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GDC 2012: The 10 key social games of the year
GDC 2012: The 10 key social games of the year
March 5, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

March 5, 2012 | By Christian Nutt
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More: Social/Online, GDC, Business/Marketing, Design



Playdom's Steve Meretzky and Dave Rohrl outlined the 10 most important social games of the last year as part of an enlightening and entertaining talk Monday at GDC 2012, all of which represent a big, emerging, or overlooked trend for the space.

Slotomania by Playtika

This slot machine game was chosen to illustrate the trend of casino games hitting Facebook -- and getting big. Slotomania is "one of a whole wave of casino-themed games," says Meretzky, who co-designed Infocom's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with Douglas Adams.

"As of today, it's at 1.9 million and still growing," says Meretzky, of its daily active user count.

"Clearly this is a very popular genre," he says. "This is a market that is still growing... Many of these games have not reached their peak DAU."

An important fact for this genre is that, unlike many others, it's an "entry possibility for a small player," and companies who are entering this genre are "positioning themselves for a potential future where gambling might be legalized in the U.S."

Zombie Lane by Digital Chocolate

This game is much like others on Facebook -- notably Zynga's games. But "the zombies aren't a superficial difference and they percolate through the game in interesting ways," he says.

"Although the mechanical package is incredibly similar, the feeling of playing the game" is quite different, Rohrl says. And the game hit 1.4 million DAU at its peak. It's "still lucrative enough a year later for live ops," notes Rohrl.

The main lesson? "There's compelling proof that very blue themes can be overlaid on this casual set of mechanics," he says. "These games work as games."

"This is proof positive that boys actually like casual games too," Rohrl says.



Bubble Witch Saga by King.com

This game is one of many (including on Facebook) which have the same mechanics as Taito's Bust-a-Move bubble popping puzzle franchise.

"What differentiates Bubble Witch Saga from all of these precursors?" asks Meretzky.

It has a meta map, which "shows not just your progress in the game but the progress of all of your friends," he says.

"It's doing unbelievably well," he says, because of its "balance of skill and luck," beating out other games in the genre. Players can get point payouts when bubbles luckily fall into the right areas.

And thanks to the meta map, there's "achievable simple-to-understand but essentially endless goals" which encourage "casual competitiveness."

Another key lesson: "there's been lots of growth in the casual genre in last year... But there's room for a lot more," says Meretzky. Core casual game mechanics which had not moved to Facebook will be doing so -- in a big way.

Gardens of Time by Playdom

Playdom's hidden object game, or HOG, is one of the biggest on Facebook -- another example of a tried-and-true casual game genre crossing over.

"The fact that the [puzzles] are used to unlock the decoration, and the decoration to unlock the [puzzles] is the magic of this game," says Rohrl.

But the lessons are a bit daunting. "Hidden object games clearly have an important place in the Facebook ecosystem," he says, but "it takes real craft to succeed in these games." They aren't easy to develop well, and most other attempts (outside of Zynga's Hidden Chronicles) have tanked.

"When you win in this category, you will win big," however, says Rohrl.

"In the download space, people buy these one after the other and consume them like potato chips," he notes, which suggests a bright future for the genre on Facebook.

Monopoly Millionaires by Playfish

For a bad use of IP, Meretzky selected this game -- which has some great ideas, he says. "The idea of dice rolls being the energy mechanic is great and perfect," and the fact that "you can't succeed without friends" is essential.

All the same, the game didn't work, he says. It "couldn't decide if it wanted to be cooperative or competitive," he says, as you could both invite friends to your board but lay traps for them. More to the point, "The game was too simple and shallow.. Within a few days it became repetitive and grindy, lacking any strategic depth."

Lesson? "A good IP is great for user acquisition, but if the game isn't firing on all cylinders, it isn't going to keep them around," he says. "If you ant a hit, you can't just get a lot of things right, you have to get everything right."

Unfortunately, "IP just makes things harder because you have to go through a lot of approval levels."

The Sims Social by Playfish

Fortunately for Playfish, the team also was selected for the best use of IP by the panelists.

This game proves that "licenses can really work on the platform."

What sets the game apart beyond its license? "Very, very clever and well-integrated viral," says Rohrl. "The level of social and viral play in this game is amazing -- I think it's unrivaled in many ways."

"The number of 'ask friends' buttons in this game is spectacular," he says. There are "great and necessary incentives in-game to have friends in the game and interact with them steadily."

He couldn't name any other licensed games that are doing well on the platform. "Nobody yet has really achieved this level of success, but there is now proof it's doable," is the big lesson for The Sims Social. "If you can do this right, the yield can be amazing."

"Sims Social is a category killer," is Rohrl.



CastleVille by Zynga

"At its heart, CastleVille is just a slick and really polished FrontierVille reskin,"

So why does it have nearly 7 million DAU?

It's because of production values and polish, which push it ahead of the competition -- and this is a big trend for the platform, argues Meretzky. While this game has an orchestral score, "Ravenskye City has the best use of character voiceover," he says.

"The market is maturing," is the lesson here. "If you want to compete, you'll have to spend more in time and money."

Social Empires by Social Point

What's this game, which is not that well-known? It's "Warcraft II plus CityVille," says Rohrl.

He had a premise that "2010 will not come back for hardcore strategy games," as since the initial success of Kingdoms of Camelot and Backyard Monsters, the genre had attracted a lot of competition. This game proved him wrong.

"It's got a better and more compelling execution of the core combat mechanic" than those games. "It's got flawless execution of the core social mechanics" such as crewing, gifting, and an alliance bonus, married with a "super cute art style" married with "great monetization."

"We are continuing to see more and more developers come in because we're continuing to see growth in this space," says Rohrl. But we are also seeing "an influx of men looking for something a little bit deeper and more engaged."

Triple Town by Spry Fox

This game helps illustrate the rise of the publishing model on Facebook. It was picked up by Playdom.

"It's basically a match-3 variant," says Meretzky, "but that's kind of like saying cave paintings and the Mona Lisa are the same thing."

"Publishing has arrived as a model in social gaming, and as a developer you should know the pros and cons," he says.

Pros:

- "The cross-sell power of a large player on Facebook"
- "That company's expertise"
- "Bypass having to build a lot of systems on your own"

Cons:

- "A loss of control"
- "And of course, revenue sharing"

But there is a caveat about this game. "This is one of the most innovative games, if not the most innovative game, I've seen on Facebook this year, but the results are fairly disappointing," says Meretzky. It's currently at 50,000 DAU.

Though everyone at Playdom loved it, "we are not the audience," he says.

Words with Friends by Zynga

The current biggest game on Facebook. "I really didn't expect to see this... It is the number one game on the platform at this moment," says Rohrl.

Rohrl thinks that a lot of games are "going to follow on from Words with Friends."

"There's almost no barrier to entry," he says, as it's basically Scrabble, which was already popular. "It's incredibly sticky.. It's 43 percent DAU over [monthly active users]."

But the big trend here? "It started out on iOS, which is a place I expect to see more trends originating this year. This is the year of crossover from mobile to web."

"A couple of other turn based efforts.. None have had huge traction," he noted, so don't expect success just because of the genre. Even Risk, with the actual license, failed.


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