The social gaming gold rush - and why you missed it

Opportunity is timing. Right now, many game designers see social gaming as the opportunity of their lifetime (or at least, this generation of computer gaming). But for most, the window of opportunity to score big in social gaming has already closed.

Most American's don't like to hear that a good deal of success is based on luck. It's ingrained in our culture and mythology that through hard work, anyone can achieve greatness. And one of the amazing things about America is that people can actually achieve greatness based on innate talent and hard work. But to deny that good old fashioned chance doesn't play a role is simply naive. Put it this way - where would Apple be if Steve Jobs had had the misfortune of being hit by a bus when crossing El Camino Real in Cupertino one day? Would we have the Beatles if Lennon and McCartney hadn't met at a Quarrymen concert? A random turn of events can be the difference between greatness and obscurity.

Right now, the gaming world is abuzz about social gaming. Or, more specifically, the business savvy types are frothing with excitement about companies like Zynga and Playfish which are getting multi-million and billion dollar valuations. And while many game developers view offerings such as Farmville or Pet Society as a slightly less entertaining game than Microsoft Excel, a host of developers are jumping ship from traditional gaming giants to take up residence at the new hot thing.

Now, headlong gold rushes to California are nothing new. Perhaps I'm bit jaded as I witnessed first hand the boom years of the dot-coms and saw friends and colleagues become millionaires literally overnight - while others poured their lives and health into startups that were destined to be punch lines in business books. But its almost a law of nature that by the time you see the big rush - most of the gold has already been mined. Anyone expecting to be the next Zynga is in for a big disappointment. The opportunity has already past - and guess what, Zynga is already the next Zynga.

Zynga benefited from a unique set of conditions which aren't likely to repeat themselves. Their success was built on the back of Facebook and its explosive growth. Facebook provided an opportunity to reach an audience with almost no cost - and then continuously build on that audience through viral mechanisms. Whether you consider the mechanisms employed spam or not, their success in bootstrapping Zynga is undeniable. But the folks at Facebook aren't exactly morons. They recognized that they were becoming a platform for games and were risking losing control of their platform. So they changed the rules.

The early days of Facebook games were the Wild West. Lawlessness and obnoxious spamming was the rule of the day. But life on the frontier always settles down eventually. Inevitably, a sheriff moves in and tames the more bothersome troublemakers. While the West has hardly been won, we've seen a big shift from roaring 49ers boom town to a more stable frontier town. Growth is still impressive - but we are quite simply not going to see another Zynga because the tools that Zynga used to grow it's business at such a phenomenal rate are no longer available. The world has changed and moved on.

Furthermore, Zynga has grabbed some of the best land. They have build an audience of such density, they can bootstrap a new game into millions of daily unique visitors simply by virtue of referencing the new game from their existing games. It's a crucial bit of leverage that you don't get until your audience is in the millions.

To be sure, there are still more success stories to come in social gaming. A game designer making the leap to one of these companies can definitely enjoy success and some even argue that we have yet to see our killer app or defining game in the space. But the social gaming industry has already established its 800 pound gorilla, as well as the 400 orangutan, 200 pound chimpanzee and even 98 pound lemur. New successes in social gaming are going to be about carving out a niche in the context of the existing players - or finding a new unexploited frontier.

For that's the real trick. Having the insight, timing - and just plain luck - to recognize when a golden opportunity is knocking. Game designers with dreams of social gaming gold should probably temper their expectations - and be on the lookout for the next phenomenon. And don't worry, if history is any indication, it should arrive in the next decade - so better sharpen those skills now.

- Sean Dugan is a game designer with aspirations to middle-weight baboon status. 


Image from Mykl Roventine via Creative Commons

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