If you’re a core gamer who’s a bit nervous about the possibility of Zynga’s social offerings encroaching on Xbox Live Arcade’s territory, fear not. Brian Reynolds, Zynga’s chief game designer, says that’s probably not happening any time soon. Xbox Live Arcade (and presumably its counterpart, the PlayStation Network) is just “too small” for Zynga’s needs.
“We’re after a lot of demographic,” Reynolds told IndustryGamers. “The thing that seems to make social gaming and networking magical is the fact that all my friends are potentially there and they might see the things that I’m posting or doing or expressing. [Xbox Live’s] too small a demographic. Think about, of my friends, how many of them own an Xbox 360? Well, I’m a game developer and I even come from a triple-A space so we might even be in the double digits… Twenty or maybe even thirty percent of my friends might have an Xbox 360, but effectively 100% of them have Facebook and effectively 100% of them have a mobile phone. Of them, probably 90% have a smartphone.”
Reynolds is correct, but the reasons for social games’ incompatibility with XBLA probably go even beyond its small userbase. Not only is XBLA a much smaller platform than Facebook (30 million active members versus 500+ million), it’s also not well-suited for most of Zynga’s games. To use many of XBLA’s features–including playing games online with friends–a user needs an Xbox Live Gold account, which adds up to around $50 USD a year. How eager would people be to cough up money for microtransactions after paying for admission? A core gamer is fine with paying a little extra for unlockable content in a retail purchase, and even a casual gamer understands the need to pay for extra songs in a game like Rock Band; after all, we have to pay for the music we download on iTunes (provided we go the legitimate route), so downloading Rock Band songs feels like you’re paying money for a real, tangible item. Besides, you can invite friends over to play music games, open a lot of beer, and have fun. Even one such gathering validates the purchase immediately. Asking folks to pay extra money for a special cow that hangs around a farm that few will visit is a little different. It’s an empty purchase with few bragging rights.
By comparison, consider Reynolds’ statement: Everyone is on Facebook. FarmVille is a free download, so anyone can play it. Anyone can visit your farm. People will visit your farm, because they can play FarmVille at work, something that’s impossible to do on the Xbox 360. Even if a part-time virtual farmer has no intention of spending money on microtransactions, he or she might be swayed by the sight of that cuddly barnyard exclusive you picked up for a dollar or so.
So it’s easy to see Reynolds’ point of view, but on the other hand, the console-based social game experience shouldn’t be written off entirely. Free Realms, Sony’s popular massive multiplayer online game, will be hitting the PlayStation Network at the end of March. It’ll be the first free-to-play game to appear on consoles, and it should provide some insight into the demand (or lack thereof) for free-to-play social experiences on game systems. Zynga’s a busy company, but we’re sure it’ll spare the energy needed to keep an eye on Sony for a few minutes.