This week's question for our expert panelwas:
With another Japanese social giant buying a US social mobile platform (GREE's $104 million purchase of OpenFeint, matching the DeNA-ngmoco $303 million deal), what's next for social mobile gaming platforms?
It's best to let one of the objects of the discussion kick things off.
Welcome Eros Resmini, veep marketing and developer relations at OpenFeint.
"Wow, this has to be the coolest thread ever. While the GREE announcement falls under the 'super rad' category for us, we also recognise there's a ton of work left to do," he explained.
"One of the reasons we did the deal with GREE is because they are committed to letting us continue to experiment, learn, and grow the business."
"So what does the acquisition mean for social gaming on mobile? I think it means it's for real and it's here to stay. When Apple said 'We should do this too [launching Game Center]', it told us we were on the right track. When GREE said 'You're worth our time and money', it further validated we were headed in the right direction. And then there are the millions of players and thousands of developers voting in favour of these services through their time and their wallets.
"The question everyone seems to be trying to answer is 'What's the right solution or approach?' We believe that cross-platform just has to be there. Developers want it to avoid fragmentation in favour of broad toolsets that meet their needs for customisation. Players don't want to game in a world where they can't connect their friends just because they have different phones.
"We also believe developers have to be happy. Our whole philosophy at OpenFeint revolves around reaching players through the developers who use our tools. We think these networks should be designed as an enabler for developers, not just a destination for players.
"What developers ask us for is tools for better engagement, ways to make money, and ways to reach players. So far, our approach is working and we've met some of this demand. But like I said, there is so much more to do. We're just getting started and so is this part of the ecosystem. Hopefully we'll be there when all the dust settles."
Paul Chen, from Papaya Mobile - an emerging Android social network, particularly targeting the Chinese market - addressed the mergers directly.
"OpenFeint and GREE are two of the leaders in the mobile social gaming space and have potential as a merged entity. The merger reinforces the fact that we are in a really hot space and the need to have a global distribution footprint.
"The announcement also means the mobile gaming ecosystem is now realising the value-add of social networks and recognising the increased need for these type of solutions to enhance user engagement."
The Papaya way
Chen specified the elements these networks will need.
"Firstly, we have seen creating a rich user experience in the context of a gaming community, with features like newsfeeds, game invitations, avatars and chat rooms, has increased engagement and subsequently increased monetisation.
"Secondly, diverse and clear channels of communication among users is critical. Social gaming networks that do not establish these channels cannot enable viral marketing. Finally, asking indie and mid-tier developers to create a global distribution strategy is unrealistic.
"For example, in the soon-to-be-largest-Android-market-in-the-world, China - where PapayaMobile is based - all Android phones sold by carriers remove Android Market, arguably the best distribution channel Android developers have. So what are developers to do when they have little to no knowledge about the local app store market in China? That's where social gaming networks can help."
Give me a winner
More generally, many of our mavens agreed with Christopher Kassulke of HandyGames, when he said that because of fragmentation and limited time, developers will just go for the network with best ROI, easiest to implement API, and the deepest social featuresets.
"Fragmentation is a huge issue for developers," he said.
"As developers/publishers, we have not only to take care about the different development platforms but also about social platforms, ad networks, in-app purchases, operator portals, app stores, etc. We can't integrate and support all of them. We have to focus. All developers/publishers will focus on the best ROI. Show me the money!"
Matt Tubergen from Recharge - a studio run by app promotion outfit W3i - concurred. "I agree completely with Kassulke in that the war for developers and content has just begun, except I think the war won't be just between social game platform and entertainment organisations.
"I think it's safe to assume that will soon start to see larger powerhouses (Microsoft, Google, VZW, AT&T) fight for users via existing and soon-to-emerge social game platforms."
Up for grabs
David MacQueen, of Strategy Analytics, argued the battle was just getting started.
"The advantage ngmoco, OpenFeint and Facebook Connect (if you count that as social gaming) have is they cut across gaming platforms and so perhaps have a greater chance of achieving critical mass. That will be a major factor in deciding the winners.
"With all the other platforms having some sort of built-in audience, the onus is on OpenFeint and Plus+ to woo developers and end users while they have a window of opportunity. Facebook Connect lacks gaming features, Apple's Game Center is a poor effort, and there is time before Xbox Live/PSN hits mobile in any serious way. However, stumbling now could be game over for these (previously) 'indie' platforms."
Richard Hazenberg, from Lunaforte agreed; "Users, regardless of device, enjoy sharing and competing with other mobile users. To tap into this desire simplicity and cross platform support are in my view essential."
He made an important point about customer ownership too: the very problem PC games publishers are facing with Steam - handing your community management over to another company is a huge risk.
Mills from ustwo reckoned the social gaming market would be provide a winner-takes-all opportunity.
"Whoever - GREE/OpenFeint / DeNA/Plus+ et al - provides developers with a platform which offers users true discoverability, cross platform support and decent monetisation will win. Whether that win equals real money is another question."
He also pointed the finger at Apple, which "keeps throwing curve balls in this business (Game Center, no more download incentives etc). It really needs to come up with something compelling and real that lasts."
Singing to the choir
Michael Schade from Fishlabs is already happy with OpenFeint however.
