One issue that I see looming on the horizon but that has generated little conversation is the sun-setting of social games (pardon the pun). For those not familiar with the phrase, sun-setting is simply shutting down a social game (usually with advance notice).
From the publisher’s perspective, when to sunset is usually a pretty straightforward decision. When a game costs more to operate (hosting costs, support costs, etc.), many publishers will being sunsetting the game. I say begin because they usually give the community notice so players do not monetize one day to find the game dead the next. It also gives the publisher a chance to try to migrate players to other games.
Until recently, most of the large games were immune to sun-setting, they had a big enough community that even as they lost users, the losses were small enough that the games remained profitable. As these large games become increasingly old, and the lifecycle gets shorter for newer releases, more and more “classic” games face closure.
I see this imminent sun-setting becoming a major issue as it may change players’ perceptions of virtual goods. Although virtual goods are virtual, many people who monetize feel they are purchasing a durable good. Additionally, they really care about the city/farm/team that they built, they feel a sense of ownership. When the game is closed and they lose what they created, they suffer a sense of loss. This loss, which accentuates that they are purchasing VIRTUAL items, will make them less likely to monetize in other games (and maybe not even want to play other games).
While this effect can damage the industry, it is particularly risky for individual publishers. If a publisher gets a reputation of callously sun-setting games players will gravitate to games from publishers they know are committed to long-term success. Recently, the web was rife with rumors that Playdom planned to sunset City of Wonder because it was generating numbers similar to Social City before that game was closed. I have no idea of the veracity of these rumors but I am sure that all the press about it did prompt some players to stop monetizing (and if enough do, it becomes a self-fulfilling rumor).
Social game companies cannot afford to run games ad infinitum regardless of results but I suggest you make a broader equation when deciding whether to close a game. Rather than just looking at the game’s profitability, assess its effect on the brand, whether your customers will become less likely to monetize in your other games and if they will even be more reluctant to play one of your new games. Be creative with your older games, maybe focus them more on cross-promoting your better monetizing games, incorporate advertising or even license the game to a smaller company that would like a base to build off of. Just remember that sun-setting has consequences.