Five Tips for Social Game Success

Five Tips for Social Game Success

Social games are really popular (“How popular are they?”). They’re so popular that a report recently released by Parks Associates predicts that revenues from social games will quintuple by 2015.

“Gaming on social networks has quickly become the most visible category of online games,” said Pietro Macchiarella, a Research Analyst with Parks Associates. “Right now more than 250 million people play games like Zynga’s CityVille and FarmVille on Facebook every month, and both game developers and marketers have taken notice.”

If you need a clearer picture of social gaming’s rhinoceros-strength push into the games industry, consider EA’s purchase of the social games start-up, Playfish, and its drive to overcome the proprietor of FarmVille, Zynga.

“There’s a big dog in front of us, but we aren’t far behind, and we’re confident that we can catch up,” EA President Peter Moore said in his MI6 keynote address. “What we can bring to the market in terms of blue chip IP is phenomenal.”

It’s a frenzied market all right, but can we really expect revenues from social games to increase fivefold in a mere few years? It’s not too farfetched; after all, even the most computer-illiterate Aunties in rural America are discovering that Facebook is a wonderful way to keep in touch with her friends and relatives. As Facebook’s user base keeps increasing–and currently, there’s no immediate reason to believe that Facebook will be utterly usurped by a competitor–so will the potential player base for social games.

But social gaming won’t automatically cruise to success. It’s a competitive field, one that’s already garnering player complaints about oversaturation and poor games. Here are five quick tips that might help future social projects get noticed (and therefore attract revenue) in a busy marketplace.

Real-World Branding and Tie-Ins: One of social gaming’s first success stories is Webkinz, a game that combined stuffed toys with a digital online world. Kids buy a Webkinz critter, which comes with an online code that gains them access to a virtual version of their pet in the “Webkinz World.” It’s an interesting way to make a social game stand out, though parents probably aren’t enthusiastic about the idea of ponying cash up-front for access to a social game. Of course, a toy line by itself also helps spark kids’ interest in a social game: NeoPets, another social gaming oldie, boasts a pretty substantial line of licensed accessories that compliments its colorful online world.

Relevant Cross-Promotions: In the same vein, cross-promotions with stores can help boost a game’s presence, too. “Big brands such as McDonald’s and 7-Eleven have carried out cross-promotions with existing social games,” Pietro Macchiarella noted when he listed the reasons for social gaming’s skyrocketing success. Moreover, social games that bring in revenue through microtransactions (that is to say, all of them) sometimes sell point cards in drug stores and grocery stores, often as an impulse item near the cash register.

Make Games Accessible and Incentivize Players: Every so often, consider rewarding players with some of the currency that can typically only be bought with real money. Horseshoes, dubloons, stars, whatever a particular game calls them, players are spurred on when they get a freebie here or there for a job well done. In fact, it can make all the difference between a player staying with the game for a long time (and making a purchase to round out the amount of currency needed for a coveted item), or giving up on the game early on. For that reason, it’s also important to let the player get as deeply into the game as possible for free. Throwing in early barriers that can only be surmounted with microtransactions means a high dropout rate.

Develop and Tweak Game According to Analytics, Metrics: Zynga’s chief game designer Brian Reynolds has lots to say regarding the benefits of the on-the-fly game design and tweaking made possible by social gaming. “Zynga does a lot with metrics,” Reynolds told IndustryGamers.com in a March interview. “One [test] we did on FrontierVille was – we used to give people 10 horseshoes when they start the game – then we did a little test of, ‘Well, what if we gave 15?’ We thought that maybe that would help them get over the hump of building the cabin because we noticed that people who make it to finishing the cabin were more likely to stick and keep coming back. We tried 15 horseshoes and sure enough we had a substantial uptick in early retention – in people getting to the cabin and therefore sticking as players. In that way, essentially, it made the game more fun. It made it easier to get into the game without being blocked too early by stuff that wasn’t fun. It lets you get to the point where it’s like, ‘Oh, that’s cool. I have a cabin and now there’s new stuff happening.’ That’s just a very simple example of how we can do stuff but on our terms.”

Advertisements and Innovations: Finally, according to Pietro Macchiarella, innovations in advertising are helping today’s most successful social games vault over the competition. “Advertising innovations such as branded games, sponsored items, communities, and ‘advertainment’ that enhance, rather than interrupt, a gamer’s experience will also generate new sources of revenues for game publishers,” he said.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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