Social gaming can't afford to bleed players dry through morally questionable means, argues Tag Games' Paul Farley

Social gaming can't afford to bleed players dry through morally questionable means, argues Tag Games' Paul Farley
Paul Farley is MD of Tag Games, a Dundee-based developer behind the likes of Doctor Who: The Mazes of Time on iOS and Funpark Friends for iOS and Android.

It is with great disappointment and a heavy heart that I read many social games companies are following Zynga as it moves into the gambling business.

For Zynga, it's an attempt to arrest reducing player numbers, engagement and sliding stock prices.

But it seems quite a dramatic transition to try to make, and there is no doubt the traditional gambling industry will not take the challenge to their online market share lightly.

This current state of affairs leads me to question whether the social games industry has finally been found out? Were the detractors that cried foul a couple of years ago right?

The accusation that most social games are little more than well-polished skinner boxes requiring the manipulation of accepted human compulsions to keep players playing whilst extracting large sums of money takes on a new light in the context of gambling.

Have social game players now gotten wise to these techniques, or is it the inherent shallowness of many of these games that is now the major turn off?

What have social games ever done for us?

It is perhaps a good time to take a step back and reflect on what the social games movement has given the games industry and where it could potentially go next. After all, I'm sure many game studios share Tag's moral objection to transitioning their business into gambling.

It's bad enough to use cheap tricks like daily rewards and slot machine/lucky draw mechanics to monetise a game that isn't good enough to engage the player in its own right – adding real world rewards to those mechanics just makes things even worse.

There must be other options.

Let me be quite clear that I am addressing social games as a movement that spans multiple platforms, genres and mechanics. It is quite sobering to reflect that many social games are anything but social; however I believe that we have taken some important steps forward regardless.

The focus on monetisation and new business models has been a breath of fresh air. Zynga in particular led the charge of non-traditional games companies showing the rest of us how you could not only attract a whole new player base, but also be more effective in monetising them.

The fact is that the £40/$60 upfront purchase of a console game is not a great model for either the consumer or the content creator. We needed other options and social games have led the way in exploring these.

Social games have also demonstrated the benefit of collecting vast amounts of data about your players and their behaviour from your game. Data analysis, if integrated successfully into your process, can not only improve monetisation performance, but also help to make better games which meet the needs and wants of your players.

We used to make games that we, the development team, wanted to play. Now, we've matured to creating games for an identified audience or market. This greater understanding of the potential of games to reach a wider audience serves us well.

Finally social games have helped us approach our players – not on the basis of unhelpful demographic terms such as age, gender and location – but instead in the way in which they play, when and where they play and how they pay for content.

This categorisation of our audience is a subtle but vital element in growing an audience around a title while successfully running the game as a service.

When social isn't social

Social games have helped push our industry forward, but notably they don't seem to have made our games any more social! They also suck when it comes to player engagement.

In theory, given two similar games in the same genre – one with social features and the other without – you'd expect the social game to have better engagement and retention wouldn't you? That is often not the case.

Recent data from Flurry claimed that single player games generally have around a 25 percent better engagement rate than social games. That's crazy.

Going deeper

Games were social long before the invention of the CPU, and it was the advent of videogames that introduced greater focus upon single player gaming – either against the CPU, or a predefined Designer's challenge, level or map.

What we are facing is a missed opportunity to return games to their natural state. Given the access to the social graph and the wide range of connected functionality we now have available, it's a scandal that social games have so far failed to explore in any great depth the full potential of human interaction.

Leaderboards are great, but that's so 2010. We can and must do much better.

If social games companies are looking for a way to maintain their growth, may I suggest that rather than bleeding their players dry via ever more morally questionable means, they focus on how to engage players beyond just a few play sessions played over one or two days.

Let's give game players some credit – they are sophisticated consumers that demand innovation, ever greater depths of experience and many of the social experiences which social games have thus far failed to deliver.

We know that if a game is good enough, players will play for the sake of play itself. We shouldn't need a cash prize at the end to grind through hours of dull game content.

Social Gaming 2.0 stands at a fork in the road. One leads to great game experiences with truly social features and fair value monetisation. The other is the road to hell. Which one will you choose?

Generous people who've shared their wisdom with Pocket Gamer


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Nicholas Lovell
I agree with you about the fork in the road. I have no issue with IAPs or psychological tricks. All game design and most entertainment relies on those. I do think shallow, exploitative, manipulative designs help no one.

It's definitely my focus for 2012. I'm glad it is yours too.
William Volk
I totally agree with you. We've gone to an ad-supported model with our social game, Word Carnivale. Static interstitial ads after a round, with a single in-app purchase to turn that off. We're also going with this model with the soon to be released Bocce Friends for the same reason.
Mitch (Dave Mitchell) Games Designer at OniMobi
Gambling really worries me.
jon jordan
Totally agree Paul. I think the rise of gambling is going to be a big issue in 2013, and unlikely to be a positive development.
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