Social gaming, in particular gaming on Facebook, is one of the most exciting areas in tech right now. Zynga, the uncontested industry leader, has gone in just a few months from obscurity to a 10-figure valuation, while established companies like Electronic Arts are putting serious resources into the space.
One thing that developers haven’t done much of on Facebook is releasing games that are actually good.
Don’t get us wrong — FarmVille is a great product; it has more than 80 million monthly active users, after all. But the gameplay isn’t about to earn rave reviews from gamers, because it’s mindless, and because it is almost identical to hundreds of other Facebook games. These games succeed by being addictive and spreading virally, not by impressing the people who play them.
This isn’t purely a question of taste, either; it shows up clearly in the social gaming business model. Successful games in this space attract numbers of users that are absolutely staggering by the standards of traditional gaming platforms like consoles, PCs, and handheld devices. But only a tiny fraction of those users ever pay a dime for the pleasure, and those who do don’t pay all that much.
A handful of creators think that there is a huge opportunity here to present the massive audience for Facebook games with serious game design. Making games with more depth costs money, of course, but the hope is that higher quality offerings will make more casual gamers willing to open their wallets.
A few of the notable efforts along these lines:
- The last time Stewart Butterfield tried to design a video game, he got distracted and ended up with Flickr, the popular photo sharing service he sold to Yahoo for (reportedly) over $30 million. He’s trying again with Glitch, a quirky take on massively-multiplayer online games that will run in your browser, including on Facebook. It’s still in private beta, but is scheduled for a full launch later this year.
- Luminary Sid Meier is working on a Facbeook version of his classic turn-based strategy game, civilisation. In a recent interview with Industry Gamers, he called Facebook “the new frontier” for game developers.
- Ohai, founded and headed up by angel investor, former VC, and serial entrepreneur Susan Wu, launched its first game, City of Eternals, a few months ago. The game combines some of the viral features and monetization strategies of traditional Facebook games with gameplay elements of massively-multiplayer online roleplaying games.
These are all very bright, talented people, so we hate to bet against them. And we’d love to see quality games succeed on Facebook.
But we’ll believe it when we see it. Zynga and its competitors know what they’re doing releasing the same game over and over. They don’t succeed in spite of this, they succeed because of it.
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