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Oct 16, 2009

Comments

1.

Oh, a whole bunch of thoughts.

1. The 56 million player figure is kinda neat, but it's not necessarily an indication of revenue. Perhaps they're using advertising, but that revenue stream is hit-and-miss currently. As someone interested in more focused niche content, the "bigger is always better" method of reporting user figures get tiresome.

2. FarmVille is significantly more popular than the #2 game. I wonder why that is.

3. You'll notice that FarmVille is similar to another popular game, (#5 Farm Town on the USA Today article). Once again reinforcing Blizzard's strategy of "don't be original, just take existing gameplay and refine and polish it." (I've not played both games, so I don't know how similar they truly are, but I've heard people say they're similar.)

4. I'm not sure this is really advancing the state of the art in game design. A facinating post about FarmVille shows that the game design seems to be tapping into the same obsessiveness that people have blamed MMOs of exploiting; in this case, you're encouraged to come back as to not lose your in-game investment of crops planted. Is the game really fun and compelling, or is it a habit-encouraging time-waster?

5. I wonder how long the party is going to last, assuming that 56 million players does translate to revenue. I've seen a lot of places reporting that the iPhone AppStore is no longer a good road to riches. Is Facebook gaming going to hit a similar crunch? Or will truly quality developers rise to the top and still be able to make a living?

Not to wish ill on any developer, just some things rattling around my mind as I read more about social games in higher profile.

2.

I wouldn't call farmville a social game. It requires and allows very little social interaction with other players. In fact as you progress further into the game, spending time interacting with other players becomes decreasingly worthwhile.

I haven't noticed any ads on farmville. Like other "freemium" games, its revenue seems to be generated by selling game cash and some items for real cash.

The game and its marketing aren't offering anything new. What we are probably seeing with 56 million subscribers is a combination bandwagon/snowball/brushfire effect. People on facebook see their friends playing it and want to check it out. This causes more and more people to be exposed to the game as the game adds a large amount of status updates to the player's wall. After a while some players become bored with the game and abandon it. I imagine that as the game makes it's way through the facebook community it will die down shortly afterward.

56 million is a lot but I wonder how many are players that have logged into to play more than five days. Also I wonder how many of those accounts were created just to play the game, to help somebody cheat the system and give them a slight edge.

3.

I think Brian nailed it with his thought #4. There are no mind-boggling graphics, no story line, and very little social interaction (which basically amounts to picking up a random stranger from the labor pool and watching them work). This is "level-grinding" stripped down to its ugly bare essentials, and feeding it to all those people who have prolly never played an MMOG in their life is like giving crack cocaine to children.

Re #5; I don't know how much it is, but I suspect they get a substantial amount of their revenue from "sponsors." A player can get game currency if they fork over their contact info to some company who pays the game publisher (presumably in actual money). I have heard some horror stories about players who bought into this scheme naively.

4.

This is an area I've been spending a lot of time in. It's exploding in ways that are difficult to comprehend sometimes. IMO, whether you look at this in terms of design, social currency, or commercial products, what we're seeing is the emergence of the next stage of VWs and MMOGs. I'm not saying that traditional heavy-client 3D MMOGs are going away, but the presence of these browser-based social games definitely changes the equation for any MMOG developer or operator out there.

@Brian - to your points:
1. These games are making solid revenue: Playfish was on track to make around $75M this year (prior to being snapped up by EA for $250M), based solely on free-to-play games. As a rule of thumb, these games make about $25,000 per day for every 1M daily unique users. According to Developer Analytics, Farmville has about 22M daily unique users, which roughly speaking equates to about $16,000,000 in monthly revenue. So yeah, they're making money. (BTW, it's interesting to me that this translates into a relatively low ARPU of about 30c/month, when free-to-play MMOs are showing about $1.20/month ARPU. What this says to me is that there is significant ground to be made in optimizing our game designs for use with this revenue stream -- lots of lessons to be learned from existing f2p MMOs!)

