Raph has a lengthy post up on his site talking about social games being considered by some as ‘second class’ citizens of the gaming world, among other points. My own personal experience with social games is somewhat limited, but I have played a few on the iPhone and at least seen Farmville in ‘action’. I’ve also done my fair share of reading concerning Zynga’s business practices and what makes the business as a whole tick.
Before I really get into my main point though, I do want to highlight one part concerning the money aspect. From Raph’s post:
Yes, social games make money. Do some Googling, people! And no, it’s not all from scams.Yes, there are shady practices. But not all games use them, and if they do, it is less every day as the market gets cleaned up. And even when they do, they are not the bulk of the money.
To me the above sounds like a whole lot of excuses. On the one hand the allstar of social gaming is Zynga and Farmville, and at the same time Raph is saying that not everyone is Zynga. Who is ‘not everyone’, and why are we not talking about them? I’ve seen countless Mafia Wars clones, but at the end of the day they are cloning the Mafia Wars business. Companies try to clone WoW because the $15 a month model worked for Blizzard and made them millions. Imagine talking about AAA MMOs if WoW’s success was not based on the $15 a month model, but because the game automatically signed you up for a credit report service every time you created a new character. Show me a Mafia Wars or Farmville-level game WITHOUT the scams and shady practices (spamming your friends) to keep it going, and we can talk.
But even if the business does get cleaned up and still makes the same amount of money, in my opinion there is still the bigger issue that games like Mafia Wars and Farmville are, well, not very good. I mean if you had an hour in front of your PC to do anything you want and you had access to everything in gaming, how high would playing Farmville rank?
Social gaming is, in many ways, similar to blogging in this regard. There is a very good reason the majority of blog traffic and content happens between 8am and 5pm; people are at work and are bored with limited choices available to them. The key being ‘limited choices’, because as soon as that limit is lifted even slightly, we see the effect it has on blogging.
Let me put it this way: if I had the choice between playing a MMO and blogging about it, I would choose to play every single time. But when the choice is between blogging and spacing out at work, I’ll toss up a blog post. Or read one. Because I also don’t read blogs at home unless I happen to be semi-afk in an MMO (which might explain the popularity of EVE blogs… I kid, mostly.)
Which is also why blogs are free to read; the stuff is not ‘good enough’ to pay for. I love reading the few blogs I visit daily, but there is not a single one I would pay for, just like there was not a single ‘social’ iPhone game that I played that I even remotely considered worth spending 99 cents on, and I’ve bought more than a few rather meh iPhone games.
And here is the real kicker, if Farmville 2.0 is a better game in terms of gameplay, it’s self-defeating. It stops being easy enough to mindlessly poke at while on the train or during a commercial break on TV, or to attract the ‘non-gaming’ crowd, but short of becoming a ‘real’ game, it still won’t be good enough to make the list when given the choice of gaming options. Which is why the social gaming business needs those ‘other’ sources of revenue, because when asking for payment straight up most people don’t see anything they would be willing to pay for. The barrier of entry when something is free is much, much lower than even something as cheap as 99 cents, and just one look at the iPhone app store is all the evidence you need to see that.
Ultimately making social games as successful as possible has very little to do with making them a better game, and more to do with making them a better or more clever carrier for your particular ‘virus’. The more people you can infect, the more hosts you have and the faster you spread. I don’t think it’s difficult to see why members of the gaming community would not accept social ‘gaming’ with open arms, or why game devs don’t see what the people at Zynga are doing to grow their business as quite the same thing as making the best possible game.