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.
14 thoughts on “The Difficult Transition from Core Gaming to Social”
So where do designers and developers of good social games come from? Surely most of them have some game development experience prior to launching a social game? Is it easier to jump from a casual PC or mobile game to social, even if you haven’t had freemium experience? (At least you’ve been focused on gameplay for the same audience.)
On the programming side, almost all the top programmers and engineers (and artists) that I have worked with have come from web development (e-commerce sites, web design firms, etc). On the design side, overall the designers do not have the same standing at a social company they do at a core game company so it is not as clear, but the ones I have seen the most successful either come with an analytics background and are designing for the first time or come from the advertising space.
It is interesting that you brought up the transition from casual to social. The transition there is also, in my opinion, difficult, hence Big Fish’s big failure in social; but the actual data is much more ambiguous. King.com came from casual and in less than a year has become a top-5 Facebook developer. Popcap obviously had tremendous success on social after building its business on casual. Even iWin and Real have gotten some traction in social. If I had to guess, it goes to my last point. People in the casual space do not look down on social or players of social games, and that goes a long way to success.
“The fact is, not one developer that comprises primarily of core game veterans has had a success in the social space, despite many attempts. ”
To be fair, that’s not 100% true. KlickNation, for example, was made up of traditional hardcore gamers and they just sold to EA. From an investor standpoint, that’s a pretty good investment. And my team at Metaplace — we were all ex-MMO developers essentially (some from SOE, Blizzard, EA, etc.) and we ended up selling to Playdom, then to Disney. Our games, My Vineyard and Island Life, were in the top charts many times in 2009.
You are right, and I’ll also add that Raph is a good example of someone transitioning successfully from core to social. I guess I didn’t consider MMO core, even though it is. I do think MMO veterans can and will succeed in the social space, I was thinking (but did not write) more traditional PS3, 360, Wii type devs.
Though thinking about it, I don’t think KlickNation contradicts my point. In fact, it’s acquisitions like those (and investments) that prompted my post, we’ll see how much EA gets out of it.
Off the top of my head I can come up with several social game developers that have core backgrounds:
Playfish – created from Sony Online Entertainment and EA veterans
Digital Chocolate – Trip Hawkins started 3DO and EA
3blokes Studios (acquired by rockyou) – created from veteran SEGA, Pandemic and THQ guys
Spacetime Studios – created from olds-school Ultima Online Veterans
Trust me there ar several more, these guys are eveywhere
Most of the growing social game companies with cash right now, at least everyone I have talked to, are looking for game developers with core game experience.
Because most social games are not actually good games, even the guys who create games at Kixeye and Kabam will tell you that the quality of the games they make are crap, they make money from the distribution. The morals installed into core game developers reflect onto the social games they develop. I can usually tell when I see a social game that has no core-game influence–you start getting into games with ridiculous in-game advertisement or bad gameplay or poor game mechanics, bad storyline etc.
Core game developers help fix that problem.
I appreciate your comments and your point about Playfish is well taken (I would argue that Trip was out of the core space awhile before DC moved into social and the others did not have a success). I think your comments on why core game designers are being recruited by social game companies (and they are by some, but the results still are definitely up in the air) reflect my point. We’ll see how it turns out 🙂
Yes they reflect your point. Thanks for the great blog, I have been enjoying these reads.
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