May 24th marks the four year anniversary of the launch of the Facebook platform. On that day in 2007, in a hall crowded with hackers and dreamers, I watched Mark Zuckerberg announce on stage that “today, together, we’re going to start a movement.” In one fell swoop, he opened up the power of social networks – the ability for people to connect and share – to developers everywhere.
What has happened since has been a wild ride. There was the rush of independent developers, the early pioneers who began creating what we know now as “social games.” There were the initial success stories, games that stumbled upon the winning formula of leveraging the friend graph for viral growth combined with a freemium business model to achieve rapid profitability. There was the stratospheric rise of Zynga, the company that proved that social games could grow to a scale where no games have gone before. There was increasing interest from investors, decreasing faith from independents, and everything from curiosity to contempt from the rest of the gaming industry. And throughout it all, there were clones. Numerous fast-followers of all shapes and sizes delivering as many near-identical mafia/farm/aquarium/restaurant/city games as the platform could support, with several finding success and discovering just how huge the opportunity is.
So with everything that has happened in social gaming for the past four years, I still am left wondering: where are all the games?
I’m not saying there are no games on Facebook– at last count there are over 200,000. I’m also not saying there aren’t some truly great games on Facebook. What I am saying is that, as a gaming platform, and one that provides access to reach approximately every internet user of all ages and interests, the available game offerings are very limited.
There are some genres, like simulation games, that are very well covered, but so many more that range from lacking to entirely absent. Where are the tried and true genres that have dominated other gaming platforms for the last several decades? Where are the Facebook games for my teenage cousin who loves playing her Nintendo DS, or my brother who loves to play Xbox? Many have argued that social games mainly just appeal to 45-year-old women. While it’s true that “casual gamers” and “non-gamers” provide the majority of revenues generated in the currently popular social games, if you take a step back and consider the entire $40 billion gaming industry, it is not generated by “non-gamers.” It sounds like an absurd tautology, but most of the gaming industry is fueled by people who love games. The fact that many social gaming developers and industry analysts haven’t caught up yet and continue to focus on the same genres for the same audience is a mistake.
But, it’s an understandable mistake. The history of social gaming, with its relative lack of regulation, led developers rushing to clone whatever seemed to work, following each other in circles, and ultimately arriving at a small handful of hyper-optimized local maxima. These games indeed work incredibly well, and have been very profitable. At the same time, this running in circles has halted the forward movement, and left the platform completely missing the seemingly obvious, and in some cases, significantly larger opportunities possible when game developers operate from first principles.
It has taken four years but a few developers are starting to realize this. And whether or not gamers themselves actively recognize, I believe the demand for games on Facebook isn’t being met by the current supply. The value proposition of being able to instantly play your favorite games, with your friends, through a service you’re already using every day, all for free — that’s compelling to any audience, especially those who love playing games. This leaves us with an enormous population of gamers who currently don’t play games on Facebook but will once a wider variety of games and genres become available.
Here at Gaia Online, these beliefs are our guiding principles and we’re part of the movement towards expanding Facebook’s gaming offerings to reach more gamers. Our most recent game, Monster Galaxy, has grown to over 10 million players and all stemmed from a simple exercise: we looked at the most popular console games from the past two decades for inspiration and quickly found that one of the most beloved genres, the pet-collection RPG, was almost completely absent on Facebook. We assembled a small team to spend about four months focusing on the artwork, characters, and gameplay — the necessary components that drive the success of this genre. We then combined the classic game mechanics with unique social collaboration elements only made possible by the platform. Upon launch, the feedback was very encouraging– we’d hear time and time again from our most highly engaged players that Monster Galaxy was what finally got them playing social games. These were people who loved console games and played games growing up but hadn’t yet grown attached to any of the games on Facebook. What soon became clear was that our simple exercise was not only successful, but repeatable.
Several leading companies are taking a similar approach, expanding Facebook games into more genres, bringing in social elements powered by the friend graph, and finding great success. One of my favorite games, Backyard Monsters, is a majorly successful strategy game developed by Kixeye. Tower-defense games have long been among the most popular genres on flash gaming sites but for the first three years of the Facebook platform, this genre was entirely absent.
Another notable example is Gardens of Time, the rapidly growing new game from Playdom. If you visit any large online gaming portal, from Big Fish to Yahoo, you’ll find hidden object games to be among the most popular games. And yet, it has taken nearly four years for a developer to invest into creating a high quality hidden object game you can play with your friends on Facebook. When this game finally arrived, the response was profound: Gardens of Time has grown to 10 million players in under two months and continues to rise up the charts.
It has taken four years but I feel as though the social gaming movement is finally gaining momentum; companies that understand what’s happening and tap into the true potential of the Facebook platform stand to gain an enormous advantage. The missing genres will continue to get filled in and as developers rise to the challenge to meet the demand, “social gaming” will break out of its current limitations, appeal to all players and grow to become larger than any other gaming platform ever.
If you want to be a part of the movement, come join me.
A social media entrepreneur and pioneer in online gaming, Mike Sego is the CEO at Gaia Online. Mike was the creator and sole developer of (fluff)Friends, the first Facebook game to monetize with virtual currency and previously held roles on the Gmail team and at Electronic Arts. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesego.