Social game developers have a tough path to navigate. How do you make a game profitable? What makes certain social games successful, and others miserable failures? What is a social gamer and what does he/she want in a game?
Every game developer answers this question differently. In my mind, the vast majority of developers are answering these questions incorrectly and making false assumptions about their audience. It’s still very early and mistakes have been made.
Perhaps the best illustration that shows common mistakes many social game developers are making is looking at two types of stereotypical Facebook games. The one-trick flash game and the text-based RPG are two of the most imitated and flawed genres in the social gaming world – and both are doomed to short shelf lives.
The one-trick flash game is perhaps the easiest to explain. This is a game in which the developers have the limited knowledge of Flash, but don’t know how to create good game mechanics. These are usually “arcade” style games that ask you to shoot a ball, kick a basket, or kill an alien. They require little skill and get redundant quickly. They have social elements built in to challenge your friends, but aren’t necessarily social themselves. You could play this game in your room by yourself and have a largely similar experience. Like sex, social gaming tends to get better with other people. But the most grave problem with these applications is that they are about as deep as a puddle. You can finish playing them within minutes and the game play doesn’t improve from there on.
The opposite extreme is the ever popular text-based Role Playing Game (RPG). Vampires, Ninjas, My Mob, My City, etc etc. are examples of this genre. These are games that ask you to power up your character and buy new items using the game’s unique economy – cash, ninja points, waffles, whatever. You use these tokens to buy new weapons/buildings/powers that will then be represented in text. You advance by inviting your friends and coming back to the game. These games have become the poster-child for why some people are turned off to social gaming. Some people don’t want to bug their friends to be part of their team/kingdom/city/conclave, and signing into facebook after your friends have all whored your name out to advance their RPG characters is no fun either. Thank you, so called “friends.” While some people genuinely will accept invitations and appreciate the gesture, many will ignore the invite and get miffed at the friend who sent the invitation.
These text RPGs have depth, but without animation or much skills. Most game events are rendered in text, and the best way to win is to invite friends, not employ strategy. Sure, you can try to decide if you should level up your hit points or get a new power, but these choices are virtually the only ones you have in the game. Without much designed content, save perhaps some stock photos to present your new items/powers, there is real sense of detachment with this games. Sure, text RPGs secure the developers lots of users through their viral qualities, and may make some money in the short term. But they suffer from being redundant and ultimately flash in the pan hits. Do you think people will care about these games in two years? Like Pogs, these type of applications will have their moment of popularity but will slowly go away.
To conclude, the reason why I discussed these two genres is to illustrate how games can be improved. If you want social gamers to stay in your application, give them depth. If you’re putting your application on Facebook and expect to create a community around it, don’t just toss a “your friends’ rankings” tab and expect that to satisfy the masses. Text-based RPGs provide a community and a level of depth, yes, but there is reason to question their staying power and their ability to keep players coming back for not just weeks, but months.
Developers need to be prepared for when social gamers get bored of text RPGs and one-trick flash games. Developers need to develop new and better games. Remarkably, social gamers don’t require games to follow exactly in the footsteps of traditional genres. Players also enjoy apps like Lil Green Patch, Puppies!, and various other apps with untraditional content. That’s great news for developers.