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?

Virtual goods – endless growth?

farmville Over the past year, the hype around virtual goods as the next big thing has continued unabated. Like the hype surrounding virtual worlds, it’ll eventually ease off, but underneath that is the reality of the very significant growth that is continuing. Two recent announcements have really emphasised that growth.

The first comes Ning, who now claim to host more than 1.6 million social networks. They’ve launched Ning Virtual Gifts. Pretty much anyone can create their own gift and sell it or buy someone else’s to give as a gift. Nothing particularly new there, but Ning’s size makes it one of the more interesting market tests for monetised virtual goods.

The second interesting development comes from social game creator Zynga, who has confirmed that US $487,500 has been raised for the welfare of children living in Haiti, via the sale of virtual sweet potato seeds within the Farmville game for Facebook. More than 56 million Facebook users play Farmville each month, with 50 million users playing one of Zynga’s social games daily. For mine, the combination of fun and social good has always been one of the best hooks for involvement and Zynga are proving that in a big way.

What these two examples have in common is proof of the widespread adoption of virtual goods. Virtual environments like Second Life have demonstrated the power of virtual goods for years, but the social gaming sphere and upcoming worlds like Metaplace are speeding up the rate of adoption through simple, intuitive interfaces that in some cases are also doing good in the real world. Of course, nothing grows endlessly, but if anything is likely to exceed post-hype expectations, it’ll be the virtual goods you pay small amounts for, in the pursuit of some casual fun.

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