John Riccitiello may not be the most popular executive in the video game industry, but when he speaks an undeniable truth, you have to give him credit.
Riccitiello made news last week when, at a conference, he noted "consumers won't pay for crap" when it comes to social games. And while one could argue that, ok, people do sometimes pay for crappy things in general, he absolutely hit the nail on the head as to one of the chief reasons social game companies (including his own) are going through a crisis these days.
You don't have to look any further than the price of Zynga's stock (or its blood-letting Tuesday) to get a good sense of the state of social games. Investors are losing faith and user numbers aren't what they used to be. While there are certainly rising stars, like King.com and Wooga, the definition of success in the field isn't what it used to be, and it's evolving every day.
Player churn in social games has been a problem for some time. It is, after all, hard to win someone's attention when you're competing against the status updates of and new photos from friends.
Perhaps that's why 85 percent of all new U.S. players of social games between July and September stopped playing those games after just one day. (Or, perhaps, as Riccitiello suggests, the games were simply crappy.)
A buffet of games
Even those who are playing are reaching into their pockets less than they used to. Instead, they seem to be sampling items, as if they were at a game buffet, but just can't find anything to suit their tastes.
"We think it is likely that when Zynga’s users were given relatively few choices, and when there was limited discovery of competitive products, its legacy games generated stable revenues; as these newer games expanded the Zynga catalog, we surmise that they allowed users to avoid buying virtual items in a legacy game by switching to a new game experience," said Wedbush's Michael Pachter in a note to investors earlier this month.
Whatever the reason for the slump, that "industry killing" social game force that we were all talking about at GDC 2011 is looking a lot weaker these days.
More and more, it's starting to appear that "social" games are migrating to the mobile world. When people find themselves with a few minutes to spare, they almost always have a smartphone within reach. That convenience factor -- and the explosive growth of games on mobile platforms -- has essentially turned the phone into the go-to device for casual players. Adding a social layer on top of that is just common sense.
Despite all of its problems, Zynga has been the master of this, thanks to its With Friends line of games. And EA has shown strength in the field, also, with The Simpsons: Tapped Out. But, to date, there hasn't been a true killer app (pardon the pun) in the social/mobile world.
Certainly, discoverability is an easier issue in the mobile world than it is on Facebook. There are a panoply of choices for players, but publishers are smart enough now to know how to work with Apple and Google to ensure their top-tier games get properly exposed (let's, for the moment, ignore what dire things that might mean for small indie developers). On Facebook, it's a much tougher proposition to promote a game -- beyond the already loyal audience that's already there.
More and more, it appears social games might be moving away from video games and more towards games of chance. Certainly, Zynga is counting on this.
As BMO Capital Markets Edward Williams points out, "Among the recent top 40 titles on Facebook, the number of casino-type game players grew by 74 percent to 80 million MAUs [monthly active users] from 46 million MAUs a year ago."
Still, while the audience might be there, there's still a significant hurdle to overcome. Specifically: Online gambling is still illegal in the U.S., and while there are tremendous lobbying efforts underway (and it's being approved on a state-basis), it's not going to be upending the industry anytime soon.
Riccitiello was right that social gamers have moved past the shovelware phase -- and he was right when he noted "the companies that are now suffering will have another day." EA isn't about to abandon its social efforts. Zynga still has plenty of cash on hand and cut a lot of fat from its budget Tuesday, although it was an admittedly painful cut to see that many people lose their jobs. Meanwhile, companies like Ubisoft and Take-Two are starting to explore the space more seriously.
Social games will have a second act, but it's going to look a lot different than what we've seen so far. The question at this point is: Who's the audience going to be?
The first company to figure that out -- and to find a way to communicate with it -- is going to be well positioned for the future.