Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Why We Need to Pay Attention to Social Games

In this article, graduate student Nick LaLone points out that many video game designers view social games with disrespect and worries that if industry professionals do not take social games seriously, they may be doomed to repeat mistakes of the past.

What are Social Games?
Social games are a structured activity which has contextual rules through which users can engage with one another. Social games must be multiplayer and have one or more of the following features: turn-based, are based on social platforms for providing users with an identity and are casual[1].
A secondary feature of social games is that they tend to be on social networking sites like facebook, myspace, orkut, twitter, or any of the other services out there. The basic social game is linked to a database of friends who take turns doing things in a game through which they are linked (loosely) together in friendship and application.

What do game designers think of social games?

This is best summed up in two parts. First, you have the famous Jesse Schell talk in which he talks about the horror of social games, or the creation of a monetary or credit reward system for doing the right thing permeating the whole of society. Second, there is this sentiment that social media groups are designing games around the idea of making money.[2] And while Zynga has made a gigantic amount of money, there have not been a lot of other success stories.[3] Yet, because of this success, there is an ever-growing glut of imitators.

In a Google search of “zynga is,” the very first link is to an article through which comes this quote:
“Zynga makes mediocre games. What Zynga discovered is that Facebook had left an opening for spam. They acquired a lot of audience from a security loophole that Facebook has since closed. And they aren’t social. Their only social game is Poker — it’s the only one that you can chat in. All subsequent games are turn based and spread over days.”

The audience’s response? A round of clapping.[4]
However, in looking at the popularity of Zynga’s games / social experiments, you can state the following:
But a study done by research form Next Up for pre-IPO trading service SharesPost says Zynga is worth three billion dollars, putting it in the same league as Facebook’s estimated $5B valuation.
Another interesting monetary fact:
A surprising fact came up at last week’s 2010 Media Summit in New York. An eBay spokesman said that Zynga was PayPal’s second-largest merchant in 2009… it’s interesting to consider how Zynga became so big on PayPal, so quickly. Some of its most successful games were launched in 2008, and their quick growth helped prove to the world that virtual goods and virtual currency are a viable market… The caveat is that neither reached their full potential until part of 2009 was past — Zynga started 2009 with fewer than 15 million players. Then there are the many games that Zynga launched in the second half of 2009. Its two largest games today, FarmVille and CafĂ© World, were launched in July and September of 2009, respectively. FishVille was even later, showing up in November…Those games alone represent over half of Zynga’s current 240 million monthly active players, but they were barely present for most of the period that PayPal was measuring.[5]
With 3-5 games, Zynga has gained nearly half of the entire worth of EA [6]:
Market Cap (intraday)5: 6.02B
Enterprise Value (19-Mar-10)3: 4.27B
This has happened before

This sudden and amazing gain comes on the heels of another sore spot in the video game industry, the Nintendo Wii. Looking at the Google searches for “Nintendo Wii,” we find:
Ex-DICE boss and hardcore game designer Fredrik Liliegrin has labelled the Nintendo Wii a "virus" and says that it is "not a video games machine".[7]
However, the Wii has outsold the Xbox and the PS3 nearly 2 to 1 worldwide.[8] Consumers have answered with their spending power yet the game industry seems less than keen on the idea.

The question that sits at the crux of this article is thus: If video games are to be taken seriously, then why not study what hole these “toys” and “distractions” social games are filling for consumers in such tremendous numbers?


Video games as currently dominant video game makers define them have not had the respect of the general populace since the early 1980s. While video games regained some confidence after Atari thanks to powerful marketing and redefinition of what a video game is by Nintendo, they became a product from Japan meant for kids. “Derrogatory nerd culture” has long been the realm of American game makers. While this is changing with the success of the Xbox 360, the general populace is still indifferent to video games as a whole and has remained so until Nintendo and Zynga began to find new ways to get them interested in video games. This tremendous movement is polarizing with gamers and game makers thinking opposite of the general populace and social game makers. To demonstrate this, think of respect for video games (respect being likelihood to spend money or pay attention to the game) on a continuum from low to high. It would look something like this for a “Gamer”:

The gap between the people who play and make video games (white males between the ages of 18-35) and the rest of the world has been thrown into open debate. As Jesse Schell notes, game design decisions outside the dominant console are being made by whoever is there at the time. Professional game makers, because of their derogatory statements about these moneymaking machines, are being ignored. Even if those game makers do not appreciate the design decisions made by social game makers, the fact that a majority of non-gamers are playing these “new” types of games should say something to the “gaming industry.” At the same time, social game makers have just as much need to look at the history of game design. Even if current game design is stifling, gamer target marketing stale, and public ideas about video games (addiction, violence and all) are wrong, there is a lot to learn in that history.

I propose that both sides do a little more research on the other. If game makers want their products to be taken seriously while making enough money to maintain a routine product release schedule, then they should pay attention to this tremendously large gap their so-called “enemies” have brought to light. It wouldn’t take very much (research) to capitalize on the Wii’s success while keeping your games hardcore enough to attract the “core” gamers. On the opposite side, the social game makers must realize the potential to flood their own market in a similar series of events that killed off American console manufacturing at the video game industry’s creation. Both sides must realize; however, that maintaining the sudden and tremendous monetary gain is nothing more than a trend is the very thing the American public did when they labeled gaming a fad when Atari closed its doors and was sold off.[9] American game makers are just now recovering from that error their predecessors let happen.


[1] http://www.socialtimes.com/2008/07/social-games/

[2] http://blog.pixel-lab.co.uk/?p=1846

[3] http://www.quartertothree.com/game-talk/showthread.php?p=2129705

[4] http://techcrunch.com/2010/03/10/hi5-cto-zynga-is-mediocre-it-isnt-social-it-just-discovered-an-opening-for-spam/

[5] http://www.insidesocialgames.com/2010/03/18/zynga-was-paypals-second-largest-merchant-in-2009/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+InsideSocialGames+(Inside+Social+Games)&utm_content=Google+Reader

[6] http://finance.yahoo.com/q/ks?s=ERTS

[7] http://www.techradar.com/news/gaming/the-nintendo-wii-is-a-virus-says-ex-dice-boss-673627

[8] http://www.nexgenwars.com/

[9] http://bit.ly/cK38q0

Nick LaLone is a graduate student working on an MA at Texas State University-San Marcos. When the video games are turned off, Nick can be found writing about modernization theory, gender, and social media. His work on these subjects with regard to video (and board) games can be found at www.beforegamedesign.com.


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