Sunday, March 21, 2010

Casual games in social spaces

Lead game designer Tom Rassweiler offers his thoughts on the benefits and challenges of re-developing successful casual games for social platforms.

With the potential of garnering tens of millions of monthly active users in a short period of time, social games are in the spotlight and every game company is trying to figure out how to capitalize on this new market. However, every platform has its own benefits and challenges and understanding those will help with the transition.

As an established casual game developer with over 300 titles, Arkadium has been trying to adapt some existing successful casual content into the social space. A couple months ago we partnered with Mob Science to release one of our hit casual games Mahjongg Dimensions as a Facebook game. And as of mid March we surpassed the 1 million monthly active users mark and continue to grow.

While this has been a great success so far, recent articles have questioned the ability of casual games to be successful on Facebook. The idea of retrofitting a game to become social is not seen as the right path to follow; however, I have no doubt that casual games will have a vibrant future within social spaces.

Some recent data from PopCap implies that the demographics of social and casual gamers are, in fact, quite similar. 55% are women. The average age of gamers is 43 and 46% of players are over the age of 50. 65% play one or more times a day. As a designer of casual games, I feel at home with this data. This seems like the casual game market of the last several years, mostly female, older than core gamers.

Social networks offer a huge pre-registered user base which is hard to build with a standalone casual games site. Arkadium has been supporting a game site called Great Day Games for several years now. It has many great community features including avatars, leaderboards, trophies, game rating, and sweepstakes, and from watching the leaderboards and forums, people really like these features. However, only a small fraction of the total user base is registered. The vast majority never chose to register and therefore can’t be tracked in our database. Facebook solves this because every user who allows the application auto-registers to the game with significantly more information than we would get normally.

Facebook also offers very easy sharing and viral mechanics. Instead of having to fill out each friend’s email address for a “challenge a friend” event, Facebook provides a one click solution. There are extremely easy ways to invite friends, challenge and taunt and boast achievements on your wall. Almost all games have a score at the end which provides a very simple hook for this.

Leaderboards are also significantly better in Facebook than on standard casual game sites because of access to friends. Unlike an average leaderboard, dominated by mysterious gaming savants, a leaderboard that only shows the player’s friends, correctly incentivizes the player to compete and invite others they know to the application.

Finally one of the most supportive elements of Facebook is the players’ trust in the platform itself. While not entirely true, there is an assumption made by players that games on Facebook are either developed by or vouched for by the social network. As a result, players are much more willing to provide their user information, feedback, and have less friction to paying for products (especially with the future introduction of Facebook Credits currency).

Of course, along with the huge advantages of transforming existing casual games for social platforms, there are always some challenges. Monetization is one of the most commonly discussed.

Social game players expect everything for free. However this is no different from web gamers in general. It is hard to convince players to directly pay for a casual web game no matter how much time and effort developers put in. One way explored to get around this is to link your successful game to a paid downloadable or iPhone version. This works because download and iPhone games are expected to have a cost associated with it. Bejeweled Blitz makes this work well, and we are having success with a Mahjongg Dimensions Deluxe download. On top of this, there is no reason to exclude micro transactions, but working meaningful ones into an existing casual game can be difficult.

Managing the community becomes another new challenge. The idea of a social game as a service means that players expect social games to be constantly evolving and growing to match the needs of the users. They expect to be responded to immediately when they ask questions on the fan page or request new features. This is very new water for any online casual game developer and even more different from the casual downloadable market. There is no easy solution to this problem except to organize your team as if you are developing a service instead of a product. Assume that the launch day is just day one of the real work. Refusing to engage with users will not succeed.

The future is bright for casual games on social platforms like Facebook. Adapting games correctly is important, but developers and designers shouldn’t be afraid of converting a successful casual game to a Facebook application. And while that doesn’t mean that all of the games will be huge successes, there are many intrinsic advantages to games on Facebook that should not be overlooked.

Tom Rassweiler is the manager of game development at Arkadium.


Doug Hill said...

Hey Tom - great article!

After playing your game Mahjongg Dimensions (great job, btw), Bejeweled Blitz, and several other timed casual games on Facebook, I can't help but draw correlations to the arcades of my youth.

Think about it: You have a single community competing with each other regularly for high scores. This community has a very different demographic and happens to be customized to each player's friend list, but it is still the same idea.

If that kind of mentality continues to persist, I agree - the future is indeed bright for casual game on social platforms.

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