Social media is a fickle industry, and long-term success requires near-constant innovation and commitment. Yet social media games from titans like Zynga are drawing in millions of users while remaining fundamentally unchanged.
Could social gaming be in for its own version of the dot com bubble of the 2000's? Pixels and Policy investigates the risk of saturation in the growing social gaming market.
A Crowded Field
Zynga is far and away the dominant force in social media games. From its original gamble on Mafia Wars, Zynga has expanded its games stable to include over a dozen games, including FarmVille, YoVille, CafeWorld, Scramble, Zynga Poker, Vampire Wars, Special Forces and other less popular titles.
Farmville boasts nearly 70 million active monthly users. YoVille is nearing 20 million. Overall, Zynga is well over 100 million monthly unique users, players who consume Zynga content on a regular basis and often plunk down real currency for any of the dozen permutations of Zynga's in-game cash.
There are other Facebook and social media game developers mining the rich caverns of interactive engagement. Playfish, the developer of games like Pet Society and Country Story, recently announced a partnership with Electronic Arts that would expand its reach into console gaming. Playdom hosts a familiar-looking mafia game across both Facebook and Myspace.
Playfish, Playdom and Zynga are all making money. The only problem is that their games not only resemble other company offerings, but they uncomfortably resemble the games developed by competitors. Zynga sued Playdom over its mafia-themed social game, and most of the three companies' best-selling products are a variation on vampires, mafias, cafés and farms.
It doesn't take a deep analysis of Zynga's CaféWorld to see that it's a nearly identical reskin of the incredibly popular FarmVille. Likewise, Vampire Wars and Mafia Wars operate on the same simple platform. How long will players continue to invest time and currency into games that are essentially low-effort ports of earlier, more successful products? Could Zynga unintentionally saturate the market by competing with itself?
A Lack of Content Imagination
A wide variety of bloggers and industry commentators have been discussing the possibility that social gaming burnout may soon be on the horizon. Facebook has 300 million active accounts worldwide, with nearly 70 million active in FarmVille. That's nearly a quarter of Facebook users active on FarmVille month-to-month. Add in players of other Zynga content who don't necessarily play FarmVille, and you could be looking at a much higher figure.
A big question is why gamers continue to play FarmVille and other games after it becomes apparent that the rewards are merely reskinned and recolored versions of old rewards. One of the reasons for Zynga's longevity is the social aspect, as outlined in an excellent Globe and Mail article about the curious nature of social gaming:
These games make a lot more sense if you don't think of them as
games at all. They're more like simple virtual worlds, where the fun
part isn't playing, but buying and selling. FarmVille and its clones
aren't video games, they're toys: one part dollhouse and one part
And consumer fantasies are always better shared. FarmVille encourages
players to check out their friends' farms, making it an exercise in
show and tell. Moreover, in order to progress to certain stages,
players are actually required to have a certain number of Facebook
friends who are also playing – effectively turning gamers into
In a society of conspicuous consumption where we may not all be obscenely wealthy, there is a definite draw in a game that allows us to show off a plantation home that cost 2 million farm dollars. Other players will understand how long it took to raise those farm dollars, and you'll likely get some nice comments on your Facebook wall.
This social reinforcement keeps gamers coming back long after the "Do X, Collect Y" of games like FarmVille has grown stale. It's the same general principle that keeps millions of users coming back to World of Warcraft long after their characters have reached the pinnacle of rewards. A community moves gaming rewards beyond the tangible treats coded by developers.
But is the community aspect of a social game a strong enough pull to keep new users coming to FarmVille or any of its similar brothers and sisters a year from now, or will social gamers be burned out farming, warring and cooking for Zynga dollars that fund a limited range of entertainment?