The gaming landscape sure is different than from the days of Super Mario Bros. Games have evolved, from a one-way battle against artificial intelligence to split-screen and co-op missions, to totally interactive and engaging social occasions.
Today, so-called "social games" create an itch that needs to be scratched, and offer up paid in-game products as the calamine lotion (classic Don Draper line). They typically all use a similar structure and formula. For those of you unfamiliar, such games generally run on a freemium model.
Canada’s Big Viking Games’ Titus Ferguson summarizes it well: “Our revenue model is based on the ‘free to play with virtual goods to purchase’ model. That means that we give the games away and sell items and performance tweaks inside our games. A good way to understand this is to think about a theme park. Imagine it was free to get inside (no admission) and you could go on a few rides for free if you waited in line. But if you wanted to go on better rides, or skip to the front of the line you can pay a dollar for each time you wanted that.”
That’s why games like Zynga’s FarmVille have been struggling to grow their users lately. The whole family of products is too similar.
One possible solution is also one of the biggest challenges that social game companies like Zynga are facing right now: successfully making the transition from their reliance on Facebook to moving to their own platform. This would be the natural next step; after using Facebook to gain momentum and users, the games can afford to become less integrated with it and break out on their own.
Owning your own space has huge perks. For example, there are less transfer costs, less limits and restrictions, and more control on their part.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Zynga is already making the jump. Naturally, one of the main concerns is the mainstream user base. After all, Facebook is how they found out about Zynga’s games in the first place.
These social gamers are wired quite differently than typical gamers. Will they be willing to take the step off Facebook and travel to an independent platform to play the games they love? (On the flip side: Does it matter that some users will choose to leave?)
Most of their money is made from a small percentage of their users (affectionately dubbed “whales”). So Zynga’s focus needs to be on guiding these users over to their new platform.
Big Viking Games is choosing an alternative path. Instead of ditching Facebook, they’re supplementing it with an expansion to mobile platforms like iOS and Android. For example, they’ve got a mech battle game and a sports game in the works for their venture into the mobile medium.
“More and more handsets are coming online every days—especially in emerging markets like Asia, Africa and Russia. As well, payment systems on platforms like iOS and Android are better understood and dead simple—making it easier for people to pay for games and products in games,” says Ferguson.
This gives them the opportunity to add some diversity to their repertoire of games. Even if the structure is similar, the way the user interacts with the game will be quite different; going from mouse and keyboard to a more gesture-based interface can change the experience.
Big Viking Games is working around the whole problem that Zynga has experienced with their games by changing their mediums. The challenge for them lies with incentivizing and re-integrating the social elements that were so successful from their Facebook variants into these mobile versions of games.
Considering the ever growing app economy, and how Angry Birds has had 600 million downloads in just three years compared with Super Mario Bros’ 225 million games sold in 25 years, Big Viking Games is expanding into a potential gold mine. Keep an eye on them, or join their movement, as they transition into this frontier.