Does Art Quality Matter in Social Games?

[Editor’s note: James Zhang is CEO of Concept Art House, a high-end art service provider based in San Francisco and Shanghai, China. CAH has done visual development work for top social and mobile game companies including Zynga, Crowdstar, Rockyou, Kabam, LOLapps, Openfeint, and Ngmoco.]

When asked if high quality art matters in social games, developers’ responses vary widely. To some, art is absolutely critical, while others treat it as an after-thought of game design.  To quantitatively answer such a subjective question, let’s look at some ways that high quality visuals might directly affect the success of a game.

  • Increase retention on initial install: On average, over 50% of initial Facebook installs are lost after the first minute of gameplay, for one of three reasons:  the UI is too complicated, the game is not what the player expected, or the ‘intro’ experience wasn’t appealing enough. Art can drastically improve the last of these elements. Consider console games or movies, which often rely on a trailer or intro to bring the player into the story. A new book may need a great cover for an unfamiliar reader to pick it up. While art may not matter as much for players already engaged in a game, it is extremely important in converting new players.  As the saying in the comic book industry goes: The artwork sells the first book, the story sells the series.
  • Better monetization: Virtual goods are, by nature, digital art assets. Vanity purchases for premium items that simply make your virtual farm/city/ville/kingdom more beautiful are often based on the aesthetic or ‘cuteness’ of the art asset alone, and more appeal equals more buys at higher prices. Additionally, if friendly competition is a draw for aggressively building your space, then the trophy “check out what I got” assets should look like something worth grinding or paying for. Therefore, high quality art not only command higher prices and more buys, it can also prolong the duration of gameplay.
  • Competition is stiff: Social games are highly visual mediums. As competition increases in this industry, players have ever more options for where to spend their time and money. Having ‘better’ art than a competing game can mean the difference in winning a player over a competitor, especially when combined with the short attention spans of the casual gamer/web-surfer. On close examination, almost all top games on mobile and social platforms have cohesive, appealing art styles, even if graphics are not the primary reason for a product’s success in the market.

To examine further, we can look at what social games are heavily art dependent and which are not.

Puzzle Games

The value of art is not as high for a puzzle game, as it is for a resource management game (more on these below). For a Bejeweled-style game, the gameplay experience will be largely similar whether the moving assets are jewels, fruits, or beach balls. The experience is about the problem solving and accomplishment, not to dazzle neighbors or feed hungry customers.

The exception to this rule is a title like the Aurora Feint series, a puzzle game for which the developers took extra care to build up a background fantasy world with creatures and magic out of a dark fairy tale. The added screen size of the iPad also allows more creative graphic additions to the standard puzzle game.

Resource Management Games

Although a resource management game like Diner Dash is played by making good game decisions, the game is made compelling by Flo and her story. Here, the art quality needs to be good enough to engage the player in the game activity while still gently reminding him or her that Flo is a young woman trying to succeed as a young entrepreneur. While the developer may not need a full team of Disney animators to pull of these graphics, the visuals need to be strong, coherent, and reinforce a brand every time the game is fired up.

Text-Based RPGs

For text-based RPG titles such as Mafia Wars and Castle Age or illustration heavy games such as Kingdoms of Camelot, the art is extremely important.  Simply put, without the key illustrations to propel the experience forward, the player is left staring at a complex menu of text and numbers, with no game immersion or bad art as payoff.

Players look forward to being rewarded by banner art saying “here’s your new sports car,” after succeeding in a series of hard-fought battles. As with the resource management style of gaming, even if the player rarely looks at their avatar, the gritty style of the Mafia Wars title becomes the brand that gets reinforced through visual elements from the dark colors to the story panels of fast cars, tough mobsters, and seedy alleys.

In collaboration with 5th Planet Games, we released a text-based RPG game called Legacy of a Thousand Suns earlier this week. Our focus was to bring a cinematic, console quality experience into a Facebook game. In a sub-genre of Facebook games that’s focused on ‘do quest’ button clicking, we knew that artwork, storytelling, music, can make or break an otherwise monotonous experience.

Our process included multiple rounds of concept art, an opening cinematic, and an advanced UI system that was still simple to use. While it’s still early to say whether the high production value translates into MAUs and DAUs, the early fan and consumer reviews have been very vocal about how much they love the art.

Decoration Management Games

Despite fewer new releases in 2010, the largest market share of on Facebook still goes to decoration management games like FarmVille and Happy Aquarium. The monetization of virtual goods in these games can be dependent on how visually desirable an asset is. While some players only look at statistical benefits (earn more money, faster cool-downs), other players (such as my girlfriend) will buy anything cute or anything Unicorn. In the latter case, art drives monetization, whether through the number of items sold or the amount they’re sold for.

The successful games in this genre have done so with either stand-out visuals or by expanding to a variety of gameplay. Happy Element’s My Kingdom (above) adopted a bright and colorful 3D look which makes each building asset look like a collectable miniature toy.  LOLapps’ Ravenwood Fair (below) has received considerable praise for their look which is reminiscent of Arthur Rackham or Brian Froud’s fantasy illustrations.

These 2 games used quality artwork to distinguish their game from Zynga’s ‘ville’ series or Playdom’s pastel colored social city game titles. For games such as Crime City and Mall World, decoration is still a core motivator to raise levels in order to improve your ‘hoods’ or store. However, there are plenty of other things to do to keep you busy such as robbing record stores or buying a puppy.

Games that rely heavily on decorations as the key drivers in the game (such as Ravenwood Fair and My Kingdom), graphics become extremely important.  Where decorations are a supporting feature, the emphasis on premium visuals is less so.


Despite the above examples, great graphics remain a subjective factor for social game developers. To help further refine the argument that it is valuable, I consider three areas related to those discussed above: retaining initial installs of new players, better monetization of virtual goods, and extending game-play durations. These areas all play a large part in a games’ success or failure in an increasingly competitive market.  The question then becomes not whether high quality is important, but the level or value of that importance.

Average Facebook game development costs (excluding marketing) range from $200,000 to $400,000, with 20 to 35 percent dedicated to art and graphics. My own company has seen significant increases in overall art budgets as more companies seek production values on the level of console games. Comparing 2009 to 2010, this year we’re seeing more requests for game intros, fully painted ‘matte painting’ quality backgrounds, and long preproduction cycles for R&D, game style development, and character explorations. For 2011, I fully expect the trend to continue to ever-higher budgets and higher caliber art direction.