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MIGS 2010: Playdom's Siegel: Indies Need To Develop Social Games

MIGS 2010: Playdom's Siegel: Indies Need To Develop Social Games

November 9, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

November 9, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

Speaking as part of MIGS 2010, Playdom designer Scott Jon Siegel went to bat for social games, explaining that the sector has a lot of potential ignored by developers due to broad generalizations.

Said Siegel at the outset of his talk, "If I can get one person in this audience to make something playful and fun on a social games network, then I will be happy."

"I'm challenging everyone here to change their conceptions about the social game industry," he warned. With a background at Area/Code (which spawned early Facebook hit Parking Wars after he left) he has a lot of passion for the form, and told the audience "I'm ready for a renaissance."

In particular -- motivated by comments that came out of Indicade, Siegel said -- he believes that "it's time indies start taking social games seriously."

"We have to admit the indie community doesn't get social games... because they dislike the approach of the largest companies and biggest games in the industry."

Talking to Indies about Social

To get a handle on why indies feel the way they do about social games, he asked developers like Jonathan Blow (Braid), Chris Hecker (SpyParty), Jenova Chen (thatgamecompany) and more to answer three questions:

1. How do you define "indie"?
2. How do you define "social games"?
3. Why do indies hate social games so much?

Chris Hecker's answer: "these are dumb questions," said Siegel. Polytron's Phil Fish had a similar reaction: "The whole 'what's indie' thing is a pointless circular discussion," as did Jon Blow: "it never produces interesting ideas or useful discussions." Chen's "indie is hard to define" was the most diplomatic example.

Frank Lantz of Area/Code reformed the question -- indie as a method (small teams, limited resources) or style (artistically driven, rough).

"The social games space is more valuable to you than you think," said Seigel, regardless of which approach you take as an indie.

"Why Do I Care?"

"I have legitimate passion about social games. I care about this space deeply. So I guess the question is, why do I care?"

Typically, the reasons given for entering social games are the huge numbers of players, the ability to hit a different demographic than traditional games, and how profitable they are -- "always the big talking point," Siegel said.

"These are the reasons most developers stand up on a soapbox and shout 'I love social games' but these are not my reasons. I love social games because in 2007 I played Parking Wars. It was the first truly grew game on a social network, and it is still one of the only great games on a social network."

Though he worked at developer Area/Code, he left the company before Parking Wars was released.

So why does he love it? "It's really fun, it gets you thinking in interesting ways. It had some pretty fundamental design flaws, but it was doing something I saw very few games do."

There's a concept known as "the magic circle" -- the space in which play is allowed. In other words, the normal rules of human interaction are suspended during a game, and roles are taken relative to the game's rules -- but only while playing.

"Looking back at Parking Wars, it gets a little weird," said Siegel, because it's persistently running even while the player is not playing. "There's a surprising amount of thinking when you're not playing about when you're going to be playing." This "creates a magic circle within the heads of anyone playing."

"The callback play style of Parking Wars was pretty new -- this balance of on-and-off gameplay is the singularly defining aspect of what I call social games."

The New Internet

"When they're playing they're playing, and when they're not playing they're thinking about it," said Siegel. This is part of a greater shift on the internet toward "information compulsion" -- constant checking of frequently-updated online resources. "Something new is constantly happening somewhere on the internet. As people, we strive for information. We are compelled to know more about everything. And a big part of this is escapism. And this is a term already well known to developers."

The current culture of the net, then, is "shallow escapism -- short term engagement." In Siegel's view, "the social aspect is a means to an end" -- enhancing the engagement of the player with the game. "The main reason to be social is to create an opportunity for your players to re-engage. It's more ADD than the single player space. Facebook is such a chaotic space -- there's so much being thrown out there that they don't always remember to play."

"We as an industry have spent years building for long-term single session engagement. On the other hand, a social game "actually dares to send the player away from the game and says 'come back in 15 minutes.' I think this is actually the big deal, it's actually doing something unique here."

Calling Out Bogost

"Why are so few people seeing the potential in social games? Why does it have this reputation and why is it having a hard time shaking this reputation?" At this point Siegel segued into a discussion of Ian Bogost's satirical Facebook game Cow Clicker, which he pointed out ironically may well have ended up being the most popular game Bogost has ever developed.

He analogized this to an assignment in college where his professor instructed the class to intentionally write badly -- and the students came up with inventive work. "Once you are give permission to ignore the rules and boundaries that have been set up, the expectations you work in, you're actually free to be more playful." The same holds true, he feels, for Bogost.

Competing in a Post-Notification World

He also wanted to dispel a notion -- that "there's this sense that competing on Facebook means competing with the top dogs on Facebook."

Unfortunately, because of the early gaming gold rush, prior to the recent notification changes on Facebook, the top dogs are going to stay on top due to user volume which can no longer be accrued by newcomers.

"When you go up against the goliaths in the industry, you will lose," is the unfortunate consequence, Siegel warned. "The developers who grew rapidly during the Wild West days still have all of that extra traffic. Anyone who is new to the space doesn't have the advantages that those early developers have."

However, due to the cost of running a big game, for an indie, "it's kind of beneficial to stay small."

"Revenues are a closely guarded secret in this industry," said Siegel, so he can't compare revenue between big and small games, but, he said, "I don't think it's a direct correlation; I don't think you're seeing 1:1" comparisons scaled for users. He believes games attract a "capped number of paying users" and the remainder will play for free. It is, then, about attracting the small but paying audience, he said.

When notifications changed, overall Daily Active Users dropped significantly on Facebook -- but if you strip out the data from the top five developers, DAU actually went up, he said. And when you look at the number 51 through 175 developers, there's an even sharper upward trend. "No single game in this set has DAU over 200,000," he said, but they may all be profitable.

"My best advice is... when small companies try and compete with what's happening up here, because what's up here is a mess," said Siegel, referring to the battle for the top slots between companies like Playdom, Playfish, and Zynga, "you should be cooperating with these little guys. You don't need to get in this race of who has the most market share."

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