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Changing the Face of Facebook Games

By
Posted on August 15, 2012 AT 01:14pm

The Massively Multiplayer Online space is constantly evolving. Moving from text-based adventures to graphical powerhouses, from all subscription services to mostly free-to-play, the MMO market branches out and improves as fast as the people who play it. With the sociability of people being the MMO’s greatest driving force and the immensity of Facebook, it is no wonder both gamers and the companies who supply them with their hobby are viewing Facebook as the next great frontier.

With 552 million daily active users1, why not put your game out there to be seen and purchased? Unfortunately, as major console developers look to Facebook as a gaming platform, they are faced with an abundance of already established franchises that use and exploit the existing player base, thus creating barriers to entry. In order to create a game/franchise worthy of the hardcore gaming market, new Facebook game developers must overcome three things: software limitations, current business models and player perception.

The problem with the software platform for gaming is most Facebook games are built in Adobe Flash. Flash is constantly under ridicule by companies, developers and end users. As an end user, I find it atrocious to use, especially when I’m trying to play a game on Facebook, as it often crashes or gets hung up, which then begins rapidly depleting my computer’s resources. Definitely not something I would want to spend large amounts of time playing.

Even bigger than the difficulties of the software creation process is how the gaming business model has developed on the Facebook platform. The most popular model is based on simple supply and demand. The game provides you with goals to complete and limited amount of time/energy in which to accomplish the goal. The game demands your time, patience and virtual goods. You have a supply of friends you must tap for the virtual goods and if you don’t have the time or patience, you can tap your easily accessible bank account to make up the difference. This business model makes you dependent on expanding the current number of players of the game by hounding your friends into playing so that you may succeed. It’s the newest version of the pyramid scheme and it is working. No one does this better than Zynga. The makers of Farmville, Cityville and many other “Villes,” Zynga has turned this business model into an art form. As such, plenty of other companies have jumped on that bandwagon – EA and Playdom, for example – and as much as it pains me to say it, I don’t blame them. According to a recent SEC filing, Zynga accounted for 14% of Facebook’s total revenue for the first six months of 2012. That puts it roughly in the ballpark of 313 million dollars. With money pouring in hand-over-fist, you can’t really expect the companies to change to a less predatory strategy on Facebook. On the other hand, with these strategies in place, I completely understand why the hardcore gaming community turns their noses up towards these games.

Gamers like the social aspects of online gaming. It fosters community and fellowship. Where Facebook games go wrong is not that it fosters friendship, but that it abuses it. Besides feeling constantly bombarded by requests for more virtual goods from your friends, it begins to feel like you’re working a job instead of playing a game. I think this is the biggest detriment to getting hardcore audience involved. It certainly isn’t the money. Gamers are used to the idea of microtransactions and in fact, are more prone to embrace it. The other major deterrent I see is that you can only play in bite-size chunks on Facebook due to the limitations on energy. Though I think this particular notion will slowly fade away as we’ve seen with the dramatic increase in mobile gaming over the past few years.

I will say that Facebook isn’t all Ville-clones and pyramid schemes. There are a few bastions of hope out there, although they number only a few and are far from perfect. They are attempting to break the mold. My best examples are from companies that specialize in console games. They are PixelJunk Monsters Online from Q Games, Assassins Creed: Project Legacy from Ubisoft and Outernauts from Insomniac Games. While PixelJunk Monsters Online and Outernauts are still both in Beta, there is evidence of moving in a direction away from the Zynga model. Ted Price, President and Founder of Insomniac Games, said of Outernauts “As we have demonstrated for nearly twenty years in the console games space, we’re confident we can help evolve the definition of a game experience on Facebook.” I’m not saying they completely abandon the idea of utilizing your Facebook friends, but the emphasis isn’t about pushing the company’s agenda for a few more pixels, but rather the experience of enjoying the game and sharing it with your friends.

If past precedent is any indication, I will say that we’ll definitely see a shift in how Facebook games are developed, marketed and played in the next couple years. Remember, the MMO space is the one that changed the phrase “Free2Play” from being a dirty word assigned to failing properties to the major business model it is today. If one genre can have an impact like that, imagine what it could do in an immediately pervasive social space like Facebook. All we need is one great company to break the prevailing bonds of extortion and forced reciprocity into a new world of an enjoyable experience; any gamer would not only be willing to pay to play, but they would break their backs to get their friends to play. The solution is out there and we’re ready to play.

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