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The mobile web and a smartphone in almost every pocket gave rise to social gaming – casual turn based games played by friends, wherever they may be. Zynga, the company most associated with social games, has had a rollercoaster ride since it was founded. To make matters worse, social games have hit a slump and some fear the bubble has burst, with Zynga diving in the stock market and reporting weak earnings. So is it game over?
The most successful gaming premises have been those based on real world games, something everyone will recognise and be able to familiarise with. Games like Farmville break the trend by offering up a little bit of fantasy, if a ‘real-time farm simulation’ can be classed as fantasy. It’s still a familiar concept, which is something social gamers seem to demand. While not strictly a social game, Farmville still relies heavily on Facebook for promotion and exposure among players’ friends – and works as an app within Facebook. It currently tops the charts for games on Facebook and app downloads but newcomers are constantly threatening to take the throne.
Some social apps exploded onto the scene only to disappear just as quickly – within 50 days of its March 2012 release, Draw Something by Omgpop was downloaded 50million times. This explosion in popularity led to the game and the developer being bought up by Zynga for a sizeable $180million. But by May 2012, Daily Active Users (DAU) had seen a dramatic drop (see below).
Today, Draw Something doesn’t even make it into the top 100 of the iOS app chart and it drops ever lower in Android charts.
A shining example of a winning social game is Fruit Ninja – available from the Apple App Store since April 2010, it still ranks in the all-time top paid games chart and holds on to its existing audience with frequent, fun updates. As a game made for touch screen devices, it is a pleasure to play and offers loads of on-going challenges. On the social side, developer Halfbrick was quick to integrate Game Centre when it was launched by Apple later that year – allowing friends to connect and play against each other. The game lets you tweet your scores and achievements and integrates Facebook too.
Source: Fruit Ninja
The iPad version even lets two players go head to head on the same screen, so you can be a social gamer for real. But the feature that made this game popular was how easy it is to play – no complex story, no long winded rules and – crucially – no waiting your turn. Tap in, see who else is playing and slice away. There was a point where 100 years of Fruit Ninja were being played every day – and even three years on, people are playing in their millions. It’s a testament to the longevity of the game and social game developers could learn a thing or two when it comes to making a long-lasting gaming experience.
Social games are great from a business point of view because large numbers of people advocate and advertise the product. Once connected through a social network, friends will share game invites and encourage others to download and play the game with them. It’s cheap, effective viral marketing – all you have to do is get some people hooked. The thought of beating your friends at a game is a tantalising prospect, especially when you can tweet your score and show the world who’s boss, but a lot of games abandon the competitive element and make it more about a shared experience. A game like Words with Friends actively encourages competition, whereas Draw Something encourages players to help each other along.
Social gaming is nothing new; it just hasn’t had a clearly defined name before. In fact, gaming has historically been considered one of the most antisocial pastimes of all, even online gaming against friends (and rivals). The shift in attitude seems to apply to casual gamers and the quick rise in casual gaming brought about by the mobile era. The Nintendo Wii did a lot for social and casual gaming too and it could be argued that without it, the games industry would never have taken casual gamers seriously.
Sometimes, players will make a game social, even though it’s a solo game. Screenshots of really tough puzzles shared with friends can help find the answer – and get a whole new group of people playing the game off the back of it. For instance, ‘4 Pics 1 Word’ had Facebook newsfeeds clogged up with pictures all tied together by one word, users frantically trying to get the answers.
Picture based movie quizzes get the same treatment and before you know it, a solo game becomes a social game. ‘4 Pics 1 Word’ hits the end of its life very quickly though and without regular updates, any casual game is doomed to drift into obscurity.
The primary objective of any gaming product should be to make a game that’s enjoyable to play. It has to be the right combination of challenging and rewarding – no amount of fancy graphics, tilt controls or gimmicks is going to save a game that’s too easy or too hard with no reward in the end.
Many social games forget that things can get old fast. After the initial ‘wow, this is cool!’ moment that a user has playing a game like Draw Something, they realise that words are in short supply and will find themselves repeating drawings over and over – so the challenge is gone. Everyone playing has seen the drawing before and there’s no fun left in guessing – so the reward is gone too. The remedy according to the developers was to pay for new words with in game currency and ultimately the option to pay for in game currency with real currency. All but the most hard-core players are going to turn their noses up to that offer. But social gaming isn’t aimed at the hard-core gamer, it’s aimed at people with a spare 5 minutes that would otherwise be spent staring blankly into space. Like your average commuter. Nobody’s going to pay real money for fake money whilst they’re on their way to earn real money.
Social games need to focus on their users; the casual gamers looking for a quick fix to beat boredom. They need to accept that their audience will come and go. They can’t make everybody a long term player, as much as they would like to. And they certainly can’t rope everyone into paying for new in game content, especially if the game gets old fast.
Developers should take a cue from ‘traditional’ games developers and periodically release major updates and sequels, inviting users to upgrade to a game with amazing new features, rather than trying to pedal their wares through a tired game with little life left in it.
Playnomics.com found that a massive 85% of social gamers ditch their newly downloaded game after just a day. If a game can’t hook a player and present them with a reason for coming back, it is doomed. A mobile social game needs to present quick, easy access and offer enough of a rewarding experience to have players come back to it.
Social gaming still represents an interesting marketing potential, but has the bubble burst? What do you think the future holds for social games?
Cell Phone Game by Bigstock Photos