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.