For the social game leaders who've built their empires on social network Facebook's platform and the backs of its users (which accounts for pretty much all of them, although iOS is an increasing force here!), 2010 was just as much a tumultuous year as it was a prosperous one.
The giants in the industry, like Zynga and Disney/Playdom, grew not only their total audience sizes but also their headcounts and coffers, opening and acquiring a myriad of studios around the world -- expansions funded by the hundreds of millions of dollars raised from investors wanting a piece of this flourishing market.
It wasn't an easy year for the titles that relied heavily on viral channels for their inflated user base numbers, though.
Facebook sent a message to developers with changes it implemented in March: the social network would not stand for spam-like tactics that many games relied on to attract and retain players.
After Facebook limited the application "notification spam" that aggravated its users but benefited social games looking for fast/cheap growth, many of the site's most popular games lost millions of users.
Zynga's FarmVille, the biggest Facebook app for most of the year, dropped from its peak of 84 million monthly active users to now 57 million, according to AppData.
Since then, more developers have espoused the idea that their titles need to focus on compelling gameplay and metrics-based design, rather than virality tricks, to succeed. It's an approach that many social gamers, especially those new to gaming and now looking for more depth in Facebook's offerings, surely appreciate.
Here are our picks for the top five social network games featured on Facebook and exemplifying that trend:
5. Millionaire City by Digital Chocolate
If 2009 was the year of countless farming and mafia game clones, 2010 was teeming with empire-building simulators inspired by Sim City and Civilization. For developers looking to create social games with more complexity and a satisfying sense of progression, there are few better titles to imitate than these two classics, which have enslaved players for decades.
Digital Chocolate, a strong proponent of the idea that social games shouldn't be shallow, created one of the most popular sims with Millionaire City, which is more about snatching up and managing real estate than carefully planning the layout of a city. The game offers missions, achievements, the ability to visit friends' towns, and other features designed to grab and keep players' attentions quick.
The developer has naturally followed up Millionaire City's success (nearly 13 million monthly active users) with recent releases like Vegas City and Hollywood City.
4. Zuma Blitz by PopCap Games
Just as puzzler fans were finally pulling themselves away from Bejeweled Blitz, PopCap brought another of its addictive PC/console/mobile titles to Facebook. Similar to Mitchell's Puzz Loop/Magnetica series, Zuma has players frantically aiming with their mouse and firing colored balls at a chain of incoming spheres, matching three similarly colored orbs to explode a segment of the stream.
Zuma Blitz condenses the concept into a polished one-minute experience (power-ups can extend your play-time much longer) and adds an XP/leveling feature that unlocks new power-ups, a satisfying "Hot Frog" mode that sends sphere-clearing fireballs across the screen, and of course social features like weekly tournaments, leaderboards, and medals/achievements you can show off to friends.
3. Ravenwood Fair by LOLapps
Built under the creative direction of industry notables Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry) and John Romero (Doom, Quake), Ravenwood Fair has a completely different atmosphere from the sims you typically find on Facebook: Players create and maintain a fairground, entertain woodland creatures with different attractions, and explore and complete quests inside a sinister, magical forest.
Ravenwood Fair's offbeat premise and dichotomy between cute critters and menacing woods not only transforms the game into something more than a FrontierVille clone; it also afforded LOLapps the opportunity to add more character and flavor to NPC interactions than one typically expects from social games, and to present the world with a distinct visual style that's both adorable and ominous.
2. It Girl by CrowdStar
Created by the largest independent game developer on Facebook, CrowdStar's It Girl melds MMO and RPG mechanics with shopping, fashion, cliques, and parties. Players shop for/collect as many outfits and accessories as they can find, then compete against each other in "Showdowns", quick battles that take into account clique size, confidence, and wardrobes.
Obviously targeting younger women (and designed by a mostly female team), It Girl goes beyond the "pink games" approach many developers take to appeal to girls with simple games about ponies and dolls, and provides a rich experience with elements reminiscent of "hardcore" MMORPGs: player-versus-player combat, countless fetch quests, and, yes, lots of rare gear to collect.
1. FrontierVille by Zynga
During a post-virality period when many believed a studio producing another major hit -- one that could quickly take in tens of millions of monthly players and rise to Facebook fame -- was highly unlikely, Zynga released just that with FrontierVille, an engrossing Old West pioneer sim that now has over 30.5 million users on the social network (not quite CityVille numbers but still impressive).
Veteran strategy game designer Brian Reynolds (Civilization II, Rise Of Nations) and his team at Zynga East took the habit-forming FarmVille formula and its farming/livestock mechanics, and expanded on it with varmints to clobber, quests/goals to complete, virtual partners to marry, families to raise, neighbors to visit and invite, badges to earn, and more in FrontierVille.