It's true that bigger isn't always better, but what's amazing about this area is that we aren't necessarily talking big teams or big budgets. Significant revenues can be found on games that are made for 10% or less of a "traditional" online games with small dedicated teams and little to no traditional marketing (Restaurant City, with 17M MAU, reportedly has had only word-of-mouth marketing).

Also, these games are not ad-supported at all -- as someone at the Social Games Summit this summer said, from the player's POV, ads detract from the experience, while more objects add to it. The revenue model is virtual goods transactions, and it has been shown many times over to be a solid, predictable model, not as capricious as we on this side of the Pacific once thought.

2. While it's true that Farmville is much more popular than the next game, this is more a factor of the meteoric growth of the market than anything else. In July of this year, the top game had 12M monthly unique users, and that was thought to be dizzying. In the past few months, that's quadrupled, and shows no signs of slowing.

More importantly, there is depth and breadth to this market. For example, according to AppData.com, the top 61 games have more than 1M monthly unique users, and the top 230 have more than 100,000 MAU -- enough to make revenues of ~$150K-200K per month, or easily enough to power a small studio.

This is a complete change from either the retail market, where maybe 5% of games on the shelf make money, or from the traditional MMO market, where the risk of getting your game completed and released kills probably 9 out of 10 before they have a chance.

3. Zynga in particular seems to be following the "polish and refine" strategy, but there are many highly original games out there. Again what's significant here is that a small team can launch an innovative title without huge studio backing and without distribution hassles. For once, if there's a lack of innovation, it's not because the innovation is being strangled, it's because we, game developers, are not providing it. Perhaps we've all been making traditional "kill monster get gold" games for too long?

4. There are both old and new game mechanics at work in this area (if not necessarily in Farmville, though Zynga has I think made some innovative twists on existing designs). If we're going to talk about "obsessiveness," then games are all really just variations on a Pavlovian theme, and there isn't much new under the sun no matter what we do.

5. It's useful to contrast the AppStore with web-based and social-network-based games. IMO, Apple has done a great job with the AppStore of re-inventing the retail game market circa 1990: back then you had to somehow score limited shelf space in a games store, most of which carried about 30 titles. Now on the AppStore if you're not on the "Top 25" list, your game is completely obscure.

That is completely different from these web and SNS-based games, as multiple (the top 200 or so?) games have shown. At long last, we have a situation where developers are free from the hassles of difficult platform adherence, expensive normal-mapped 3D art, multi-year death-march schedules, not having market information, and the vagaries of retail and distribution, advertising, etc. You no longer need a publisher (though one can help). Oh and as a bonus, we've finally found the mass-market we've all dreamed of, where literally hundreds of millions -- not just hundreds of thousands -- of people are playing these games. They're not "gamers" but they nevertheless play games. They won't buy games off the shelf but they'll pay for objects in them.

The question is, how does this change the notions of virtual worlds that have become not only comfortable but even orthodox within our community? How does this change how we envision worlds and games? And what will we do with these amazing opportunities in front of us?

5.

Quick comment on the social aspect of these games - there are minimum social contact requirements for achieving certain levels (cannot expand farm because need x neighbors) or character strengths (vampirewars, dragonwars, probably mafia wars all reward gathering new players by improving your ability to attack other players for xp/$ rewards). The pressure to recruit actual friends and acquaintances is high given the fixed number of contacts most FB users (rather than say myspace) have (that said, once you are deep in the underbelly of facebook games, you might try a friend adding strategy like: https://www.facebook.com/search/?q=mafia+wars+add&init=quick#/group.php?gid=57062084067&ref=search&sid=6824717.3095323920..1). The rewards that contacts provide in a more social sense, sending gifts or helping on the farm, do decline over time (alongside interest in the grind), but for new players (especially for the somewhat pvp games) networking is a threshold requirement for good game play (understood in a very limited sense).

6.

I guess we have to split out two points which people are making apparently in opposition but that don't cancel each other out.

1) This sort of "VW" isn't really reaching the same heights of social interaction or artistic/design complexity you find in a major MMOG -- I'd concede that -- and

2) "light" VW games like this can be popular and profitable. The kids market has shown this, but I don't think the FV 56M is mostly kids. (I'm curious about the demographics, actually.) So while I'd love to think that the coolest stuff we have today is the wave of the future, history and markets don't usually back that up.

