Social Optimism

I’ve taken a few laps around the gaming industry block, and during that time I’ve seen many, many “next big things”. Whether it was Multimedia, add-on gadgets, phantom machines actually called The Phantom, new genres, new markets, new audiences, next big things always start with a bang and end with a fizzle, or at least a mild “pop”. So while others are excitedly talking up the new new thing over drinks at GDC, I’m often more conservative with my enthusiasm, especially when someone is touting the potential of games to finally “break out” into the mainstream and “bring gaming to a whole new audience” again.

There’s a tendency, especially when the seven digit numbers start to fly, for people to begin making wild predictions, and projecting yesterday’s growth on an infinite curve that positively proves that in only a few years the market for games will be the entire human population of the planet, leaving only our pets as the next great untapped audience.

Given that, it’s been nothing short of shocking for me to realize that given the events of the last few weeks I’m actually beginning to wonder if the future for social platform gaming may actually turn out to rosy enough that our dogs and cats will indeed be a target market for social entertainment in the next few years.

There have been a few concrete events in the last couple of weeks that have given me a reason to have some genuine optimism. First is Facebook Connect, which strikes me as proof positive that Facebook is, for the present at least, genuinely committed to supporting application developers in a (mostly) open manner that will everyone to continue to make a decent profit for the (foreseeable) future. (There’s that conservative side speaking again.) Allowing everyone to win may seem like an obvious strategy, but the history of games is one where the person providing you with the platform is also one of your biggest competitors. Sony, Nintendo, Sega, and even Microsoft, all had divisions making “first party” games that were trying to eat as much of the market as possible even while they were charging everyone else for the privilege of publishing on their platform. Even the Wii, last year’s great mainstream hope of the living room, is utterly dominated by titles made by Nintendo.

All boats rise, but when it’s a tide of money you’re floating on it can be tempting to build a big fat dam.

But Facebook is going a step beyond, providing developers with tools to reach out so that they can bring more users in.

The other surprising news was finding out that Apple was tearing down a number of the barriers that I thought might hold back the iPhone from actually becoming a successful integrated platform for social gaming. First we got the roll out of “FaceBook” connect, meaning that you can now share your data with something and someone that isn’t being gated by Apple. They’ve also opened the platform just enough to allow developers to start implementing business models that make actual financial sense. Allowing for virtual goods means there’s a real reason for your app to be free, even if Apple still wants a taste of every transaction.

I thought Apple would get there eventually. (They usually do, sooner or later.) But not until after they’d milked the current model for all it’s worth. I was guessing we’d start to see some movement in the late summer. I also thought it would come with enough limitations so that it would seem like things were moving forward in the press release while practically they weren’t going anywhere at all. But it seems this is for real, and if the rumored $100 iPhone turns out to be real, then maybe you can afford to get one for your dog.

The difference this time could be that the games themselves are the driver anymore, but the platform itself. So instead of hoping games will find the audience, we’re finally a mature enough industry that it can work the other way around.

Of course no market expands forever. Sooner or later “explosive” growth slumps back down to simply “rapid”, and then down to the dreaded “stable”. And that too may happen sooner than I think. But until then, I think I’m going to try and stay positive.

Andrew Mayer is a Social Gaming and User Experience Consultant with over seventeen years of experience in the games industry.