The Lives of Three Dying Playfish Games

By AJ Glasser Comment

Late last month, Playfish announced on its forums that due to poor performance in Pirates Ahoy, Poker Rivals and Gangster City, the developer would be taking the titles offline on Tuesday, June 7, 2011. A study of these three games’ life cycles characterizes the challenges of killing off a social game built into a larger developer ecosystem.

Note: Lifetime data was collected from our application and social game traffic tracking service, AppData. To view these numbers for yourself or any traffic information beyond the current 30-day period, sign up for AppData Pro.

Pirates Ahoy, July 2010 – June 2011

MAU Today: 267,000Hello There
DAU Today: 40,000

Pirates Ahoy is a combination treasure hunting and city building game where players take the roll of a pirate plundering the high seas for goods that can then be spent on building up a pirate cove. The game took about three months to hit its stride with users, reaching an all-time high of 6.8 million MAU and 806,000 DAU between August and September 2010. After that point, the game declined more rapidly than Poker Rivals or Gangster City, but stayed relatively sticky among its small audience with a 15% to 20% ratio of DAU over MAU after its peak months ended.

Poker Rivals, November 2009 – June 2011

MAU Today: 91,000Avatar Goods
DAU Today: 12,000

Poker Rivals was Playfish’s answer to Zynga’s Texas HoldEm Poker, only with avatar customization as a variation to the formula. The game hit its stride very early with all-time highs of 1.5 million MAU and 130,000 DAU in December and January and then declined gradually with post-peak DAU to MAU ratio hovering around 13%. Interestingly, Poker Rivals seemed to attract a female audience why Texas HoldEm Poker’s audience remains largely male.

Gangster City, January 2010 – June 2011

MAU Today: 88,000Hotwired
DAU Today: 7,000

Gangster City also seems to be Playfish’s answer to Zynga game Mafia Wars, but the quality of animation, voice over work, and polish created a completely different player experience. By the numbers, Gangster City hit its high of 2.6 million MAU and 322,000 DAU in the first three months and declined a little bit faster than Poker Rivals over the rest of its life. The post-peak DAU to MAU ratio hovers between 8% and 10%.

Why did they fail?

While the critical response to each of these games was initially positive, a reasonable person can concluded that none of these games found a large enough, or dedicated enough audience to sustain the games over time. There may be several reasons for that on the gameplay side, but that would be to difficult to quantify in a way that produces constructive analysis. Instead, we look at the factors we can see — that two of these games were incredibly similar to popular Zynga titles and that one of them came out three years after North America’s pop culture obsession with pirates had largely died off. So either Playfish found itself in direct competition for an audience, or the audience was already declining when the game launched.

What can we learn?

Given the long life each of these titles enjoyed and Playfish’s continuing success through its other games, it seems like we can draw three conclusions. First, social games don’t last forever no matter how well-designed they may be. Developers tend to build products that the hope will last indefinitely, but according to research published in Inside Virtual Goods: The Future of Social Gaming 2011, engaged users only play game for about two months before moving on. If a developer isn’t bringing new users into a game to replace them or attracting old users back either with content iterations or marketing campaigns, the decline continues and a developer reaches a point where it’s not financially reasonable to maintain a game that isn’t making money.

Second, we can draw the conclusion that consistent currency across all games in a network makes transitions from closing games to thriving games smoother. All Playfish games use Playfish Cash, so it’s easy for customers in these three dying games to take their existing balances to other Playfish games. We expect that with the launch of Facebook Credits, these game-to-game transitions will only get smoother — so smooth, in fact, that developers may find themselves adding item incentives within their own thriving games to keep customers from taking their Facebook Credits to a different developer’s game. This seems to be what Playfish is trying to do by inserting a pop-up into the closing games that invites users to join Monopoly Millionaires with a free gift item as a reward for switching over.

This is where our third conclusion comes in: developers should be aware of the similarities and difference in their games enough to suggest and appropriate “replacement” games for users grieving the loss of their favorite game. It’s probably impossible to find a perfect replacement with the same gameplay mechanics, genre, and style; but within a developer’s network, there ought to be at least one game with enough similarities to appeal to an existing user about to lose their game. Developers should go the extra mile to match these users to replacement games and perhaps let them choose which game they want to migrate to for a bonus item.

For example, right now a Pirates Ahoy user could take their Playfish Cash to My Empire because the games feature similar art styles both in-game and in the cross-promotion bar for Playfish games. This player may adjust well to the game because both feature city-building mechanics. However, the Monopoly Millionaires prompt is trying to direct them to a completely different gameplay experience than what they’re used to with the promise of a free item. It’s jarring and it compromises the user’s ability to choose their “replacement” game from among the rest of Playfish’s titles.

You can find out more about Playfish’s existing titles on AppData.