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Social Games Should Be More Than Just 'Slot Machines,' Says Row Sham Bow
Social Games Should Be More Than Just 'Slot Machines,' Says Row Sham Bow Exclusive
November 15, 2011 | By Tom Curtis

November 15, 2011 | By Tom Curtis
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    11 comments
More: Social/Online, Exclusive, Design, Business/Marketing



According to Philip Holt, co-founder of the social gaming startup Row Sham Bow, modern social games still have a lot of room to grow. Their biggest problem, he says, is that they are often "highly compulsive, but not all that compelling."

This April, Holt and a handful of other industry veterans left EA Tiburon to found Row Sham Bow, and just last month the company released its first title: a Facebook strategy title dubbed Woodland Heroes.

Previously, Holt worked on Facebook titles for EA such as EA Sports PGA Tour Golf Challenge and Madden Superstars, but with Woodland Heroes, he hopes to introduce some meaningful changes to the social gaming formula, he said in a recent interview with Gamasutra.

"What we want to focus on are things that have frustrated us as gamers on social games, one of which is that they're highly compulsive, but not very compelling. They're just not the kinds of experiences that we long to play on that platform," he said.

"For me, I'd say most social games feel more akin to a slot machine [than a game]," he continued, noting that some social games simply encourage players to put down money on microtransactions, without placing much emphasis on the game mechanics themselves.

Holt says that Row Sham Bow set out to fix this problem with its recently-debuted Woodland Heroes by creating an experience that gives the player some room for failure. By incorporating a certain degree of risk, Holt says players will begin to care about even the most minute gameplay decisions.

"We want to innovate in gameplay, and one of the key areas we tried to do this in Woodland Heroes is we wanted the result of a player's decision to matter in the game. There should be a loss state. You should feel that the stakes are high, so you take it more seriously. There's a level of engagement you have when you go, 'Oh crap, what do I do here?' That, I think, is a fundamental tenet of what makes a good game," said Holt. "A lot of games on the platform, in the pursuit of the broad public, have sometimes not delivered those essential elements for us."

He went on to outline the Row Sham Bow's approach to designing Woodland Heroes, noting that the team's history at EA and other major companies helped provide some important game design fundamentals that significantly informed the studio's approach to its debut title.

"One way in which console development has informed the way we work was that we didn't start by deciding to make a game with raccoons and other animals. Instead, we started with a mechanic, and we asked, 'What is it about this that will be fun?' Once we had that core, we built from the center out. I think that's certainly something I've learned from my last five years at EA -- focus on the core element you're delivering that will make people come and play your game."

Holt later reflected on the evolution of video game distribution models, and urged developers working in the traditional games business to keep an eye on web-based and online games, since they could easily pave the way for the future of the games business. In fact, Holt said this shift in distribution models helped convince him to start Row Sham Bow in the first place.

"I think the games industry is going through similar things that other media that have relied on physical goods have gone through, whether its movies or music, etc. To me, that tells me that it's all going digital, it's all going to the most frictionless way for consumers to consume, regardless of device, regardless of business model, you have to go where consumers are."


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Comments


Matthew Cooper
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Comparing the current slate of social games to slot machines disparages slot machines IMO

Betable Blog
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We compared social game mechanics to slot machines back in October with our posts, "Exposing Social Gaming's Hidden Lever". Check it out at http://blog.betable.com/exposing-social-gamings-hidden-lever/



It's interesting to see this point come up again with the co-founder of Row Sham Bow. Looking forward to seeing what games they build and how the social platforms without those tactics

Harry Fields
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But if there's any semblance of challenge, 70 of the 80 million "social" gamers will cease to play. You have to look at the demographics. My 63 year old mother plays that *ville crap because there is no penalty... there's no loss state. No risk. No significant involvement. Take said dynamics away and poor momma' won't be playing *ville anymore.

Travis Johnson
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That's a fair point, but the *ville business model is the Zynga model, not the social games model. Yes, Zynga has been very successful financially with their Skinner Box, high-compulsion, low-challenge games, and it's no wonder a lot of companies have tried making clones and copycats; but there's no reason you couldn't develop a game that appeals to a market that would appreciate deeper, more compelling gameplay along with the benefits of a social platform (connection with friends, the convenience of browser access, etc.). No, it wouldn't be 80 million strong, but if you could get ten per cent of a 10 million member community to spend a few dollars every month, you could definitely turn a profit. All it will take is one big game to show us how to do it--don't know if it will be Row Sham Bow's game, but I would be pleased as could be to hear that it was!

