A few days ago,+Tami Baribeau
wrote a heartfelt concession that Facebook games are an unsustainable business strategy. You can find her blog post here: http://tamibaribeau.com/?p=504
While I definitely respect Tami's opinion along with her years of experience in social games (compared to my half-year at this point), I still don't agree with her assessment. At least not fully. My primary disagreement is when she says: "Don't make your game too complex, because this new breed of social game player can't handle deep game mechanics."
Yet. This new breed of social game player can't handle deep game mechanics yet.
In +Raph Koster
's "A Theory of Fun," we are taught that games are learning experiences for the players, and that when players fully discern all of a game's patterns (therefore mastering the game) they tend to stop playing and move on. If a game is composed of simple patterns and little deviation, the game is likely to have a short life. All that's left then is the tail of content that keeps an ever-decreasing amount of players interested in the game. This is why, in my opinion. so many social games have had such a short shelf life.
But the social game player is getting smarter, and they are learning games faster. You can look at the 'Ville series to understand that. Farmville's primary mechanic, and for awhile one of its only mechanic, was the Crop Loop. Plant-wait-harvest-repeat. If you wait too long, your crops die and you lose your investment. It's a simple but effective mechanic designed to both simulate the actual growth of crops in accelerated real time while also creating a strong mechanic to make sure players return to play the game more.
The Crop Loop still persists in every 'Ville game since then. FrontierVille, CityVille, and CastleVille all have a nearly unchanged Crop Loop. However, these games don't rely on crops themselves as the primary mechanic. Instead, it is just a subset of the features that players have access to. The Crop Loop is just one of the patterns to these games, and it gives players a mechanic they can immediately understand while they try to discern new patterns. They're learning.
As players grow more experienced in these types of games, their tolerance for games made out of the same patterns with a new 'coat of paint' will shrink. Looking at Tami's list of games that shut down, I can't help but notice how many of them are similar to each other or to other games that already exist in the social games space.
We've seen these kinds of crashes before in the console world during pretty much every era. The 8-bit side-scrolling adventure. The 16-bit 2D fighter. The 32-bit.. well, there were a lot of me-too genres in that era. It goes on and on. Companies see success and they try and mimic it, when a large amount of the time players are looking for something new. Sometimes interesting content or a neat twist on a feature will allow a me-too to overcome, but most of the time they simply fall flat.
So what has rescued the console era each time? Innovation. We're already seeing some of this. We at Playdom married a traditional ISO city builder with a hidden object game to create Gardens of Time. Playfish modified The Sims into a a game with unique twists on the players' social relationships in The Sims Social. More and more short-session social games are finding success such as Zuma Blitz and the Bubble Saga games. We're diversifying the market.
I do agree that it will be hard to come from indies, but we said the same thing for years in traditional video games space.. but we're in the middle of an indie revolution of epic proportions there. It's an argument for another time, and I have quite literally argued for both sides. One thing I DO know is that the social games space is too new for any of us to feel comfortable in NOT taking risks. We've got to keep trying new things, and that will likely mean digging into deeper gameplay experiences.
Hopefully soon we'll start to hit on some ideas that have more long term sustainability. Games where players haven't grown weary of the content nor have they learned all of the patterns. We've got to learn from game sequels, expansion packs, and always-updating MMOs on what they bring to the table to sustain their user bases. We've got to try and do better at not short-selling our long term vision for the quick payout.
Don't count social network games out yet. We're still learning and we're going to try new things. Some won't work, and others may even be ahead of their time. I'm sure that a few of them will rise above the rest and once again captivate the Facebook games audience. And these games just might last longer this time too.