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Opinion: The End Of The Beginning

Opinion: The End Of The Beginning Exclusive

December 8, 2011 | By Nicholas Lovell

[Social games may be going through a malaise, many sporting the same feature set and seeing declining user numbers, but Gamasutra contributor Nicholas Lovell says "this is great news for the future of social games."]

"This not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

It's time for Facebook games to level up.

The above quote comes from Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain during the Second World War. He uttered these words as the battle of El Alamein marked Britain's first real victory in the Second World War.

Perhaps it's because I'm British and a history graduate, but these words leaped to mind reading Tami Baribeau's blog post on the end of Facebook gaming (Thanks to Epic's Mark Rein for the tip). You should read the full blog post, but here is the most important section:

"It is too expensive and takes too long to make a high quality Facebook game that compares with the top games now. It costs too much to acquire users. Games peak and start to decline within a few months... I just don't believe that it makes for a sustainable business anymore."

In essence, Baribeau points out that Facebook games have finally become what so many traditional gamers (and Gamasutra commenters) have believed them to be: soulless, metric-driven designs with diminishing returns.

All social games now have the same feature set ("neighbors, and gifting, and daily bonuses, and mystery boxes, and viral buildables, and collections, and visiting, and achievements, and energy mechanics, and shiny pieces of loot that fly out on the screen and require a tap to collect") and are played in exactly the same way, with the only differences being the theme, the graphics and whether you are collecting Simoleons, gold coins or insert-name-here dollars.

(I won't dwell on the irony of people who buy first person shooters in their millions complaining about games with identical feature sets and mechanics with the only differences being the theme, the graphics....)

I think that Baribeau is right. I also think that this is great news for the future of social games.

I attended the Browser Games Forum in Offenbach, Germany in 2010 (I spoke again this year as well), and Professor Richard Bartle prophesied that social games would die. He considered them all to be "operant conditioning chambers" and noted that once humans see an operant conditioning chamber for what it is -- broadly a mechanism for making them behave in a way that is predictably irrational by playing on fundamental weakness in our mental model of the world -- they turn away from them. Worse than that, like a reformed smoker, they become zealous in avoiding other similar experiences and in trying to drag others away from him.

What Bartle and others have failed to see is that social games can evolve. The malaise that Baribeau has identified is one of spreadsheet-driven A/B tested game design where creative sparks have been extinguished to focus on building a game that is "Castles meets Farmville" or "What Zynga did, but with prettier graphics".

That gravy train is coming to an end. We've offered consumers all of those games that they can take. Zynga's DAUs are flat, despite heavily marketed new launches. Facebook is terrified that investors and startups view the platform as "over", a busted flush as the posher of my former investment banker colleagues might have said. Mobile is the new frontier.

Perhaps Bartle was right.

Well, yes and no. Maybe he is right, that the games that behave as operant conditioning chambers have a finite life span. Maybe we are reaching that point.

On the other hand, that means we can innovate. Financiers will no longer expect a game that follows the Zynga playbook to be an automatic success. We can see more games like Triple Town or Gunshine (admittedly not on Facebook, but built with Facebook Connect at its heart) that attempt to move the medium forward.

We will see more games that innovate with gameplay mechanics, with using the social graph, with building on our existing successes and standing on the shoulders of, if not giants, at least people who showed us how make money from free-to-play in a social context.

What I hope we don't get is "Farmville! With guns!"

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