Archive for April, 2008

Activision CEO says Facebook is a threat to games – we think it’s an opportunity

April 25, 2008

We were interested to read comments yesterday from Activision CEO Bobby Kotick, in which he suggests that “figuring out how to make the game experience more fun than any one of a hundred Facebook applications is going to be a challenge”. Not least because they come hot on the heels of views expressed by EA’s Kathy Vrabeck earlier this month on the impact of social networking – “Many of the games we make in 2020 won’t look like games and maybe won’t even be called games”.

These two separate comments show the dilemma faced by the games industry when it looks at the emerging social games market. Is it a threat to ‘traditional’ gaming, or an opportunity? Social games are certainly providing competition for people’s attention, if not a significant part of their monetary spend yet. But It’s surprising that Kotick sees it as a threat rather than a growth opportunity.

Everyone talks about the successes of the Guitar Hero franchise (14M+ units sold) and the Wii (25M+ units sold) as evidence of successfully broadening the appeal of games. But even these still require a substantial investment in game specific hardware. The games industry has so far only paid lip service to the tens of millions of players who may not buy game specific hardware but who do spend a lot of time hanging out on social networks playing games with friends. And many of the games they play have so far been pretty basic in terms of presentation and design – surely a great opportunity for companies who year in year out produce tens of titles of high production values for other platforms.

Of course, as we have experienced ourselves, getting into social games from traditional games is challenging for lots of reasons. You need to code in Flash, which a lot of game developers frown at. You have to think and operate like an MMO publisher, in the way you’re not just creating games, you’re maintaining and optimizing them over time, too. You have to “design backwards” for social interaction rather than solitary enjoyment. And of course, micro-transactions or advertising driven business models are very different from (and potentially incompatible with) getting people to pay upfront for boxed games.

Still, whether they see it as an opportunity or threat, the ‘traditional’ games industry will react to the social games phenomenon sooner or later. It will be interesting to see what form that reaction will take!

Kicking off in-game advertising in Who Has The Biggest Brain?

April 14, 2008

Who Has The Biggest Brain?

Just as Who Has The Biggest Brain? is approaching the two million installs mark on Facebook, you might have noticed our first steps into in-game advertising, courtesy of Google.

In the US that means short rich media (ie, video) ads, while in other parts of the world it means static images or text. The ads are placed at the end of the game, just before you start another session – an “interstitial” in industry speak. Why? We believe in giving players YouTube-like instant access to game play rather than forcing people to sit through an ad before they can play or having a set of distracting banners around the game. Rich media ads at the end of the game however provide a nice short break before the next intense gaming session to beat your friend’s score. Plus we think they’re pretty cool too!

These are early days – we’re still experimenting and considering different ways of allowing for sponsorship in social games which are both efficient for advertisers and enjoyable from an user-experience standpoint.

Let us know what your thoughts are! And now, back to the lab…

Fake Facebook reviews aren’t such a big problem

April 11, 2008

We love the app review system on Facebook. It’s one of those things that makes the social games space so different from traditional video games. Forget cosying up to review sites and journalists to get the all-important reviews to fuel the distribution of your boxed product: on Facebook, you get this from users posting their scores.

What happens when those user reviews are fake, though? There’s a lot of discussion around this issue at the moment – as shown by this post on the allfacebook blog – while Facebook has reiterated that “application developers cannot trade positive reviews or collude with others to post, incentivize, or otherwise ‘game’ the posting of negative or positive reviews”.

There’s also discussion around spam, where a proportion of reviews are actually adverts for external sites. We’ve seen the latter with Who Has The Biggest Brain?, where out of the 100 most recent reviews, around nine are spam, hardly making an impact on its average score (4.5 out of 5 from around 900 user reviews). There are applications out there with high amounts of reviews from mysterious people with only one or two friends on Facebook, but over time those should be easy to detect and root out.

No game review system is perfect – it’s either influenced by relationships, ad-spend or, as in this case, inadequacies in the spam/fraudulent review filters. However, Facebook has been very thoughtful about this area, staying cautious in giving reviews much of a weighting in its system until the feature is more mature. In the meantime, user reviews are giving us great feedback in a quantitative form, complementing the comments we get on the forums.

Scrabble versus Scrabulous Facebook fight will show whether brands matter for social games

April 8, 2008

There’s been speculation in recent weeks that RealNetworks would buy the Scrabulous Facebook application, but the company has actually taken a different approach, launching an official Scrabble by Mattel game on the social network. Due to tangled licensing issues, it’s only available outside the US and Canada, and for the moment it’s in beta.

From our perspective as a social game publisher, this is really interesting, as it’ll provide a good data point on how important brands are for social network games, as opposed to product design and quality.

Brands have always been important in the console and mobile games industries, as they allow consumers to choose something they recognise and trust when faced with a number of titles in the same category. And of course, brands provide more marketing channels for a game when it launches.

This is why some second-rate branded games have managed to be financially successful, especially on new platforms. In fact, the importance of brands has actually helped entrench the market share of large publishers on console and mobile.

We think this might be different on social networks.

Our first game, Who Has The Biggest Brain?, is currently the sixth most popular on Facebook, with more than 250,000 daily unique players. But more than 90% of its distribution is viral, since our new players don’t choose the game from a list – it’s sent to them by their friends. So, assuming they trust those friends, it’s unclear whether a brand or related marketing will have any impact.

In other words: your friend decides to invite you to play a game or not, and you either trust that invitation or not. It shouldn’t really matter if the game is branded – only whether it’s fun enough for you to invite friends.

At least, that’s the argument. But the launch of Scrabble is the first time we’ll be able to make a direct comparison between similar branded and unbranded games, and so get some clues on what kind of companies will be successful in the social games market. The Scrabble by Mattel game currently has more than 2,400 daily active users, compared to nearly 630,000 for Scrabulous – but of course, it’s early days.

We’ll be following the competition with interest!

Who Has The Biggest Brain? breaks into the Facebook games top-10

April 3, 2008

cube.gifThe past few weeks have been pretty significant for Who Has The Biggest Brain? Our competitive brain trainer reached 1 million installs as well as breaking into the Facebook games top-10 by active users (235,000 today). It’s currently at #7 chasing the likes of Scrabulous and Texas Hold’em Poker!

It’s great to be in the top-10 less than 100 days after launch, but at Playfish we’re even more excited about the engagement the game is generating. Who Has The Biggest Brain? generates more than 1 million games played per day, with active users playing for around 25-30 minutes per day. Compared to the average time spent by Facebook users of around 20-25 minutes a day on the site we think our figures are pretty significant.

We might not be at the level of the 50+ minutes a day racked up by the average user of casual games portal Pogo, but we’re still encouraged by our progress so far. It’s also been fun seeing Who Has The Biggest Brain? Become an object around which people interact socially, with some intense bragging and discussion about techniques going on in the forum.

Our data provides an interesting counterpoint to Reuters’ recent article on how ‘social networks need to be useful to make money’, which was pretty down on “lightweight” games in favour of more “practical” applications like stock quotes and booking tickets.

We’d argue that successful social games are anything but lightweight, especially when the social features are truly integrated with the gameplay. What do you think?

screenshot_1.jpg who has the biggest brain (missing sign)

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