Saturday, August 14, 2010

Social Games are the new Coin-Ops

When I was a kid, the gaming landscape was probably pretty different to anything that many of you remember. For one thing, I’m old. Hopefully I’m older than you actually think I am, but honestly based on many of you that I’ve met at PAX, I’m old enough to be your dad. No really, I totally am. Secondly, I’m foreign. I write this from the perspective of being in America while not being American, so my assumption is that to you I’m “that old guy with the funny accent.” I do understand that there are plenty of Brit readers to GamePro these days, but for many of you, my personal history with video games probably differs quite substantially from yours.

I never owned a Nintendo as a kid. There you go, there’s my thermonuclear starting point. The first Nintendo device I ever had any prolonged exposure to was an imported Super Famicom at my first full time writing job in 1990. This explains my occasional on-again, off-again reputation on gaming forums as a bit of a “hater” when it comes to old-school Nintendoness. It’s not that I hate, it’s just that I don’t have that ingrained sense of Mario-centric personal history that many of you do. I didn’t grow up with Zelda, Square never had the opportunity to earn my blind faith, and my earliest “favorite Nintendo game” was, I dunno, probably F-Zero.

My personal gaming history comes in two distinct fruity flavors; home computers, specifically Atari home computers, and arcade machines. I’ll no doubt meander back to the former at some point in a future Friday editorial, but for the purposes of this week’s thoughts, I want to focus on the latter. Yes...there is a point that I’m getting at, and the clue is in the headline.

Some of my favorite gaming memories are of playing arcade games for brief moments with my dad. I say that the time we had was brief because a) I had limited exposure to them, so b) the money dropped into the machine rarely lasted very long. The place where I grew up in England is a small hamlet in the middle of nowhere in which there are probably more chickens than there are human beings. Most of the houses were built before America was even discovered, and there was only one general store within 15 miles. The nearest arcade was probably 50 miles away. Consequently, I only ever saw the fabulous coin op game technology of the late 20th century when on road trips or on vacation (that’s “holiday” in English.) When we visited my grandparents, we’d always stop at a “service station” (rest stop, I guess, to Americans) at which there’d be a handful of arcade machines blinking in a corner. It was here that I first saw Space Invaders, Pole Position, Gyruss, Battlezone, and the original Star Wars machine. My dad and I would put our money in, play for a few moments, and then gawp at the amazing graphics while wondering what it would be like to play something like that for longer than a couple of frantic minutes.

This was before the arcade business was completely obliterated by Nintendo, Sega, and later the original PlayStation, of course. This was 1980-something, when arcade machines were designed to relieve you of as much money as possible. They practically reached out and stole the coins right out of your jeans. Gameplay was tuned to be a little too hard, but no so hard as to discourage you from emptying your pockets completely. As an exercise in entertainment ROI they were fabulously effective. If you were vaguely competent, you’d survive long enough to feel a rush of excitement, and there was the constant social motivation of getting your three-letter name on the high score table for all (that cared) to see. Some people got really good at these games, but they still had to pour a ton of cash into the machines in order to become that competent.

By the mid-90s of course, all of this changed, and our gaming habits were altered forever by increasingly impressive home consoles. Or so we thought.

Skip ahead to 2010, and the coin op model is back with a vengeance. It’s not location based like that old Star Wars machine, and it’s not targeting those of us that are most interested in playing games, but it’s gobbling up attention at the edge of our collective comfort zone and drawing in millions of new “gamers.” (I’m using air quotes there, for reasons that will become clear in a moment.) As it does so, it’s causing the entire industry to take a long, hard look at how it asks us all to pay for our games, and it’s changing the way that many new experiences are designed.

What is it?

Social games.

There are plenty of examples that wander vaguely in the direction of my point here, but given that I’ve already tried to hold your attention for 807 words, I don’t want to push my luck.

First: At the Game Developers Conference this year, there was plenty of talk about this stuff. Social games were identified as being cheap and quick to make, and the importance of their “virality” was cited frequently. Part of this process was also identified as optimizing games for revenue opportunities - which means designing the game around the parts that will motivate you to pay for something that makes things happen sooner. Make your crops grow faster, make the thing you’re building appear sooner, buying mana/gold/fuel/mojo/awe to cause specific actions to happen quicker.

Second: That social motivation of getting your name on the high score table and having something to boast about has morphed into something quite different. One of the primary motivations in social games like Farmville or We Rule is shame. Because you’re inherently connected to people that you know, your performance is very visibly reflected in the upkeep of your game. You don’t want your crops going bad in Farmville, and you don’t want your minions looking all ragged in Godfinger. If you’re playing regularly and drawing benefits from the social aspects of these games, you need to keep up appearances. Doing so requires work, and in the absence of the necessary time to do all that work, you can spend real cash to speed things up. Genius, huh? As long as you’re super engaged in a game like We Rule, the likelihood that you’ll spend money on it increases because it’s preying on your available time, and your patience.

If you’re a hardcore gamer you’re probably looking at this and thinking “so what? How does that affect me?” Well, given the enormous success enjoyed by companies like Zynga, Playfish, and Crowdstar, the whole industry is starting to look at the psychology of this stuff, and wonder if it would be possible to make more money out of a return to what is, essentially, the coin-op model. Zynga, as has been widely publicized lately, is making several hojillion dollars a day out of its social games and is quickly becoming one of the most profitable games companies in the world. They don’t “sell” any of their titles - all of their revenue comes from encouraging players to pay a small amount of cash regularly. For a company like Activision, which never met a revenue opportunity it wasn’t afraid of exploring, this has to have them frothing when they brainstorm the future of franchises like Call of Duty.

The future of how we pay for games is nearly upon us. In part, it’s a return to the ways of the past, but it’s creeping up on us disguised as simple and innocuous social games that many of us don’t even think of as being video games to start with. Brace yourself.

This originally appeared on GamePro, April 23 2010


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