"From a developer perspective, OpenFeint rules because it is cross platform, open for developers to implement seamlessly into our games and last, but not least, backed on some 100 million subscribers. Its Free Game of the Day and FireSale promotions really move the needle."
He also expressed hopes for Sony's PSN integration extending across all platforms and put the boot into proprietary networks such as Gameloft LIVE! or Chillingo's Crystal.
"I don't see a great future for any publisher-owned social gaming network as there are always conflicts of interest for third party titles on the one hand, and not enough punch to compete with Xbox Live on one side and OpenFeint's install base and openness on the other," Schade stated.
"Personally, I don't bother anymore what's going on Facebook but kicking my friends' butt on Xbox Live or OpenFeint does!"
Fragmentation is always with us
Herocraft's Matt Meads was a dissenting voice, suggesting different social gaming networks appeal to different user types. "There's a world of difference between Facebook Connect or Twitter API integration and pure social gaming networks like Open Feint," he argued.
"I think the users are different in their uptake of technology and social media." In particularly, he wasn't convinced that social gaming had yet proved itself more than a trend.
"The longevity of social gaming depends greatly on its ability to self-regulate and avoid saturation or over subscription," he said.
Kevin Dent of Tiswaz drew related parallels from his console, browser and mobile experience.
"I see the engagement traffic for a number of games and how the end user interacts," he stated.
"Generally there's an initial curiosity in the social aspects of a game and then a disengagement. Whereas in the console and browser space, the player remains engaged far longer. From the data I have built up over the last number of years, I've seen players on mobile play for an average of 10-20 minutes, whereas on console that number is around the 90 minutes mark."
Dent also raised a caveat about Apple - "It has never really played nice with third parties such as Tapjoy, Flurry, Adobe, Google etc.
"The real question is what happens if and when Apple bans these social platforms because of Game Center, and will Google follow suit and release its own platform? The answer is strategically it has to."
Grab a silo
Bolt Creative co-founder Dave Castelnuovo reckoned horizontal consolidation was pretty much irrelevant but that social networks will, like Steam, consolidate vertically with other mobile game service providers.
"I think each platform will continue to expand on the services they have now; tournaments, ladders, better multiplayer support, virtual goods support," he stated.
"Most of these platforms already have these pieces but the support and ease of use will get better. Analytics are already finding their way into these platforms (and getting better). I can see some of them starting to implement ad networks and offerwall-type services like Tapjoy. Millions of developers already have these SDKs implemented; you are removing a big barrier to entry if a developer doesn't have to add a new SDK in order to activate a cost-per-install campaign."
Tony Pearce, of just launched social game recommendation portal TeePee Games, agreed with Castelnuovo but drew a different conclusion.
"I'd say that what's next is incredibly hard to predict, as the whole phenomenon has demonstrated so many twists and turns, along with explosive growth for some, with abortive attempts for others, which makes the sector incredibly exciting to be working, yet near impossible to foresee where it's going and very difficult to forecast against.
"Consolidation is often the sign that an industry sector is maturing, so GREE's purchase of OpenFeint is actually very encouraging as an indicator of how viable cross-platform social connectivity (even if it's 'just' connected scoreboards, friends, achievements and the like) is as a business."
Cash and the network
Joony Koo from Korean publisher Com2uS provided some information about the Japanese mobile market.
"Users spend $3 to 10 per month on in-game currency to spend playing free games via a unified identity," he revealed.
"That's where the money is coming from to buy US mobile companies. Japanese mobile gaming publishers know the number of users is more important than downloads, because they have a strong belief they can monetise their user base. Add a social network and good analytics into the mix and a publisher with plenty of freemium games will be able to upsell and put its next game in that rank when a former game is starting to lose users.
"You only need 10 percent of your users spending on avatars and virtual currency to make real money if you have a user base of 50 million."
Get it sorted
But this week, we're going to end with some words from Jon Hare of Tower Studios, creator of Sensible Soccer, who painted a utopian vision of locking the social network and platform owners in a room, vaguely reminiscent of a certain manifesto written 160 years ago:
"As developers, we don't care who wins the mobile social network war, as long as someone does," he argued.
"The problem for us is that the best solution would be properly cross platform, although clearly Apple, Nokia, Samsung, Microsoft, Sony Ericsson, etc. are in the box seat to drive the social networks on their own platforms and are clearly never going to voluntarily opt to play ball with each other.
"This in a nutshell is the curse of the free market, where the economic interest of several vying super powers always has the upper hand over practical common sense. If, ten or twenty years ago, all console, computer and mobile companies had pooled together to work to a common delivery system for downloadable games, monetisation solutions and social networking systems, just imagine what could have been achieved by now.
"The reality of the unnecessary competition between hardware platforms, delivery mechanisms, storage and user interfaces is so severe that even hospitals can't talk to each other properly and share our medical records, which is a bit more serious than our highscores.
"So, to solve the social network problem, I would advocate getting the leaders of all of the world's computer, console and mobile companies into a room and locking them in until they can agree on a bunch of reasonable technical cross platform parameters that they will agree to converge upon within five years and that after that time any products not conforming to such a system will be deemed not up to standard and removed from the market.
"The end result would be a permanently stable platform for us to develop on, allowing for far greater long term creativity and invention within software and real progress in the games world and beyond. At the moment on a global scale all that we are really doing with social networks and the like is simple fucking around."