The following are trends that I believe will occur in the social games industry in 2011.
Trend 1: Zynga – Large and in Charge
The astonishing growth rate of CityVille stems directly from Zynga’s capability to successfully cross-promote and migrate their existing FarmVille audience to their new game. And this ability to leverage their own massive user base will play a critical role in Zynga maintaining their dominance going forward. Smaller players will not have the good fortune to leverage the social graph via notifications the way Zynga did in the early days of social gaming on Facebook and that could present an insurmountable hurdle for many newcomers looking to gain marketshare. Compounding the problem for smaller players will be Zynga’s ability to tap their massive funding to strategically advertise while smaller players’ growth is throttled by their burn rate for development. While new entrants struggle just to get noticed, Zynga is paying Snoop Dogg to blow up an armored truck in Vegas to promote Mafia Wars. Look for Zynga to maintain and even grow marketshare in 2011 as they maintain dominance in Facebook social gaming and continue their expansion into other platforms and international markets.
Trend 2: Zynga – If it Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix it
With the launch of FrontierVille and now CityVille, Zynga has successfully maintained their position as top dog in the social gaming industry. While both FrontierVille and CityVille have a few innovative features, they both rely heavily on the same gaming mechanics as their monster, mega-hit FarmVille. Zynga has clearly mastered the psychology built into their social games (see Tadhg Kelly’s brilliant breakdown of CityVille here). Now, they just need to gradually convert more freeloaders to purchase virtual goods in order to accelerate their progress within the games. Zynga gains more insight into their customer base every day and they have the largest braintrust analyzing this new marketing machine and figuring out innovative ways to separate players from their virtual currency. Even a minor increase of DAU’s purchasing virtual currency/goods could mean tens of millions in revenue for the company. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Look for more of the same types of social games with similar mechanics developed by Zynga in 2011.
Trend 3: Facebook – At a Crossroads
In a recent presentation at their office, Facebook staff discussed development policies with social game developers. During the presentation (see the video embedded in an earlier post here) , Mark Zuckerberg touches on the issue of quality content versus “friend-spam” (his words, not mine). Friend-spam is really about the need to reduce notifications such as social game invitations and achievement announcements being sent to non-gaming friends who couldn’t care less and have no interest in social games. Since recent figures show that almost half of Facebook users play social games such as CityVille, Sorrority Life, Cafe World and others, it is becoming a larger issue for Facebook going forward. The primary issue is this: How do you develop a single platform that caters to two increasingly divergent groups? On the one side are the folks who enjoy playing the games and are often encouraged/incentivized by the games themselves to recruit their friends to join up as new players. This group has embraced Facebook as a platform for gaming and entertainment. On the other side are the Facebook members who want nothing to do with the games and find any sort of invitation or notification as increasingly annoying and intrusive (friend-spam).
While Facebook’s rocket like growth can be at least partially attributed to their willingness to open their platform to developers like Slide, RockYou! and Zynga, they have previously taken measures to limit the spread of intrusive content and this has come at the expense of developers looking to maximize viral spread. After Facebook cracked down, gaining and even retaining users instantly became problematic as indicated by FarmVille’s drop from over 80 million users to somewhere in the mid-fifties. And yet Facebook and social game developers face even greater challenges going forward as an onslaught of developers and brands rush in to capitalize on the 500 million strong Facebook marketplace. Except now the bar is set higher, the stakes are higher and the competition is much thicker and tougher. Like Facebook itself, the games are getting more sophisticated as brands look to leverage the social graph and capture mindshare. And new games from Playdom, PlayFish, Digital Chocolate, Crowdstar and many others will ultimately shape the experience of Facebook users interested in social games. Conversely, the crowd that has no interest in social games will have a much different experience. Facebook itself is going to have to simultaneously develop solutions that appease both audiences all the while balancing quality control and maintaining interoperabilty while developers relentlessly push the capabilities of the platform itself. Can Facebook reign in the armies of determined developers or are they the equivalent of the outnumbered Starship Troopers battling the bugs on Klandathu?
Will this split personality become too problematic or manageable? How will Facebook meet the needs of social game developers and their brand partners while dinging them for 30% take on in-game Facebook Credits virtual currency micro-transactions? Will another entity develop a more “game developer-friendly” platform that provides less restrictions, better margins and “superior” infrastructure support? Hi5 is trumpeting this concept. Zynga strongly considered creating their own environment before wisely backing down and striking a deal with Facebook. The answer is nothing will happen in 2011, but should Facebook stumble, they could open the door for serious discussions of development of a large-scale platform dedicated to social gaming.
Trend 4: Brand Invasion
If one thing is certain in 2011 it is that brands are going to invade Facebook and the social games industry with a vengeance. Disney and EA didn’t drop hundreds of millions to sit on their deep reservoirs of content and power of their established brands. They are going to wield their IP like a big-ass club, beating down their baby seal competitors who have no built-in audience or brand awareness. Even brands such as the Smurf’s and Monty Python’s Flying Circus have joined the fray and have introduced new social gaming experiences on Facebook. 2011 will be an all out war with the weapons of choice being the easily recognizable characters from comic books, television shows, sports and movies. The landscape of today will look primitive 12 months from now. The wildcard is of course Zynga, who up until now has gotten away with generic characters modeled after the Asian influenced avatars from which they originally bit their concepts from. However, Zynga is now such a force that brands come to them. McDonald’s and others have begun to experiment with short burst campaigns to build brand awareness. And Zynga’s aforementioned Mafia Wars publicity stunts with Snoop Dogg and Dr Dre are just the beginning. As competition continues to heat up look for even more bizarre and outrageous marketing events on their part. Update: Zynga promotes the upcoming Green Hornet film with related virtual goods available in Mafia Wars.
UPDATE: Games.com provides their list of Social Game predictions for 2011 here
UPDATE 2: eConsultancy provides their Social Gaming Trends for 2011 here
UPDATE 3: Gamasutra provides three more predictions for social gaming here
2011 Social Media Marketing predictions (from hundreds of industry experts) here
2011 Social Network predictions (from various industry experts) here