Targeted Positioning in the Age of Social Games

This is a guest post by Brice Morrison, former CrowdStar designer and editor of industry game design resource The Game Prodigy.

Commodities are products with no differentiation; oil, grain, and gold are some of the most common examples.  There are no competitive advantages, no deluxe features, no brand names or favorite companies that consumers like to buy from.  A commodity is bought by consumers based entirely on price; the cheaper the better.  If A is cheaper than B, then that’s all the information that’s needed to make a purchasing decision.

The early Facebook game ecosystem was made up of many commodities, games that originally were exactly the same as one another.  Farm Town and FarmVille, Mobsters and Mafia Wars, Happy Aquarium and FishVille, and countless others.  It led many players (and developers) to be confused by the early platform, asking, “Is this all this is?  Copies of cheap games?”  In the early massive user-grab time period, where virality was king and hundreds of thousands of users could be gained by clever features, it was often a race to who could get to the user first.  It didn’t matter that the games were very similar; since it was hard to tell the difference, why not just play the one that you found originally?

But as time has gone on, both the Facebook platform and Facebook players have matured, and commodity games are no longer acceptable.  As production values have skyrocketed, what used to be simple titles that could be copied in a few weeks have become massive undertakings, requiring dozens of developers, months of time, and careful understandings of the original game’s design.  With these production costs, players’ expectations have risen as well.

Thus, we are continually entering an age of a mature Facebook market, where game success isn’t defined by commodity rules of distribution and marketing muscle alone.  Instead, games are defined by differentiation, by a unique brand of fun, and by customer loyalty.  No one wants to play the game that is 90% as good as Cityville — they want to play Cityville.  While the games of yesterday appeared to be a crowd of clones, games of today and tomorrow look very different from one another and players are choosing what to play by comparison.

So what are today’s social game companies to do?  What kinds of games will resonate with consumers, and what kinds of games will no longer work?  Many of these answers can be provided by history, during a time when the game console market seemed very similar to today’s Facebook ecosystem.

Positioning in Early Console Days

In the early days of console games, developers for the original Nintendo Entertainment System were in a commodity-state as well.  Development was cheap, the platform and market was new, and ideas were easily copied and resold as new ideas.  All kinds of companies made all kinds of games, and early players were happy to try out whatever was in front of them…for the time being.

It’s interesting to look back and play some of the games from this era.  Many of the companies names you may recognize: Konami, Capcom, Enix.  But there are many other names you wouldn’t recognize: SOFEL, Electro Brain, or Bullet Proof Software.  While one group lives on, producing products that players love twenty years later, the other group has disappeared into obscurity, either through reluctant acquisition or bankruptcy.

Of course there are always outside factors to the success of a company, but it is telling to look at the lists of games that each group of developers made.  One group learned to focus their products into one type of game design they could be the best at, while the others continued to explore new genres with every release.  Companies that learned how to create a specific type of a game, with a style of gameplay, a common fanbase, a unique art treatment, these were the companies that survived.  They learned how to transition from a commodity-style game market to a positioning-style game market.