“Your friend sent you a request” says my Facebook notification. That must mean one of my Facebook friends is playing one of Zynga’s or Konami’s social games. You know the type – manage a farm, a city or something close to that. You’ve finished building a windmill – what an achievement – share it with your friends. Need your crops faster – oh, no – share it with your friends.
These type of games, however annoying are highly addictive (at least for a moderately short period of time), highly viral and for a while they seemed to be the grim future of the gaming industry. After a fast growth period Zynga reported a loss of $400 million dollars in 2011. Not because of how bad its games were doing (Zynga owns 2011 top 5 most played games on Facebook and its revenues were $1.14 billion dollars). No, they payed “stock-based compensation expense for restricted stock units issued to employees”. $510 million dollars in stock-based compensation it did not had to pay until it went public.
However bleak Zynga’s future might look they still own some of the most popular social games and they started to adapt to the rising trend of mobile-based gaming (tablets and smartphones).
Its main competitor, Konami, is not doing too bad, either. Actually Konami’s social gaming division reported a 77% increase in revenue. Given the sharp rise in Zynga’s and Konami’s revenue we can see clearly that social gaming is a great investment . What makes it so?
Social gaming is highly addictive
Social gaming makes use of some incentive design based on social activity and achievements. Social gaming companies use human psychology to create levels of addiction close to gambling and these games usually have slow learning curve, use many motivators to commit users to revisit the game (plant a crop, come back after 10 hours to use it) and use instant gratification to convince users to purchase upgrades.
Behavior economics in social gaming
Interestingly, most of behavior economics principles can be found in these type of games: from peer pressure to “doing the right thing” (don’t let your crops die) and clearly seeing the outcome of one’s action – all add up to a picture where behavior economics seem to be the baseline for virtual economic architecture in games such as Farmville.
The virtual life in social games
Reality perception is altered when such games are played and playing the game seems to be more of a daily task then entertainment. To understand the high interest users have in this type of gaming we must remember that in our day to day life few things seem to add up like the virtual life in social games does. Click a button – start building a farm. Click another – plant crops. Come back after a day and you can cash in your hard earned coins that you can reinvest. It is a little harder to do that in real life. Sometimes – no matter how hard we try achievements don’t seem to pup-up.
We expect an end to our actions. If possible a fortunate one. We have been planting crops and harvesting them for thousands of years. Our bed time stories always have an end. The movies we watch program us to expect an introduction, action and the grand finally. Our lives don’t usually have that and this is one of the causes of modern stress and depression. Having a secondary life where everything is simpler and more colorful is a reward in itself.
The architecture of social gaming
Most social games have a pretty simple story that gets you hooked. The first form of profitable social games were the MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) where you played a character and took possession of his actions. Other players would join in and you would search for coins, artifacts and battle different monsters or other players.
What are the lowest common denominators of most successful social games?
1. The story – as we are used to stories from infancy we best deal with adopting a new concept if we receive it in a story. Weather you are living in a future where aliens are threatening to take over the universe, a village where your survival depends on how well you manage your farm or a fantasy world where elves and trolls are trying to get you – you need a story. Without a story no game-addiction can develop, there is no understanding of one’s actions and the game flops.
2. The setting – the environment is really important as that is the context for the players actions. If you are in a farm you don’t usually battle star ships. There is no need for extra mana to cast a spell and there are, usually, no monsters you have to slay.
3. The character – people play games to foster their imagination and to escape the usual reality. That’s the same reason we watch movies – we need alternate realities where we can embody some other character.
4. The economy – whether players are searching for extra stamina bottles, artifacts, coins or other incentives they do that because they understand the need for an alternate economy. Economics are so well embedded in us that social games that have no economic notion can never become mainstream.
5. The limitations – social games have to have limitations. Without limitations there are no achievements. Without achievements there is no psychological gratification. No limits – no endorphin.
6. The incentives – what makes users tick? Incentives. Search for an artifact and you can defend your castle. Develop more farms and you can buy more land. Upgrade your ship and you can win the battle you previously lost. Incentives makes people act. Just as the real world economics incentives are the carrot that works better than the stick.
7. The social features – imagine playing tag by yourself. It isn’t too fun, is it? We are deeply social animals and everything we do is based on how other people react to our actions. Social gaming evolved so fast that it makes it so easy for users to attract peers and develop common interests.
What social gaming lacks right now?
Most of what we now call social games have developed strong social ties, a great system of incentives, some kind of limitations, some kind of game economics but they lack the story and characters. It’s not all about the graphics. The user has to understand the back story and understand who is he in the game. Just like our real lives the most important things about how we relate to the world are the things that shaped us, who we are and who will we become.
Zynga’s social games lack the story and the characters which is not much of a problem right now but people will get bored with the shiny incentives and peer pressure. For a long term user retention social games need to develop personas and epic stories.
Thomas Metzinger, a German philosopher, stated in “The Ego Tunnel” that we understand reality through a scaled down replica of the reality surrounding us. He based his research on neurological research, human psychology studies and artificial intelligence tests. Why is that important for social gaming? If users are not fully immersed in the gaming reality – they can easily abandon games. The game world is not really a personal perception of reality. Social games are shifting the perception of what is real and what is not but only for a limited time.
In the future I expect social games to develop the social gaming worlds to an alternate reality and developing characters. It’s happening right now with World of Warcraft. There are 10.2 million paying subscribers, fully immersed in the story and characters Blizzard created.
In 2010 we wrote a study on Facebook Gaming. Most of the assumptions and predictions turned out to be right. Here is Gaming on Facebook .
Part two of this article will come soon and will focus on the economics of social gaming.