I'm finding FV sticky, spammy, and vaguely pleasing at the moment -- it's a cute way to kill time. Probably cooler than solitaire for some people. There is room in this genre for innovation, I think, just like the sorts of innovation you see in the indy browser game market. If the freemium and micropayment model works, there is some potential for getting games like FV that are less spammy and more interesting from a design perspective.

I would note that the datamining/spamming aspects of FV concern me a bit, given that this is FB.

7.

@Greg: This sort of "VW" isn't really reaching the same heights of social interaction or artistic/design complexity you find in a major MMOG

Not reaching (or exceeding!) those -- yet. I have hope. :)

If the freemium and micropayment model works, there is some potential for getting games like FV that are less spammy and more interesting from a design perspective.

It's an interesting (indeed, crucial) design question as to how to make these games work from a viral/virtual goods revenue model but without making them as crudely spammy as they are today. I think from a design perspective we're at the very beginning of learning how to do this well. The early successes of Zynga, Playfish, Playdom, et al., will be somewhat analogous to some of the early MMO/VW design efforts -- back when we thought 100K people was a huge number of players and before design tropes that are deeply entrenched were even known.

8.

On ‘Spammy’ games – I’m concerned that the size of the graphics used and the frequency of their display is poisoning the social well on which they depend. Months ago the ‘achievement’ graphics were smaller – about the size of a typical friend comment or link.
In the past few months (would love to see someone with a little research time track the size of FB game ‘announcements’ change over time) they are much larger and much more frequent. It seems like some games offer to tell your friends something at least 2 or 3 times per short play session.

Looking at the percentage of ‘noise’ (any game I don’t play) to bandwidth (real information about my friends) on my screen it is clear that game spam is overwhelming social message traffic. FB’s giant picture and video links are certainly contributing as well.

Of course the first change was that you can now remove all traffic from a particular application. Is the ability to block all application messages or for the user to block their own gamespam from going out to friends next?

I think that game developers, in ‘everyone else is doing it’ are using a short term strategy that will harm their own medium... That my friend is playing Farmville is occasionally interesting, that they got a new hoe is not. They are communicating ‘in game’ magic circle context to an out of game audience - who could really care less unless they start playing.

9.

What is the distribution of player object-purchases?

10.

It's not really a virtual world though, is it ?

11.

re Mark: I dunno. I dislike it too. The problem is that it works, apparently, to help build numbers and revenues.

It's the same problem with all spam -- people hate it, but if it wasn't making money, you would not see it. I think it might take a while for the "externalities" here to feed back to the design of the games. If someone is going to pull the trigger, I think it will have to be Facebook, since they have the greatest interest in not allowing the software to lead people to unstick themselves from FB or from friends tied to spammy apps.

I'm not expecting FB to be too quick on that front, though, since they're probably keen on the revenues the games bring in.

Re T -- I'd say Farmville is a virtual world by most definitions. It's a simulated place, avatar-based, persistent, social, etc. The only thing that makes me pause is that they don't have avatars capable of being co-present in FV, like they do on many other Zynga games.

12.

We actually lead off with an article in today's Pixels and Policy about how Zynga has managed to raise nearly $500,000 for Haitian charities solely by soliciting donations in the form of a "special" sweet potato crop that yields a better virtual profit margin than existing crops.

$500,000 from 50 million users may not seem like much, but it's fascinating given the fact that people are excited about the "extra profit" they're making despite this "profit" not having any real market value. Players are more than willing to donate real money (in the form of farm dollars) for a fantasy return.

13.

Dont't know what are you talking about. It's could be better...

14.

What is interesting it that quite a few of my peers who otherwise will not play games or interact in virtual worlds can often be found nipping off to check their Farm etc.

Yet none of them would dare to invest in Animal Crossing (multiplayer, some online capabilities) or Harvest Moon.

Personally I can't stand Farmville for the same reasons as young malice https://www.wonderlandblog.com/wonderland/2009/10/farmville.html

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