Industry Reset Buttons

The hot industry trend is evangelizing social games. Many took up this habit fairly recently, playing catch-up at shows like DICE last week. The Kosters of the world have been atop their social soapboxes for years.

The aspect I find interesting is that a number of, shall we say, developers of a certain age (such as Richard Garriott) are moving from big-budget studios to the social realm.

In addition to smelling all the dollars in the water, I posit that there is another element at work here. The relative simplicity of web and mobile development is reminiscent in many ways of the first big era of console and home computer games. A few guys in a room can build a game from start to finish and make ridiculous money doing so. Old guys like Lord British find themselves back in their comfort zone.

You tend to see these folks in blogs and interviews touting statistics and trends which support their theories, which is only natural; developers tend to write and give presentations that promote their world view. This is why you have to study developer blogs with a watchful eye, because you should assume they will frame facts in a way that supports their assertions.

For example, I tend to write about big-budget MMOs because that’s the kind of game I enjoy working on and playing. I certainly enjoy playing Peggle, but I don’t see myself ever taking a job to design such a game. I’d probably end up making a version of Breakout where each brick spits out a quest when you hit it and you use your paddle to catch falling pieces of epic loot. In other words, I’d sink my career.

I don’t begrudge anyone making or playing social games, though; it’s not my cup of tea, but I see no need to get snotty about it. I think social gaming is performing a valuable service to the industry by pressing a virtual reset button. While big-budget games and giant publishers continue to drive hardware evolution, ubiquitous platforms like Facebook and the iPhone will once again allow lean-and-mean development that proves you don’t need top-end graphics to make a fun game.

Needless to say, the more developers that jump on this trend, the more garbage consumers will be served. And, inevitably, social game development will balloon out of control and become just as muddy and expensive as the current generation of console games.

But that’s okay–a new industry reset button will come along soon enough. Game design is, ultimately, about pattern recognition.

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Steve Danuser, also known as Moorgard, is a a writer, editor, and game designer.

12 thoughts on “Industry Reset Buttons”

  1. I suppose just like iPhone apps, the good stuff eventually floats to the top and will set new standards that everyone will expect in order to put money down.

  2. Do you feel the audience for the big .exe client is shrinking? I made a comment on Twitter last week which Koster replied to, making that implication that (as he phrased it) “hardcore game designers” are finding themselves without an audience.

  3. In absolute numbers it is not shrinking it’s still growing. In relative numbers it most certainly is shrinking as a massive number of new game consumers are opting for casual/social fare. A lot of people tend to look solely at the relative numbers rather than the absolute one. MMOs that don’t hit millions of subscribers being deemed failures when it only take a couple 100,000 to be profitable are a prime example. Game development is not a zero sum game, just because social games are pulling in big numbers does not mean that the numbers associated with hard core games are correspondingly shrinking. What it really means is that games as a whole are pulling in money and eyeballs away other entertainment mediums as the worldwide entertainment budget is fairly zero sum.

    Having said that, budget costs for the big .exe market have been growing rapidly year after year, more rapidly than the their consumer market has been growing. There is only a finite amount of money in the audience pool and so it results in less games (with less innovation) which can look like a shrinking audience.

  4. What’s interesting Moorgard, is that you say you don’t see a reason to get snotty – but then you say that consumers will keep getting this “garbage” for years.

    The Facebook demographic LOVES these games. They’re not garbage to them. For me, personally – I think war strategy games are not my thing. But would I think that companies making these games are spewing garbage out to people – no. I think there is a demographic for all sorts of gaming, and social/casual gaming has a clear demographic that happens to be wider than the traditional gaming we all know and love (which is why people are talking about it…more customers = more potential to make money).

  5. hrm.

    “In other words, I’d sink my career.”

    no offense, honestly, but doesn’t that depend on how do you define career? seems like a “reset button” for the industry is the sort of thing i’d rather be at the forefront rather than the ass-end.

    i mean, if you asked me right now whether i’d rather own (hypothetically, of course!) zynga or ubisoft? um. i’d take zynga every. single. time.


  6. @Cuppy – You’re reading an awful lot into what I said. I wasn’t claiming all Facebook games are garbage. I’m saying that , just like when the Atari 2600 became the platform to make money on, new companies came out of the woodwork to cash in by flooding the market with sub-par games. The same thing will happen to every platform if the gatekeepers allow it. So yes, there will be tons of crappy social games. Even *you* couldn’t possibly defend them all!

    @Scott – I think it’s silly to think big-budget development will go away. Of course there is an audience, and will continue to be one. There continue to be enough success stories–crazy, huge success stories–for it to be otherwise. No matter how “indie” any entertainment industry gets, there are always big-budget budget players who spend lots and make lots.

    @m3mnoch – I was making a joke about what a terrible job I’d do designing a social game. I don’t get where your comment is coming from.

  7. “Do you feel the audience for the big .exe client is shrinking? I made a comment on Twitter last week which Koster replied to, making that implication that (as he phrased it) “hardcore game designers” are finding themselves without an audience.” – Scott

    Recent trends seem to back the assertion that gaming “enthusiasts’ (read: casual gamers) tend to stop spending money on games when times are tough while “gamers” (read: hardcore players) tend to continue purchasing games even when the money gets tight. The reasoning for this is dead on simple: For primary “hardcore” gamers, video games are a primary form of entertainment, whereas for more casual gamers it’s easier to justify cutting down on the gaming budget.

    Some major publishers/studios have made public announcements toward that effect already this year – that they’re looking to concentrate more on delivering quality products on the x360 and the PS3 while shifting away from the DS and Wii for many titles. The DS market in particular has contracted a bit (especially when faced with competition from the iPhone et al).

    Meanwhile, you’ve got some of the big players in Facebook/social gaming admitting to less than completely ethical methods to earn the phenomenal sums of money that their executives are swimming around in. Remember Mark Pincus sayin last year that he did “every horrible thing in the book” to make Zynga initially profitable:

    I knew that i wanted to control my destiny, so I knew I needed revenues, right, fucking, now. Like I needed revenues now. So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I dont know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it. *laughs* We did anything possible just to just get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business…So control your destiny. So that was a big lesson, controlling your business. So by the time we raised money we were profitable.

    I also recommend reading Michael Arrington’s excellent article “Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem of Hell” that he put up at TechCrunch last year. There’s a great explanation of some of the mentality behind many (not all) of the developers and publishers that are looking for quick turn-arounds now for minimal effort…at the expense of their own players.

    Sure, there are some good companies putting out some quality products. I know a lot of the folks over at Ohai and I’ve enjoyed playing in their City of Eternals alpha/beta so far. I think they’ve got something with that. I look forward to seeing how they monetize that and hope it makes a lot of them financially indepedent in the process.

    However, by and large, there’s a lot of shovelware out there in the ether – both in the iStore and on Facebook. As we hear about more devs striking gold, you’re going to hear about even more devs prospecting and laying down stakes. It’s inevitable. In the process, the market’s going to hit a saturation point … at least till the next big thing comes along. After all, just a few years ago, everyone was on MySpace…now even Twitter’s concurrent userbase seems to have plateaued.

    Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

  8. I think an industry reset is what the MMORPG industry are going through right now, but the public is still waiting for the developers to hit the reset button. Weak generic clones with item shops or MMO’s with subscriptions that aren’t really deserving of it, they just want a piece of the pie, recently these are that have been coming out.

    I don’t know how much money is in the social game industry, but I don’t get the impressions that it is a lot compared to the MMO industry. I see this move more as a personal career reset like the grass is always greener on the other side type of view.

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