Can Social Games Make More Money?

Brian ReynoldsSocial games attract tens of millions of players on Facebook and other networks, but compared with traditional PC and console-based games, they make a lot less money, a challenge impeding the genre’s growth. While millions of “hardcore” gamers willingly pay $60 per title and $15 in monthly subscriptions for an MMO like World of Warcraft, the average monthly revenue per user for even the biggest social games is estimated to be $1 to $2. When it comes to getting consumers excited enough to pull out their wallets, old-school game makers still have the advantage. Which is why I was so intrigued by news that social gaming giant Zynga recently hired veteran game developer Brian Reynolds as the company’s chief designer. Reynolds, lead designer on classic best-sellers Rise of Nations, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, and an installment of Age of Empires (one of Om’s personal favorites), is widely admired by gamers for making challenging and complex strategy titles like those. It’s also quite a leap for him, going to Zynga’s casual gaming world of titles like Texas Hold ‘Em and Fashion Wars. Then again, for social games to generate more sustained enthusiasm from players (and consequently, earn more revenue) it will probably take someone of Reynolds’ caliber to lead the way.

However, don’t expect Reynolds to create social game versions of Alpha Centauri and other hardcore titles he’s known for. “Trying to take a traditional game and ‘port it’ to the social gaming space would be a big mistake,” as he put it to me via email from his summer vacation retreat on Canada’s Tar Island. His goal instead is to take Zynga’s current model, and incrementally make existing games more fun.

A common problem with current social games, Reynolds said, is that they don’t make players’ choices interesting over time, instead “burying the player in tedious repetitive clicking.” The challenge is improving the games’ progression curve, so players get steadily increasing rewards (points, virtual money and items) to encourage continued play. He believes simply refining this would instantly make social games more fun to play.

As for social games that already are fun, Reynolds cites Mafia Wars, which he admires for its depth and variety of interaction, and its ability to foster play among a broad range of acquaintances. (That was crystallized best when his much older aunt, also a Mafia Wars player, posted: “Hi Brian – Thanks for the energy packs, I love you!” on his Facebook wall.) Another favorite, Scramble, helped reconnect him with an old game industry friend — who subsequently helped get him his job at Zynga.

In any case, he notes it’s become increasingly difficult to make games like Alpha Centauri anywhere. “Working in the traditional industry has started to feel like each year the lake drops another foot, at least for someone like me,” he said. “Traditional games cost more and more money to make, and at the same time it’s harder to actually get the money.”

Unsurprisingly, other industry figures from publishers like Electronic Arts (s ERTS) and Blizzard Entertainment have also migrated to social gaming. “I have no doubt that traditional games will continue to be made and that some will do well,” Reynolds told me, “but there’s no doubt that there’s a lot more growth in the social network area (and related areas like casual gaming), and I think we’ll see that trend continue for quite a while.”

Photo courtesy Zynga.