As “traditional” video game developers, we’ve all got our opinions on Farmville, Pet Society, and the countless other “social” games which have become popular as of late. You may not like their game mechanics, the use of in-game micro transactions and sign-up “offers”, or even the 2d graphics and simple sounds. It’s become popular for many developers to lambast these titles without a second thought – “how could something that runs in a web-browser contend with AAA console games?” we say. Well, my friends, there’s an elephant in the room. They’re not only contending, but they are stealing mindshare at a rapidly increasing rate. As free-to-play games become more and more popular, the traditional games industry will have to find more and more value for the consumer in what we do.

Having said that, this article isn’t all doom and gloom. We need to accept that companies like Zynga and Playfish are successful whether we like it or not. Let’s get over ourselves, and start figuring out how we take the best of their new industry and apply it to our own.

Before founding Hogrocket I worked at a console developer called Bizarre Creations. Whilst there we spent a lot of time analysing social games. In fact, we formed a small Social Team within the company who worked across multiple projects to identify and capitalise on social opportunities in our AAA console games. The idea was to identify the underlying reasons why these games are popular, and why vast numbers of people come back to them again and again. Once we figured this out we could possibly build some of these new mechanics into our games and make them better as a result. Unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to properly stretch our legs before Bizarre closed, but we still did some interesting research in this area.

Firstly, why bother making our games more social? Well, the benefits are obvious – having more eyes on your product will lead to more sales. Encouraging people to play your game for longer will help keep our games out of the pre-owned bin. Providing a more positive and friendlier gaming experience will make people happier that they spent their cash on your game. But we think it’s more than that. The Internet is changing our world at a rapid rate, and the idea of traditional marketing and PR is becoming less relevant. Back in the 50s marketing was very direct, i.e. “you must buy this, it’s the best”. Then in the 80s the way marketers told consumers about their products became more of a lifestyle choice, i.e. “if you buy this, it makes a positive statement about you as a person”. In the last 5 years the balance of power has shifted completely… now it’s the consumer who decides which products are the most interesting and worthy of their (limited) attention. Marketers scramble to make more and more attention-seeking statements to break into the public conscious, but the fact remains: consumers can communicate with one another easier and faster than ever before, and they are MUCH more likely to listen to their trusted friend’s opinion rather than your TV advert. Sorry.

That’s an important concept, so let me repeat it: gamers are smart now, and we can’t simply tell them which games to buy any more.

Oh, and have you noticed that the market for video games is expanding more than ever? It’s not just us twenty-something males playing games any more – World of Warcraft has knocked down huge barriers for adoption, as have high-quality casual games like Bejewelled. Women are playing games in larger numbers than ever before, and people of all ages are beginning to get involved too. Let’s not forget the excellent work the Wii has done in opening up new markets and introducing video games to a new audience. Have you heard that there are over 100 million iOS devices out there now? Free-to-play portals like Kongregate and Facebook are available everywhere, and are vastly popular all over the world. We haven’t even spoken about the vibrant emerging markets like China and India, and the unique style of gaming and distribution mechanisms that are beginning to get introduced there. It’s a huge industry, and it’s getting even bigger every day…

So what is your game’s target audience? What do they like to play? If you’re targeting the traditional 18-30yr old Western male then you’ve probably got an idea, but if you’d like to engage any of these huge new markets then you likely won’t have a clue. Will a 40yr old Indian mother of three care that your game has the most vibrant hair shader? Probably not. Will she prefer realistic characters, or exaggerated ones? Will she even want characters in her game at all, or is she more comfortable with another form of messaging? You get to a point where quality, from our point of view, is effectively random. The only way to figure out whether something works is to try it and measure the results.

Let me clarify what I’m trying to say:

  • The Internet is changing how people discover our games.
  • New audiences are a challenge: we don’t necessarily know what they want to play.

These two factors are hugely disruptive for game design and understanding how they affect us is, in my opinion, something that will steer all of our collective decisions over the next 10 years. These two factors are the two main reasons why “social” games are having so much success right now. There is nothing especially magical about them, they just pay lots of attention to discoverability, do huge amounts of A-B testing to figure out what works for which audience, and then make sure that when people do talk to their friends about the game they do so in a positive way. We can do all of this stuff too… let’s work out how.

Thanks for reading!