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The impending curse of the sequel in social games

The social games sector, although extremely fast-growing is still relatively nascent; a fact that promises much in the way of innovation in terms of technical functionality and creativity. That’s great for users…almost every week they will be able to access several new, increasingly high-budget, incrementally more ambitious and expansive games. There is one issue on the horizon however; how will social games publishers handle ‘the sequel’?

At first prompt this doesn’t seem like a particularly radical problem. We’ve all grown up on sequels to all the major videogame franchises from Sim City, to Tomb Raider, from Grand Theft Auto to Call of Duty. Why would sequels in social games be a source of problems? What are you going on about Corti?

Well, think about it for a second. Bringing out a sequel to a massively successful console or PC game is a non-issue. You, the gamer, either get excited about the technically better, graphically more impressive latest incarnation of your favourite game IP or you don’t. You can choose to buy the game for circa £50 or choose not to. If you don’t purchase it then it isn’t as if someone turns up at your home, removes your old discs, deletes your game saves and your gamer stats. It’s an investment you can choose to make or not and there are no negative downside.

Now consider what happens when the likes of Zynga decide that the MAUs or ARPPU’s they are seeing from Farmville V1.0 no longer justify the ongoing hosting and support costs. Most likely the numbers will naturally fall to a small percentage of the peak usage numbers but I’d expect a still not insignificant number of people to play from time to time. If that was just 2% of the peak of circa 80 million, then that’s still 1.6million people. I’d venture that after a certain amount of playing, that users that did pay will no longer be paying and those that didn’t pay before are very unlikely to become paying users having already reached level 127. That means that Zynga would now be supporting a whole bunch of people’s play time; consuming bandwidth and cloud server resources that Zynga would be paying for. The freemium model may work when 3% of users are paying but it is far less attractive when only 0.3% are. That doesn’t, by the way, necessarily mean the game is no longer profitable. It just means that the resources required to support it would be much more profitably employed on a newer, fresher game.

Now imagine the reaction Zynga can expect when it announces, via an in-game pop up message that Farmville will be turned off in 5 days. Think how p*ssed off those 1,600,000 people will be when they realise that their sacred creations, upon which they have invested, quite possibly, many hundreds of hours and on which a proportion of these users (somewhere between 3 and 5%) have paid money to personalise or develop. Their farms are sprawling masses decorated with hundreds of multicoloured hay bales (carefully arranged in an assortment of personal homages to videogame and cartoon characters), carefully laid out fruit tree forests, ornate homesteads and vast collections of seasonal virtual goods. The people have spent a significant fraction of their awake time over the last year or so creating THEIR farms. They have a time, emotional and, quite probably, a financial investment tied up in that collection of on-screen pixels…..and now it is going to be taken away from them because Zynga is about to release Farmville 2.0 (beta)…the supped up 3D version that is, unfortunately, not compatible with v1.0.

If you’d spent £50 on Battlefield 2 and played it for online with your buddies for 800 hours, attained a whole bunch of Xbox Achievements and personalised gamer stats (“812 head shots, way to go Kev”) you are going to get pretty freaking narked if the publisher arbitrarily comes and confiscates your game disc and wipes your Xbox360 hard drive….but then this obviously won’t happen. This is, however, the coming eventuality for many dozens of social games that are currently played by tens of millions of devoted players….and those players are going to be seriously upset. If you doubt this then look up what happened when Zynga decided to shut down Street Racing, thousands of fans were up in arms, so much so that Zynga actually shut down their own support forum and deleted the complaints that their own fans had posted. Someone needs better PR representation there methinks!

Don’t think that this is some personal attack on Zynga. I merely hold them up as an example because they are by far the biggest publisher of social games and because of the Street Racing game example. Playdom shut down Lil Green Patch in May because it “only had around 364,000 players”. There are social games developers that would kill for those levels of MAU by the way!

Then, on 31st July this year,  Playdom also shut down Youtopia a city-building game they acquired when they bought the developer Hive7 for $33million in June this year. Youtopia’s demise didn’t quite bring about the fierce reaction that Zynga’s shutting down of Street Racing did but it still prompted hundreds of fan forum posts such as these below:

“Loved the game. Pity that the new owner are too dumb to realise what a gem they have killed. RIP Youtopia. you will be sadly missed. Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx”
“i loved this? why did you guys delete it? that is sadd. R.I.P. Youtopia.. :(“

The way that most of these users found out about this was through the pop-up message shown below. It hardly reads as a respectful and apologetic message to the fans of the game that Playdom presumably hopes to retain (and thus avoid significant CPA costs in replacing them with new users).

RIP Youtopia

RIP Youtopia

So that brings me back to THE SEQUEL…

In the first few years of the social gaming revolution there were an abundance of very similar games and brand-recognition was pretty poor. That is changing. Zynga is, for example, developing the Farmville brand as their merchandising tie-up with 7-Eleven and other deals illustrate.

Farmville cap

It is easy to imagine Zynga bringing out Farmville v2.0 ‘Beta’ in the next year or so to continue to leverage this internationally recognised game brand and who can blame them? Certainly not the collection of investors who have pumped over $500million into the company as it has grown.  Social games are iteratively and extensively enhanced over time to an almost unparalleled degree, but there comes a point where a software application cannot evolve further. Fundamental changes to form and function require ground-up, ‘root and branch’ rebuilds and when that happens v1.0 gets shut down and v2.0 goes live. Sure, the publisher can do it’s best to placate the last remaining users (1.6million?) with free FVnotes or Facebook Credits but there is little that they can do to recompense the true loss that these users will feel…and vociferously express across the internet. Such a situation brings the potential for an enormous amount of damaging publicity. Given certain publishers’ propensity to create and/or court controversy I’d say this is very likely.

The question then is how do developers and publishers handle the sequel situation in a way that avoids mass damage to the whole industry? How do we wean users off their favourite apps that we gave them for free then encouraged them to make optional payments for? How do we painlessly persuade them to discard their heavily personalised pride and joys?

One thing is for sure; that however we do it, we need to put aside the fact that 97% (or so) of our users are not paying customers and offer them all an equally higher degree of respect and transparency. We need to recognise that the psychological techniques we used to hook them on our games have consequences and that these can be a positive (direct, respectful and open discourse with our users) or a bad thing ( an army of irate users clogging support forums and attracting unwanted media coverage).

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Thomas Bidaux from ICOPartners published a nice and concise presentation about myths, real & perceived in the social gaming market. Worth looking at.

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