An In-Depth Look at the Social Gaming Industry’s Performance and Prospects on Facebook

Facebook, and social gaming, appears to be a vastly different place for game developers today versus just a year ago. While social gaming visibly grew at astounding rates through 2009 and into early 2010, producing massive successes like Zynga, growth seemed to suddenly stop in the spring of 2010 as Facebook began limiting the viral channels that made big gains possible.

Since then, Facebook itself has repeatedly changed the rules that app developers play by, and has increasingly forced usage of Credits, a virtual currency that skims 30 percent of in-game sales when used, leading some developers to conclude that Facebook is now too difficult to work on.

Growing a game on Facebook is certainly more difficult today than it was in 2009. However, the view that succeeding is too difficult, and that growth has ended on Facebook, is belied by the experience of savvy developers, and hard data about Facebook apps from our AppData tracking service.

Our own view of the Facebook market considers each facet of the market separately. Here’s what we’ll cover below, in brief:

  1. Overall audience size for large developers has declined on average, but this is not necessarily cause for concern
  2. Small and medium-sized developers are steadily growing
  3. Good game design is increasingly important and effective
  4. Monetization is improving in several ways

Large Developers

Before we can look at the performance of games across all Facebook developers, we should split out data for what were considered the “top 5” developers on Facebook in early 2010: Zynga, Playfish (now part of Electronic Arts), CrowdStar, Playdom (now part of Disney) and RockYou. This is because views that Facebook’s heyday has already ended are largely based on the performance of this handful of companies.

The trouble for these developers began last March, when Facebook made the first of several viral channel changes that would end their fast-paced growth:

The above table is not an entirely straightforward measurement of how any of the five developers listed is doing, since MAU / DAU measurements alone don’t directly predict revenue; CrowdStar and RockYou also lost significant amounts of traffic from non-game quiz and gifting apps. Even so, only Zynga is arguably doing about as well as it was in early 2010, and only with the massive success of its brand-new game CityVille. Its four competitors lost 30 percent or more of their DAU, which is the best publicly-visible predictor for success.

If Zynga, with over $500 million in venture capital, can’t continue growing on Facebook, what chance do smaller players have? This question has clearly resonated with the wider community; many Facebook developers are now shifting their attention to smartphone games, and investors have by and large ended their investment in pure-play web-based social gaming.

In our view, however, the market still offers healthy opportunities. Expectations were distorted by the outsized success, over just a year or two, of Zynga and its peers. Before the social gaming boom, it typically took several years to build successful companies; now that the “boom” is over, this reality has resumed. The fact that more players of Zynga’s size have not popped up in less than a year of Facebook’s matured social gaming market is neither remarkable or distressing.

This view proceeds from real market data, which we dive into in the following two sections.

> Continue reading on Inside Social Games.