Three reasons social gaming on Facebook is declining

Over the past couple of weeks there’s been some focus on the fact that Zynga, maker of social games such as Farmville, had a big decline in users during May. Back in January we predicted some fatigue with those games, albeit in the context of ongoing big growth. The decline for Zynga and its flagship Farmville tend to shine a light on a number of issues that need to be resolved, particularly within Facebook:

1. The Spam Driver

One of the key components of the Facebook-based games has been the promotion of achievements within the game on a user’s Wall. Anyone who’s used Facebook knows this only too well, and the backlash has been considerable, to the point that back in February support this was hobbled. Fast forward a couple of months and you have the widespread drop in numbers. A coincidence?

The old notification spam may have been as annoying as hell but it obviously drew in new players, like any spam-like activity will. It may not be missed, but it’s certainly one of the factors that’s hit social gaming fairly hard. The upside is it will force game creators to make games even more engaging – a better growth driver than spam. Of course, the spam isn’t totally gone either – it’s just simpler to suppress.

2. WoW Without The Wow

Usng Farmville as an example, I only needed to play it for a couple of hours to realise how closely it’s modelled on an MMO framework. Everything from the grinding ‘quests’ and achievements system, through to peer competitiveness and in-world currency. The trouble is, Farmville doesn’t quite have the thrill factor of a hard core MMO. It’s not a fair comparison, but the point is that it’s hard for Farmville to keep innovating so that the endless tasks don’t seem frustrating or even pointless.

I’ve spent many an hour doing pointless / frustrating things in World of Warcraft for example – but it didn’t seem that way as there was always an enticing goal at the end of it. Sure, Farmville offers bigger an better houses / sheds / farming equipment but it wears thin pretty quickly. The challenge for social virtual worlds, like gaming more broadly, is keeping it interesting, and it seems there’s still some work to do. There’s also the issue these social worlds aren’t truly socially interactive: when my avatar can chat and farm with my neighbour, then I’m starting to get interested again.

3. The Trade Embargo

Whether it’s Second Life, World of Warcraft or Entropia Universe, one of the keys to their success has been the ability to make money as well as spend it. In some cases that can translate to hard currency – in others its the ability to earn virtual currency from selling goods that are no longer useful or have been created by their original user (here’s a great post on the growing focus on content creation). Sure, in Farmville you can do some limited selling but it’s the finesse of the more mature platforms that provide a lot of the enjoyment. When I can make decent amounts of real or virtual money in a fair way in a social world, then I’ve got even more incentive to stay there. Money isn’t a driver for a lot of people, but it’s more the link between that money-making capability and a more intricate community that makes the difference.

A reversible decline

All the issues discussed above are evolutionary ones to some extent – as social gaming continues to improve then one can hope their interactivity, creativity and overall engagement will improve also. I’m pretty confident the decline is a short-term one and to some extent a desirable one. Sanity checks like that can lead to better platforms and applications and that’s the way things appear to be heading.

Over to you: what are the gaps in social gaming that need to be filled?

Comments

  1. It’s a superb point Shava: there’s no doubt conversions to their own platform plays a big part in the strategy of companies like Zynga. Until they make the games more engaging though, they’ll still face some challenges methinks.

  2. Zynga's userbase on Facebook has declined — but has it declined on other platforms? Zynga is in the process of distributing themselves more widely (Yahoo, MySpace, iPhone,…) so the reduction may be out-migration to different social platforms.

    Also, I'll note that I've seen, myself, several Facebook games (City of Eternals and Kingory among them, both non-Zynga games, but Zynga games too….) move people off of Facebook gaming and onto web- or client-based strategy or MMO gaming.

    As a long time gamer, it's a really amusing process to watch, often involving repeated choked up cries of “I am not a gamer!” combined with increasing hours gaming, followed by a hunger for more complex games than Facebook's platform tends to foster.

    Facebook has scared the hell out of the games industry because they go broad rather than deep. But they're a feeder to the established game companies, much in the same way games like Club Penguin will be.

  3. There's not enough 'carrots' in games like Farmville — longterm achievable goals that a player can accomplish. You get to a point level-wise and go “now what?”. What really killed FV for me, though, was the performance of the servers are atrocious. Even with low settings on, my computer — which can handle 25 man WoW raids with mediumish settings at a constant 40-50 fps — screeches when I load up Farmville. I can only imagine how bad it is on a cheap netbook.

    The power of a thousand blinking calves will set your PC on fire!

  4. icewaterchrist says:

    I would like to be able to attack other farms in Farmville

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