Playfish's Mack Growen (Restaurant City, Pet Society) delivered a speech about the current state of the social gaming market, in which he encouraged developers to abandon their passion for copying successful games, and talked of a coming shift towards high-level competition from well-moneyed players.
Growen, who is the GM of Playfish China, is positive that production values, while currently low, will only increase -- and infuence player choice in kind. Says Growen, "The consumer will always prefer higher production values if everything else is the same. The budgets are going to increase. It's important to build our organizations today to scale it in this way."
However, there is still massive potential, because social networking platform adoption is so speedy compared to hardware such as game consoles, says Growen. "Social games can grow faster than other platforms we've seen before, because we've always been waiting" for install base with previous platforms, "but the installed base is already mature." But increased competition also means that "we can expect the budgets to grow faster for social games than any platform we've seen before."
The Evolution of the Social Gaming Space
Growen suggests that some developers don't actually understand what social gaming is about. He says, "The opportunity is to create a new utility -- fun from playing with friends. Don't be mistaken that this is recreating the immersive media experience but on a social network. It's just an object for friends to have fun together, and to share things. That's what social games are about."
Attracting an audience is a design challenge; like others from Playfish, he strongly feels that cheap stabs at encouraging adoption -- "virality" -- won't work. "Don't take something where your users will play and be forced to their invite their friends, or fool them into inviting their friends." Instead, says Growen, you should "take the time to design" a compelling game system that encourages users to invite their friends.
"We tried to set an example by not" forcing players to invite their friends, says Growen. "I just hope that game companies can be responsible in this part because it can really hurt the industry if it gets a reputation for being spammy or misleading."
Monetization is not really as big of an issue, perhaps, as some expect. "You will be amazed by the willingness to spend from your users." The challenge, then, is to "gradually learn how to improve it and improve it to raise your ceiling."
How Does the Chinese Market Fit?
As a member of a Western company operating in China, Growen was blunt about the state of the market. "It's impossible for me to talk about the Chinese market without pointing out that I know partnerships in China are really, really hard. Partnerships here typically don't work. And if you're from here and you think they do work, it's because you don't realize how they could be working."
The problems? Chinese companies are extremely short term focused, says Growen, focusing on quick profits. And where Western companies are concerned, there is no legal protection "in reality", says Growen. China is also a tough market -- "The business models are not clear; they evolve and they change very rapidly."
Playfish works closely with Facebook; "Facebook has very long term vision for the marketplace," says Growen. "They take zero percent of your money. The platform operators here take 50 to 70 percent of your money." This means there's not much money for development, and beyond that, "it forces local companies to go abroad immediately, and that's very challenging."
So what are the strengths of the Chinese market? While there's a lot of concept copying, there's also "great incremental innovation." The Chinese version of popular Facebook game Parking Wars is superior to the original, says Growen, because the designers hit on ways to make it more socially compelling. In fact, says Growen, "Chinese companies have taken on the social elements of the game and understood them better than Western companies."
On the other hand, Chinese games are often overly complicated, and aimed at a hardcore audience, so "where there's some trouble to compete globally is on presentation," says Growen. "They get complicated, and require a large learning curve. And there's a lack of innovation."
The copying problem is a real issue for Playfish, says Growen. "We have games out, and a month later they're launched in China." The market, in his opinion, should encourage the opposite thing. "It's sad when it's so early and development costs are so low, to see so many companies want to do this."
When he looks at Mafia Wars on Facebook, he sees the dead end this copying can lead to: "There are 60 copies. It sounds like a good way, but it's not. Keep innovating in your own genre, with your own style."
A good idea is not enough, though -- followthrough is important, says Growen. "We've seen Chinese companies launch innovative games on Facebook and not capitalize on that initial success." In a competitive, copy-based market like Facebook, "If you have a good idea it will be taken by somebody else," Growen warns.
The market does know how to capitalize on its strengths in other ways, though. While Western companies have struggled with the socialization of games, "Games as a service is maybe the main strength of Chinese companies, because games never went through the retail model here."
And, of course, "Monetization is another great strength, and maybe the most talked about." While Growen respects this, he wonders about the market's drive. "I'm always wondering if about the billing here is too aggressive. I think that developers in the West are starting to wake up to the idea that if you're cash rich but time poor, you should be able to pay to progress... But I think Western users might think it's unfair."
Playfish Market Watch
Growen noted that the current successful social games companies, like Playfish, have started earning big money -- and he forsees a coming competition storm, with marketing spends and other issues that may shut out smaller players. He notes that Playfish is profitable and cashflow positive, and expects to use that "war chest" to move forward in the changing market.
Though Playfish has experimented with iPhone, it's sticking to social network games, to capture a broader audience, says Growen. "For the short term, it's so small that we want to conserve our resources." Google's Android platform is even less attractive -- "support is nonexistent from the userbase," he says.