Can Games Still Succeed on Facebook?

With Facebook’s star game developer Zynga in the middle of its IPO process, some speculate that the Facebook games market has reached its peak and is no longer showing enough growth to justify betting on launching new social games for the platform.

This conclusion is generally based on three types of assumptions. The first is that games are now too expensive to make for Facebook to bring in healthy profit given that the level of quality in art and design has risen along with user acquisition costs, plus a 30% fee taken out of Facebook Credits transactions. The second is that games only have a window of two months to hit a peak reach with users before an inevitable decline begins, which leads many to believe that all a game’s resources and pre-loaded marketing are banking on a single point in time. The third is that all Facebook games must have a predetermined set of features in order to appeal both to the broader market — which is perceived in the coarsest terms as a “35-year-old housewife” — and to the unpredictable whales (players who spend hundreds of dollars in-game per month as opposed to just a few dollars at most).

The first can be backed up by some examples from the 2011 season of social games — which included high production value titles like The Sims Social, CastleVille and Gardens of Time — as well as by the fact that Facebook cut back on the viral channels that made early games grow so quickly, thus forcing developers to rely more on advertising now than they did in 2009. This creates a situation where developers spend more now on creating games and advertising them than they previously needed to, which eats into profits. The second and third assumptions, however, are harder to substantiate with empirical evidence.

We know based on data collected by Inside Virtual Goods and multiple case studies of traffic patterns in our AppData traffic tracking service, for example, that many social games do see the most growth in their first three months. We also have, however, notable cases where that initial growth period exceeded three months or the initial growth period didn’t begin until well after the game had launched. We also know based on data collected by Facebook and by several game developers in self-funded surveys that the primary audience for social games isn’t necessarily women 35 and older, but men and women from 18 to 35.

In short, yes, there are higher barriers to entry on the Facebook games platform now than there were a year ago. But that doesn’t mean the market for social games has stopped growing.

Why We Can’t All Be Zynga

Zynga is a developer that had the right idea at the right time with the right set of favorable circumstances to produce massive viral growth on the Facebook platform. The developer built its empire on simple, compelling game mechanics like harvesting crops or playing poker and then set about acquiring talent and intellectual property at a rapid rate to sustain that growth with new game releases and technology upgrades to improve the user experience.

But it’s not 2009 anymore and the Facebook platform has changed. For one thing, there’s less access to viral channels for social game developers. For another, Facebook is expanding in international markets where the potential audience for social games already has expectations of quality, content, and monetization practices. Lastly, there is more competition both on the Facebook platform and off now than there ever has been for free-to-play game developers.

Two years ago, a potential Zynga rival could release a city-building game or a restaurant industry sim within weeks of Zynga’s own entries into those genres and both games would experience growth (Zynga usually seeing quite a bit more thanks to its extensive cross-promotion network and possibly some help from Facebook). This is no longer a viable growth strategy for social games as many of the major Facebook genres — farming, city-building, crime, pets, and restaurants — are well and thoroughly saturated. This also goes for companies that make “reskin” versions of their own game, changing the setting or characters of a game that is still the same game concept underneath the hood.

How We Still Make Money

While developers can’t expect to grow like Zynga, they can at least hope to monetize like Zynga and potentially even monetize better. Whether it’s Zynga or not, a developer is always looking at the core equation: User Lifetime Value (LTV) > cost per install (CPI) = profitable game. While CPI is largely out of the developer’s control because virality and advertising depends on what channels Facebook makes available, the LTV of a user is something that developers can impact directly by monetizing their games in ways that differ from what Zynga has done.