of Facebook and these games don’t grab me, so I think that theory is probably the most accurate.

    Comment by Psychochild — 31 March, 2010 @ 10:20 AM

  21. The Most Important Video You’ll Watch This Year

    [...] there’s been a lot of talk about the future of video games. Many of us are contemplating the meteoric financial success of social networking games like Farmville and are scratching our [...]

    Pingback by Wolfshead Online — 2 April, 2010 @ 3:06 AM

  22. A fad is measured by how long it lasts, not by the popularity.

    Apart from not being comparable in any way to pet rocks, :p Facebook is replacing written letters, phone calls, and emails for many people. Those certainly aren’t fads. I just can’t agree that social networks are a fad. That’s not to even mention the effects of Facebook Connect.

    All that aside, Facebook isn’t going anywhere within the time frame that someone could reasonably create, market, and profit from a game launched there.

    Does this mean that ICQ has nearly 600 million users?

    Why wonder when you can know? Apparently Facebook reports monthly active users. and

    The precedent I mentioned isn’t the user count, though. It’s the opportunity implied by the platform on which they are all interacting. Whether it’s 100 million or 400 million (plus 500,000 new users every *day*) is irrelevant. It’s huge. That’s all I need to know. :)

    Think of it this way. Would you prefer to try to market that game without Facebook or with Facebook? Having marketed games online the “old” way, I can say I will definitely be leveraging Facebook. :) It’s *really* hard to get noticed without the benefit of a social network like Facebook.

    …your fate in the hands of a third-party platform holder

    That, I definitely agree with. Facebook will put the squeeze on devs in multiple ways. It’s already happening, actually. Things are moving more toward being ad-driven. And there’s that little thing called Facebook Credits. How far they take that (ie, eliminate all other virtual currency providers on the platform) remains to be seen.

    Consolidation is inevitable, but it’s not over yet! The window for indies and small studios will close, I have no doubt, but that shouldn’t stop an enterprising upstart from giving it a shot, should it?

    …a smart businessperson exercises caution.

    The upsides outweigh the downs from where I stand.

    And for the record, no, I won’t be making a Farmville Skinner box or a bland casual game. I read all the time that Facebook gamers are people who never played games before. Well, I’m not interested in making games for them. I think there might be a few gamers on Facebook who *do* play games and would respond to a game with more substance. We’ll see, I hope!

    Comment by jason — 2 April, 2010 @ 11:53 AM

  23. jason wrote:
    Apparently Facebook reports monthly active users.

    And Facebook has absolutely no incentive to inflate figures, right? ;)

    It’s *really* hard to get noticed without the benefit of a social network like Facebook.

    Understand that as more people see the same opportunity you do, it’ll become hard to get noticed even with a social network like Facebook. Games on Facebook work mostly because spamming works, even though nobody likes it. In this whole discussion of Facebook games, I’ve heard some people say that Facebook needs a “Block events from all games” option rather than making people block individual games as they come up. If Facebook does that, your game will not be any easier to market on Facebook than on the open internet. The latest Shut Up We’re Talking podcast (trackbacked above) recommends people create a second account to play games so you don’t spam your friends. Not only does this inflate the number of “users”, it also means that your growth potential is going to be potentially limited to only existing game players. Let’s see how well the traditional MMO industry has done in the last few years trying to appeal only to current MMO (read: WoW) players….

    The upsides outweigh the downs from where I stand.

    Well, your situation is not standard. I think the big problem here is that people think they can jump on the bandwagon from a standing start now and become the next Zynga. We’ve talked before, Jason, and you’ve been working at game development on an indie scale for a while. I think you’re probably in a better position to exploit this opportunity than many others.

    Just don’t think this is the never-ending gravy train. And, be ready with a Plan B in case Facebook does alter the agreement (and pray they don’t alter it further).

    Comment by Psychochild — 3 April, 2010 @ 8:39 AM

    • Jason wrote:
      Well, I’m not interested in making games for them. I think there might be a few gamers on Facebook who *do* play games and would respond to a game with more substance. We’ll see, I hope!

    This is something that I will never understand. Although I understand your reason, I do not understand the lack of anticipation.

    Social Games are a trend, agreed. Most of those people never played, let’s agree they never did.

    So, does this mean, they will never play a substantial game, once they found access to gaming? Or can we assume, that their “playing” curve will develop as it did with any other gamer, to the various extends we see?

    Or look at the browser games hype. Most of these games are related to older games or even browser copies of the original. Take Oil Empire for instance, it currently seems to attract a lot of people. Mostly for two reasons, its a known title, in the flood of browser games, you will very likely chose a familiar title, if you are lost in the flood of unknown titles. And if you have not played the last 15 years for instance, and start to re-enter the games market, you will probably look for familiar games.
    It’s no wonder that Oil Empire is very popular among re-turners who are now between 30-40 years.

    Your assumption indicates, that these gamers, will never develop a demand above the social games or browser games level. Which is quiet surprising, because the games world evolved since the days of Oil Empire.

    Even if you do not agree, let’s just consider for a second, that browser games or social games, can serve as a entry into the regular game market for a fair amount of social gamers (this ensures, we both are right).

    In this case, you could easily develop your ideas for a clientele that is not used to over freighted Blockbuster Games. The market of people who grew out of those simple social games and into your substantial games.
    You were free of those “cater every tast with 10 Races, 10 Classes” requirements and could focus on bringing your ideas.

    I am not criticising your opinion, just trying to give a different perspective about how your customers grow up.

    Comment by Usiel — 6 April, 2010 @ 2:19 AM

  24. Moral obligations of game designers

    [...] there’s been a lot of talk about social games and how they impact players. A common accusation is that they use direct psychological tricks to [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild’s Blog — 13 April, 2010 @ 5:52 PM

  25. Two kinds of fools

    [...] I've written about "social games" before. My current assessment is that this is mostly just the continuation of trends we've seen before, [...]

    Pingback by Psychochild's Blog — 27 July, 2010 @ 7:04 PM

  26. Kinda funny to read this post and the comments 3 years later. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 20 April, 2013 @ 11:52 PM

Leave a comment

I value your comment and think the discussions are the best part of this blog. However, there's this scourge called comment spam, so I choose to moderate comments rather than giving filthy spammers any advantage.

If this is your first comment, it will be held for moderation and therefore will not show up immediately. I will approve your comment when I can, usually within a day. Comments should eventually be approved if not spam. If your comment doesn't show up and it wasn't spam, send me an email as the spam catchers might have caught it by accident.

Line and paragraph breaks automatic, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

Email Subscription

Get posts by email:

Recent Comments


Search the Blog


July 2020
« Aug    



Standard Disclaimer

I speak only for myself, not for any company.

My Book


Around the Internet

Game and Online Developers

Game News Sites

Game Ranters and Discussion

Help for Businesses

Other Fun Stuff

Quiet (aka Dead) Sites

Posts Copyright Brian Green, aka Psychochild. Comments belong to their authors.

Support me and my work on