Sunday, January 8, 2012

Social gaming has come a long way since your friend asked you to check out her farm on Facebook. Some estimates suggest that over a million developers worldwide are busily adding to the more than 50,000 games and applications already available on Facebook alone.

In 1994, the gaming world was taken by storm when Blizzard Entertainment launched World of Warcraft, which not only became their best-selling PC game but ballooned into 11 million active players in just 14 years. However, this is a drop in the bucket compared to what the current popular social games see on a regular basis. Zynga's CityVille has been reported to have nearly 76 million active monthly players and there are at least 30 other games with over 10 million active monthly users right behind it.

Today, the scale of social gaming is staggering, and gaming companies and non-gaming companies alike are doing anything they can to get in on the social gaming craze. But there are significant, although nuanced, differences between the two most popular gaming platforms, Facebook and new entrant Google+. Before jumping into the fray, gaming companies should understand how these two platforms have evolved and the best ways to take advantage of their existing technologies/capabilities.

Key players in the social gaming realm

So far Facebook has carved out its place as the most popular social gaming platform -- until Google debuted its own social network, Google+, earlier this year. Unsurprisingly, Google quickly announced the availability of games on Google+, marking the start of a heated battle for user attention and dollars in the social gaming space.
Google has not fully released APIs or announced its plans for virtual currency or revenue share on its new platform. So in the meantime, developers need to consider not only the new different technology and capabilities offered by Google+, but also the nature of this new audience. Both of these aspects may play an important role in attracting developers beyond the sheer size of the potential Google audience.

When Google introduced games to Google+, they also drew the line where games would and wouldn't appear on their platform. Most notably, games on the site will not appear in users' streams, and they are only visible when browsing the Games tab. This is in stark contrast to the early days of Facebook, where games quickly filled nearly everyone's wall, regardless of their interest in playing them. It may be common sense now to keep games off in their own corner, but this move may have a big impact on the success of viral games on this new platform.

Strategies for game developers

By being separated from the rest of the Google+ experience, gaming companies will need to find new ways to attract non-gamers. Many companies with popular Facebook games indicate that very few of their players come from gaming backgrounds. By bringing non-gamers into social games, Facebook has expanded the pie for [any gaming company who uses their platform], which may prove difficult for Google+ to match. However, while there is still much to be revealed about the nature of the Google+ APIs and monetization processes, developers should go back to their roots and focus on game-play rather than attracting players. The best initial strategy for companies looking at Google+ is to focus on creating games that are worth playing, and therefore games that both gamers and non-gamers will seek out without the help of viral promotion through the Google+ streams.
Successful social games take first-time players and quickly reward them for every tiny achievement. Then the games gradually ramp up their complexity and the rewards. Within a few minutes, players will have learned their way around the game and have been rewarded enough to keep them engaged and looking for more.

It takes large and highly scalable systems to support tens of millions of users with such short attention spans and a high thirst for action. Social games spread virally, and a successful game may reach millions of users in just a day or two. To support applications at web-scale, developers for both Facebook and Google+ games need to be very aware of the resources required to support their users. With modern cloud providers, adding thousands of new servers is no longer difficult. Building an application that scales linearly to that degree, however, still is.

While first and foremost, companies need to deliver a seamless gaming experience that gives people a reason to play, arguably the most important part of social games is the social part. Game makers need to make good use of the API provided by social networks to lure in new players, add more interactivity into their games, and keep players coming back for more. One example of this on the Facebook platform is the use of special free gifts within the games that can then be shared with friends.

Enabling players to share in-game gifts with friends who may not otherwise be playing that game is a perfect example of the ubiquity of social games. The player gets the "karmic" reward for having given the gift, the friend receives a free gift, and the game maker likely just attracted one more player. Google+ game developers will be faced with similar challenges once more is known about the APIs and should consider what types of in-game rewards might be leveraged to encourage players to continue playing. For now, we may see Google+ games focus more on time spent in-game instead of the number of new players.

Innovation drives success

So what does this mean for the future of social gaming? Much like the rest of the web, the only constant is change. Companies will be wise to learn the ways of the ever-evolving face of social gaming. Getting and keeping the attention of the millions playing online games isn't easy, but missing this opportunity will likely lead to nothing but regret.

What, then, is the right strategy for companies looking to make waves in the social web? It's easy to get caught up in all the buzzwords like gamification, monetization, shareability and engagement, but we need to remember that the engine that drives the social web is providing experiences that are worth sharing in the first place.