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GDC Online: Playdom's Rohrl, Meretzky On The Year's Biggest Social Gaming Trends

GDC Online: Playdom's Rohrl, Meretzky On The Year's Biggest Social Gaming Trends

October 11, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

Playdom's Steve Meretzky and Dave Rohrl have presented overviews on the year in social games at Austin's Game Developers Conference Online for a few years now, yet this year, there were fewer trends to report.

"One meta-trend that we noticed this year is... we had a lot fewer trends on our list," Meretzky (pictured) began. "It seemed like the pace had changed, in the industry, by slowing down."

However, this is something of a positive sign, indicative of maturity in the medium and a period of growth and refinement ahead, the pair believe. Meretzky compared social gaming to an "awkward adolescent," no longer a child, yet not yet an adult.

In the fast-changing Facebook game space, unlike elsewhere in the industry, evolution is not driven by hot new releases -- of the current top 50 Facebook games, only six were released in the last year, and two-thirds of them are more than a year old. Compare that to the console space, where zero of the current top ten titles are more than a year old.

"Many of these games that are more than a year old are Zynga games," Rohrl notes. The Facebook giant may have a gift for durability, but titles like Petville, Fishville and Roller Coaster Kingdom have seen massive user attrition, while other titles have been able to grow and gain users. This unusual disparity, for Rohrl, is a "perfect example" of the nature of the beast, where building games as a long-term service with a focus on live operations is essential.

Although many believe Facebook's viral channels have seen a mass reduction that's strangling the potential of social games -- which generally rely on notifications and user interactions to grow userbases and keep players active -- this is something of a myth, according to Rohrl. Facebook's layout and information exchange has changed, but its viral channels are still a good acquisition channel.

"Recently... Facebook has actually been easing up on the viral channels in some ways, in example with discovery posts that let you know of new games that your friends are playing, or the live-streaming channel that appears on the right side of the screen while you're playing games," he says.

Zynga's CityVille is the prime example of the wellness of virality -- to say that every single occurrence or achievement in the game prompts the user to share info or request help is not much of an exaggeration.

"Last year, we came here and told you that everything had to be a farm," Rohrl says, meaning "there's a certain set of mechanics that make a lot of sense in the farming context." Farms give players things to plant, tend, and continually visit, a supply chain to manage and things to make, do, and give from the harvested goods. It's an easy way to encourage players to keep returning to the game.

But it was overdone, and not always well: "Game designers often slavishly applied these mechanics," he says. " try to replicate what they believed was a natural 'secret recipe' for Facebook games." The result was strange unnatural behaviors, like meals that took 20 hours to cook or tires that would "spoil" if you didn't pick them up from the store in time.

Then came Zynga's FrontierVille, more substantial mechanically. It introduced the energy system that's become gold standard among social games, and the constantly-encroaching debris and plants that needed grooming. FrontierVille introduced enemies to stave off, and other mechanics that were natural follows on the premise of forging a path across the frontier. These increased the breadth of immersion and challenge that was possible for players.

Developers so readily borrow successful mechanics because it minimizes risk and learning curve because it allows them to focus on what's primary in social games: audience engagement and acquisition, Rohrl says.

All of this imitation makes competition much stiffer, and directly benefits the quality of the games, says Meretzky. In the year ahead, the quality of social games can be expected to make meaningful, as developers try to differentiate themselves through polish, better visuals and production values, and robust feature sets. While simple games with low visual sophistication like Words With Friends still thrive, even with some 3 million daily active users that title is still among Zynga's weakest performers.

Popular games are adding locations -- as in Zynga's Empires and Allies, which offers players the visual of a map to give them the idea that they're traveling to different places. This isn't necessarily new; older social games like the mob and sorority-type models offered sense of place with location descriptions and even different currencies, but now the importance of world scope and size has begun to make its way into the far more visually-rich world of modern RPG-like games.

These extensions increase retention among games' most hardcore players. "But really, one of the dirty little secrets of social games is that while players are important to your business, payers are your business," says Rohrl. And new locations with different rules help monetize the so-called "whales" better, as they create opportunities to offer unique items and combat advantages.

Although PopCap found success with Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, few other companies have explored casual games on the platform. Expect this to change, Meretzky says. Bubble-popping, bingo games, Collapse-alikes, and slot machines have begun to appear on Facebook, and the enormously popular hidden object genre has arrived with Gardens of Time and Mystery Manor.

Why this sudden explosion of classic gaming on Facebook -- and the sustained and continuous growth such titles have seen since launch? "For one thing, demographics are almost insane," Meretzky says. The overlap between the Facebook audience and the traditional casual audience is enormous. Players already using the social network are drawn to play games they're already familiar with, attracted to the immediacy. For developers, the gameplay is already proven and gives developers opporunities to explore acquisition instead of iterating.

In 2010, competition in Facebook gaming was a leaderboard bar that let players see who among their friends was most successful -- even as it allowed them to help their friends. But the era of "peace and love" is over, Rohrl suggests. Last year, titles that incorporated combat and tower defense began to creep onto the fringe. But in the last few months, a wave of casual titles like Army Attack, Empires and Allies and Social Empires emerged that looked just a little more like strategy titles than before.

"Fighting can be very lucrative," says Rohrl. Players who enjoy attacking one another also like spending money on their way to building their armies. Players that prefer more sophistication, or to games that resemble traditional strategy titles even a little bit tend also to be more devoted players, and thus they spend more.

Although they make user acquisition much easier, branded games have performed below expectations. Licensed IP games are also more expensive, require approvals from the brand's owner, and are under enormous pressure from users. Nonetheless, recognizable brands are beginning to make its way to the platform, as with EA's FIFA and Madden NFL Superstars titles. Monopoly Millionaire is a twist on the classic board game designed for Facebook, and Area/code's (pre-Zynga, published by Ubisoft) CSI: Crime City sought to appeal to fans of the show.

The biggest and most successful example is The Sims Social, which has been an enormous hit -- proving there are opportunities for the right properties when they're well-executed.

Where once text RPGs were the most popular type of Facebook game, they saw an enormous decline. But RPGs are still alive on the platform with games like Mafia Wars 2, It Girl and Crime City, that let players commit crimes or go shopping. Other games like Monster Galaxy have mined the monster-collection mechanics from games of the console world like Pokemon. And light dungeon crawlers like Playdom's Deep Realms and Monster Hero have also emerged.

Where do RPGs go from here? The healthy diversification is expected to continue, and isometric RPGs will continue to flourish, Rohrl predicts. "I'm absolutely shocked that there's no isometric vampire RPG on the platform," he adds. There's more opportunities to really capture the monster-collector format.

But "I would worry" about taking on the challenge of creating dungeon crawlers on Facebook, he warns. Traction seems to be difficult in that place. "The Facebook market simply does not have an appetite for this kind of gameplay."

Lots of companies look at social games as a "license to print money"; that game companies can easily leverage Facebook to build brands and augment revenues. But this is a dangerous perspective, Meretzky warns.

"Developing social games is really, really hard work. There are lots of moving parts and you need to get them all correct, not just some of them... and you have to put it all together into a package that's polished and fun," he adds. "If you're not prepared to do that, and you're not prepared to publicly fail a few times before getting it right, you shouldn't attempt."

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