I’ve been watching the social games industry evolve since it hit gaming insiders in the face in 2007, and when it hit mainstream in 2009, and while there have been some minor evolutions, it doesn’t look like the gameplay has evolved all that much, and it may be time to ask whether it ever will.
When I head out to gaming conferences I always have to ask people “Do you enjoy FarmVille?” I’m surprised by the overwhelming negative response I seem to get from the people inside the industry. The guys making the games are not necessarily the people who love the game in this Facebook game industry, but what can they do? The games have continued to monetize well, and users are even committing atrocious crimes due to their crazed addiction. There’s no need to change the wheel on major hits like FrontierVille, Mafia Wars, Cafe World.
But there’s a notion within the game industry that today’s Facebook games are just early on the natural gaming curve, and that just like console and PC games, eventually the industry and players will move towards more beautiful, more evolved games. But the thing is, this misconception is old thinking, and even the traditional console game industry is having to rethink itself as quick, fun downloadable games begin to make big dents and big money (see Minecraft for a ridiculous success story on a game that looks like it was made 10 years ago).
We’re at a point in time where the average game consumer no longer has a specific demographic, as there once was. It was once the situation that if you catered to 12-25 year old males, you would be scooping up 95% of the gaming market. So high production action and special effects were a no-brainer, but there was still room to navigate within that formula. Games like Ico, Flow, Parappa the Rapper and others innovated in ways that we hadn’t seen before, but were still directed at boys and relied on action and sometime gags.
In the Facebook game realm, though, we see a whole new model, and great games need to be focused on both types of gamers (who make up large parts of Facebook users and social game players). Games with themes like restaurant management, farming and others seem to resonate well with both sexes, and now that these games are huge, I find it hard to believe what kind of sensational game theme is going to pull them out of these games that they’ve been playing for years and have put their blood and sweat into. In fact, games like FarmVille have become microcosms of Facebook itself, and are now platforms that users have put effort into, and won’t change unless there is a product that can’t just be better, but must be significantly better and draw players out of their established gaming platforms.
I suspect that may be a difficult proposition, and we may find that instead of having new games, we’ll just see FarmVille and the other popular games evolve and maintain their userbase. This would be a vastly different world than the old console experience, and this is why old console thinking may not help to explain how Facebook games will move forward, and it may mean that Facebook games won’t evolve at all.