GDC Online - Playdom presents: The Year in Social Games

This talk by Steve Meretzky and Dave Rohrl of Playdom was a doozy (and I mean that in the best way possible), reviewing the major changes in social gaming market over the past year. I'm going to use this post to highlight some of the most important trends discussed during the talk, but let me begin with a spoiler: Social games just might have started to grow up. That may be surprising to hear from me, but read on and see if you agree with me (and keep in mind my claim is a modest one).

On to the trends:

  • Trend #1: Everything must be a frontier The release of Zynga's Frontierville (since renamed to Pioneer Trail) was something of a watershed for Facebook games (I'm going to use "social games" and "Facebook games" interchangeably for the purposes of this post, which really shouldn't be a problem), disrupting the 2009-2010 "year of the farm", so called due to the overwhelming popularity of Farmiville and its many clones during this period. Frontierville pushed the boundaries of the Facebook game market (which is not to say that they were or are all that expansive, but still) by integrating the basic farming mechanic into a deeper, more complex game with a more developed story and richer feature set. Frontierville pushed the bar higher for Facebook games, and other developers have followed Zynga's lead, though thankfully without with less of the blatant carbon-copying that we saw last year.
  • Trend #2: The age of high quality This segues nicely into our second trend, which is one of social games simply being of higher quality. The status quo in the social game market, thanks largely to the fact that it's relatively easy to modify and improve these games post-release, has been to push a rapid development cycle and release fairly minimal products, but standards are changing. It's not so much that minimalism has been pushed aside, but rather that the continuing saturation of the market changed the definition of "minimal". As the market becomes more and more flooded with social games, developers are forced to distinguish themselves by increasing production values, adding to their feature sets, and releasing games that are all in all more polished.
  • Trend #3: The casual invasion Since casual gaming was effectively launched by PopCap games back in 2001 with the release of Bejeweled, the market has been gaining steam, and has become a force to be reckoned with. Why? Improvements in user acquisition (via Facebook and the like), gameplay that has proven popular and engaging, and player familiarity (many Facebook users have been playing these games for a couple years now) all combine to make the casual gaming demographic a lucrative one. The game development community is getting serious about games that are anything but.
  • Trend #4: Casual competitive gaming Most early Facebook games had only the simplest of competitive mechanisms (leaderboards, basically), and in general the social component has been largely cooperative. But more recently, the success of games like Army Attack and Empires & Allies has borne out a rather basic truth: Gamers like to fight each other, and they're willing to pay money to be more effective in that pursuit. In the words of the presenters, competitive games like these are "whale breeding grounds".
  • Trend #5: The rise of branding As social gaming really takes off, more and more companies want to get their foot in the door, and thus we have core gameplay franchises like The Sims and Madden football enter the Facebook foray, as well as offerings from non-gaming brands like Mazda and ESPN. Now, the success of branded games like these is far from guaranteed, - the branding gets them in the door, but good design is still needed to keep them playing - but their prominence testifies to rising popularity of social gaming market.

I've only outlined a subset of the trends discussed in the talk, but these were in my eyes the most noteworthy, and are enough to highlight what I see as a glimmer of hope for the social gaming market. I admit I'm critical of games from the likes of Zynga, but I need to be fair and also admit that I more closely identify with the serious, "hardcore" demographic (or at least I did back when I actually had time to play games...). That aside, let us remember that these games are only now coming out of their infancy (Damion Schubert has some interesting thoughts on this, so make sure to check out my interview with him, to be posted soon.), this year seems to represent a time of serious growth for social games. They're getting more attention from both players and developers, and are finally being pushed to be more innovative and polished. Here's hoping that it's acontinuing trend that will help bridge the casual-hardcore gaming divide.

GDC Online - Playdom presents: The Year in Social Games by Jared Lorince, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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