The game industry’s move towards social media games is something that has been on my mind lately, so for today’s blog I’m going to share my opinions, and would like to hear back on your opinions.  Some examples are EA, Sony and Microsoft’s moves to embrace social media games (), with estimates for development costs somewhere between $200K and $500K (Zynga is still private so they aren’t forthcoming with real numbers).  So with slightly less than 12% of Facebook’s usership playing Zynga’s game, hundreds of millions more potential players, and development costs for a social media hit estimated at a fraction of the cost of a successful traditional on-line game, the numbers for a social media game look very attractive to a company deciding whether to make a social media game their next game or go the traditional route.  Once the decision is made to make a social media game, the method to make it profitable is developed. 

The monetization of social media games can reduce the quality of the games in my opinion.  It seems obvious to me, that at its heart, the games industry is a business that must make profit to stay in business, so it’s understood that considerations must be made to monetize the game.  The method chosen to drive profits have the potential to encourage shortened or poor design, and the most likely method to cause this, in my opinion, is pay to progress.  A social media game that allows a player to pay to improve their skill or progress gives the designer a crutch to say that if the challenge or skill they are working on balancing is too hard for a player, the player can just pay to get past it, and this encourages the designer to quit balancing too soon.  Companies looking to increase the bottom line have an incentive to skew the game balance to encourage more people to pay to progress, rather than focusing more on making the game enjoyable; this just smacks of the fox guarding the hen-house.  Now to be fair, there is also a point at which people will stop playing if the game is no longer fun, so some attention must always be given to making the game enjoyable, even when the focus is on the bottom line.

The incentive to play for skill based players is also reduced for social media games that share achievments with friends and communities when they allow pay to progress.  Putting a little asterisk next to those who pay to progress might seem fair, but that removes some incentive to pay, and pay is what the monetization motive is all about for a company, so business-wise the asterisk is a counter-active decision.  Without a way to distinguish players who progress by skill, those who do progress by skill just had their accomplishments lessened, and the luster of the rewards have been tarnished, because the reputation appears to be the same for those that just paid to progress.  Thus the skill players start to lose their incentive to continue playing.  Does wanting a level field for the accomplishments make the skill players snobbish or elitist… maybe, but then if the achievment is worth having shouldn’t it be earned?

 Not all social media games will use the pay to progress method, and not all companies who allow it will be so motivated to increase the bottom line at the expense of the quality of the game, but this one design illustrates to me that there are new pitfalls to be avoided when making a social media game.