GDC Online 2011: What have you been playing? Social Games 2010-2011

Attending Playdom’s session with Steve Meretzky and Dave Rohrl led me to two distinct discoveries.

One: There is no magical formula for social games.
Two: Most of them have a limited lifespan.

The pair discussed ten trends in the session, they highlighted a lot of the evolution of the genre as a whole and named specific titles.


Trend 1: Longevity

In the top fifty games on Facebook, two-thirds of them are over a year old. This means that established games are the ones that are continuing to monetize and keep their users involved.

But with social games, it does not apply as a blanket to all of them; Playdom said games have to be seen as a service on the social platform. They are high maintenance. But through it all, they need to have a fun and solid core structure.

Even though this might sound like it contradicts my second discovery, it makes sense. The big titles that are surviving have been shot full of consistent content. It covers the eyes of the players who might see the next content update as more to do and interact with. But the developer and publisher would actually see it as another way to monetize and at the same time exposing new users into the game.

Trend 2: Virality

Virality is an interesting topic. In the early days of Facebook, there was a lot of transparent virality in the service. Notifications were the main form of pushing a game in the face of users. It’s changed now with the new left side app section and more with the Facebook Ticker, which sits in front of the user’s eyes. Since it consistently moves as it refreshes, it focuses the eye on that particular section of the screen.

It’s mostly free still, not costing developers or publishers much, but games have devised new ways to increase their virality by requiring friends to invite others to play. This adds in the social system, while at the same time gambles that the invited friends will either monetize or invite more possible users into the game.


Trend 3: It’s about Frontiers

When Zynga launched Frontierville, it changed the social landscape on Facebook. Before Frontierville, it was Farmville, which now even boasts an iPhone app. The microcosm of farming games was changed entirely when new kinds of micro-tasks were introduced in Frontierville.

Using energy, replenishing through meals, dealing with debris, collections, animals and crafting required much more from the user. These additional tasks required more time spent in the game to finish everything before moving on and leveling for more content.


Trend 4: High quality as a necessity

The pair highlighted that social games on Facebook are becoming a lot more high quality in the evolution of the platform. There are five main categories that are showing this jump.

    -Mob Games
    -City Building Games
    -Zoo Games
    -War Games
    -Classic Casual Games

These games also require some essential development features.

    -Visuals
    -Feature set
    -Polish
    -Balance
    -Stability

From the inception of the platform to support Facebook games to now, anyone can see the massive jump in quality. While they do not meet their PC or console brethren, they can easily match what exists on mobile devices.

With the introduction of HTML 5 as a development platform, there looks to be a lot more progression coming in the near future to support beyond the browser.


Trend 5: More Content

Every social game has to include some sort of continued additional content. Even the most addictive game can become stale after players work through the content. The replayability of a game is a big issue with any genre of game. Social games, which by nature gear toward shorter play times, have to offer updates. This isn’t just to retain users, but also to further monetize their product by offering the dual-edge content/microtransaction model.

Even with expansions, there is not much impact on the game itself. Content updates are more for user retention and for more monetization for the product.


Trend 6: Casual as the new standard

Casual games are a genre is extremely huge. From mobile, social platforms and now even some acceptance in the console market, the casual game most likely has the best “Return on Investment” (ROI) than any other genre.

The purpose for most developers is to acquire users. Most the games require some sort of time management gameplay. That gameplay is familiar and proven for moderate success. Also the short session length requirement has users coming back in the middle of other tasks, unlike a full console or PC production title.


Trend 7: Friendly Competition

Competitive gameplay is also nothing new to gaming as a whole. But the different with social competitive gaming is that it isn’t about who is the better player, but who has more – more wealth, more clout, more home worth.

The use of the friend leaderboard is the same as it is on iOS and, to a lesser extent, Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network. Leaderboards and competitive play in social games will not retreat ever. And even though players might not be competing in a player vs player instance most of the time, they are still racing against each other.


Trend 8: Intellectual Properties?

The rise of the use of existing intellectual properties is not that new in social gaming. In the console world, there has not been a breakout success with the game to movie tie-in. Most of the examples are games that are too tied to the parallel property that hampers proper execution.

In social gaming, it has repeated itself with social gamers not truly accepting the IP related game. There is a portion of the community that will try the game, but long-term user interaction is very low.

The positives of this system are that users who see existing products made into an interactive experience are willing to try it. Also there can be already existing assets tied into a product. Developers have a lot of space to work inside and develop a game that uses the product well.


Trend 9: Facebook RPG?

The one genre that Playdom still saw as unattempted is the RPG on the Facebook platform. While there are games that lightly brush the roleplay game genre with isometric missions, there has never been a true to form RPG that speaks to the strength of the platform and the genre.

Their examples of use were diversifying the genre to use RPG gameplay, but not so much into a hardcore RPG title. They also used a Pokemon reference in that monster collecting was a perfect type of RPG for the system.

The Facebook RPG might be the next big genre to hit the platform, but it needs to wait for the right time to release.


Trend 10: Prepare for a Challenge

The last trend that Playdom introduced was “Hard Road Ahead.” Their explanation of the last trend is that the social gaming world and the genre as a whole are both still relatively young. No one developer or publisher has made a hit with every single game on the Facebook platform and social gaming as a whole. Obviously Zynga and PopCap Games are the top two successes, but they have still stumbled a little bit.

New developers need to be aware of the difficulty of the platform and the gaming space before they decide to jump in with all their energy.


Conclusion

The ten trends talked about by Playdom brought notice to some interesting facts. While the successful games are talked about a lot in the news or press releases, there are many more who have tried and unfortunately failed in the social gaming platform.

Social games in 2010-2011 made staggering changes and in a year the Facebook platform has become more than social networking, but social gaming monetization. 2012 will push a lot more games and Facebook’s acceptance of HTML 5 will be more interesting when games are developed with that technology behind it.

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