I recently saw that several core game teams (by core, I mean traditional computer or video games) received funding to create or move into the social gaming space and I am somewhat incredulous that investors continue to throw money at such ventures. The track record of people or companies moving from the traditional gaming space to social is abysmal.
The fact is, not one developer that comprises primarily of core game veterans has had a success in the social space, despite many attempts. If you look at the top-50 games, all are from companies with roots either directly in social or in other web businesses. Even the game companies that have had the most success creating social games targeting core game players, Kabam and Kixeye, are devoid of designers or talent from the traditional video game space. Moreover, most of the core game refugees who have fled to social have failed to have a major impact. Again, if you look at the top games, only Gardens of Time (designed by an EA veteran) and Pioneer Trail (designed by Brian Reynolds) have clear core gaming roots. I would even argue that Pioneer Trail’s numbers were due more to Zynga’s market strength than any inherent game factors, so GoT was really the only case where a core game designer created something great in the social space.
It is not only developers who have had difficulty making the transition from core to social but also publishers. Although EA is now the number 2 social game company, they had to spend about $1 billion on Playfish and Popcap to gain that position as they were unable to do it with internal resources (or else they won’t have spent $1 billion ). Ubi Soft has been trying to gain traction in the space for over two years, released 21 games, and is still only ranked 98th among app developers (AppData based on DAU); despite having a hit (Smurfs Village). In fact, other than EA, there is no core game company (not Activision, not THQ, not Sony, not Atari, not Sega, etc) in the top-75.
There are many reasons for this difficult transition but I think the biggest is that they are just simply different businesses. It would be like a successful film producer moving to book publishing. They are both forms of entertainment but have very little else in common. The user experience and player’s goals are different. The game needs to be designed for gameplay stretching months, not a singular experience played in hours or days. The free to play business model requires a completely distinctive way of designing a game as monetization has to be built in from the beginning. Virality needs to be incorporated into a game, it is no longer word of mouth through forums.
Last but not least, there is a certain degree of condescension that people from the traditional game space bring with them when moving to social. If they admit it or not, they feel the games are inferior to core games (I do not know how often I have heard that social games are where “real” games were in the 1980s), have simple technology and are not fun but merely manipulative. I am not going to argue why they are wrong on all three points as I am not going to convince most of them otherwise, but it is these beliefs that are the reason core game companies and personnel fail again and again in the social space.
I wrote this post not to beat up on the traditional game community, they do a great job of creating products that really please core gamers, but wanted to point out why core game companies have had such a small influence in our space and will continue to flounder. I also wanted to reiterate my shock at the amount of investment that flows to these companies to move into the space despite the dismal track record.