Harry Fields
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Don't get me wrong... I see potentional for social and deep to mix. It just won't capture the numbers necessary to turn a profit by advertising and microtransactions alone. For all of Zynga (sorry... have to use them as an example)'s "success", they sure do return little profit on the revenue generated... and they're the giant of the space. Are people willing to pay more (or at all) for better games on social platforms? That's the trillion errr... billion dollar question.



My opinion is that games should not be subsidized or cheapened through shady ad practices. Our craft is one of value. It takes extraordinary talent to put together a game, especially a good one. That is worth something, and I hope someone in this new "space" can find a model that provides sufficient reward for the investment.

E Zachary Knight
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Harry,



The Free to Play + Microtransaction model works for a number of games and earns those games a profit. League of Legends is one example. The Lord of the Rings MMO is another example.



People are willing to pay. Once you get beyond the idea that everyone who plays should pay something to support the game, you can actually create a great community that is supported by only those who choose to pay.

Joe McGinn
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Harry - the business and game design strategies of social game companies are so generally monosyllabic, it's hard to make conclusions about what will or will not make money. Facebook games with their non-gameplay typcially garner 2-3% of users paying anything, ever. Valve gets 10 times the conversion rate on their free-to-play titles.



Who's to say you can't get less users but a much higher conversion rate by incorporating some actual game design principles, as Row Sham is doing? Create a community that cares (as opposed to the constant-churn of Zynga et al) by delivering some actual gameplay value and you might be surprised. Someone needs to try.

Harry Fields
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Maybe we have different definitions of "social gaming". If by social gaming, you mean LoL and LoTRO, TF2 and other F2Ps, then yes... I see huge potential with divergent, even disruptive business models. When I think social, I think crap that runs in Facebook. Maybe an error in perception on my part. WoW is social, but I don't consider it "social gaming". I think the standard accepted definition for "social gaming" as the buzzword is used, is stuff that runs in a browser (java/flash, etc.). It is *that* segment that I see having an uphill battle when it comes to generating decent coin.

Joe McGinn
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We are on the same page Harry, there are those free-to-play core-gamer online games, and then there is Faebook.



Not saying the FBers want hardcore gameplay. But I am saying they might pay a lot more money for *good* casual games, that had loss-states, something they can build a community of lasting, dedicated players around. It may be that you can get a lot more money out of them with better gameplay value. Despite all the talk of this, few are trying it, mostly it's the same old compulsion loop and spam-yer-friends junk. So I applaud Ram Sham for being a true innovator in social games, and look forward to their results (and hopefully success!).

Jeremy Reaban
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I actually think slot machines is a great comparison, but at the same time, I don't see why that's a bad thing.



Slots are the worst thing in the world to actually make money on, but at the same time, you're pretty much guaranteed to lose your money slowly. So basically it provides fairly cheap entertainment. You spend a day playing them, you'll be out money, but it will take a whole day to lose it. People don't actually play them to win, but simply to scratch their gambling itch.



Once you start involving risk (which many F2P MMORPGs do), then basically you're getting people to spend money with little chance of winning. For instance, games that sell mount or decoration boxes that give you a very small fixed chance to win the prize advertised, but more likely some junk that is worthless in game. Games like Atlantica use these, and people spend several hundreds of dollars buying them to get the prize. And sure, Ndoors/Nexon makes piles and piles of cash of it is. But is that a good thing?



I don't think so, personally. And I think the more money gets involved, combined with risk (or gambling) the more likely the government is going to get involved, adding layers of regulation. It's likely coming eventually (the government wants control over everything, once it realizes it exists) but moves like this will hasten that day.

Joe McGinn
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"We want to innovate in gameplay, and one of the key areas we tried to do this in Woodland Heroes is we wanted the result of a player's decision to matter in the game. There should be a loss state. "



What a concept ... almost as if it were a game! ;-)


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