Post GDC Thoughts

The 2011 GDC took place earlier this month, and although I didn’t attend the actual conference this year, I read up on several of the session summaries and caught up with several of my friends in the industry.  My biggest observation this year is how the developers view towards “social games” have started to change.

Last year, there were plenty of folks talking about how social games would become a fad, and games on facebook could not last forever.  Folks talked about how there were very little innovation and the games produced were very shallow.  Some even went as far as saying social gaming was one of the factor that put traditional gaming in a downturn.  Personally, I found those claims untrue, except the bit on games being shallow – which I agree.   I feel that the developers who said those things were the same developers that said Wii was a failure, and said it was never going to become a successful gaming system.   They were the words of developers!  Not designers.  Not entrepreneurs.

To me, a good game is one that “provides enjoyable experience to the audience”.   (Okay, whether you agree with me or not, let’s just go with that statement for now so I can make a point.)  Many of the claims against social games/Wii seems to have forgotten that there are much more audience out there than the traditional and hardcore gamers.   That is just absurd.   Let me give you an example.   My college friend Diane is married to a hardcore gamer, but she has never attempted a round of Counterstrike.   However, she threw a holiday party at her place few years ago, and the theme was Wii Sports Tournament.   And her friends, which include both non-gamers, casual gamers, and hardcore gamers, all attended the party and had a butt load of fun.

Here’s where the pundits would jump in and say, “She will never buy more than three Wii games EVER!   Compared to PlayStation and Xbox, that is just terrible failure.  That’s why no big time studios ever develop games for Wii!”

I say bullshit.  If this game system / game can CONVERT a non-gamer into an occasional gamer, that is a successful product.  We are not talking about gamers who would read through gaming magazines and compare reviews.   We are talking about girls who probably used to nag at their boyfriend for playing too much Starcraft, and moms who used to tell their kids to put down the controller and go eat dinner.   To create a game that will allow them to break the traditional stereotype and truly give it a chance to enjoy – that is a freaking success.  An innovative, trend setting, here-to-stay success.

Social games are similar in that sense, but they bring in even more innovation on many new grounds that traditional developers don’t understand.   Prior to Farmville, there had not been any blockbuster success for the virtual currency / F2P model in the United States.   Maple Story and Gunbound were great success stories (no pun intended) in Asia, but as recent as 2007, many game experts still debated on their viability here.   Through a metrics driven process, Zynga went on to figure out all the subtle pain points, appointment mechanics, and viral technique that made F2P a reality.

I think developers need to realize that having more successful business model and  opening up a larger pool of potential audience is key to the survival of the industry as a whole.  It doesn’t take a PhD to know that the traditional space is very saturated.   Developers, designers, and testers are overworked on a constant basis.   Studios are constantly at publishers’ mercy and there is little stability in most projects.   I’m sure most of you developers out there have been through at least one project that did not get shipped for one reason or another.

But now, if developers have a way to quickly get into market with very strong monetization potential, they can free themselves from the big guys because they no longer need large capital to reach positive cash flow.   The F2P model and untapped group of new gamers (the stay-home moms, the office secretaries) combine to give the game industry a new life line.   It’s no wonder that many big names in the industry have been moving over to the new fertile ground over the years – John Pleasants (ex EA COO), Mark Skagg (Red Alert), and recently John Romero (Doom, Quake).   Even Cid Meyer is working on a Facebook version of the Civilization, one of the most successful video game franchise of all time.

This year, the developers seem to have changed their attitudes a bit towards social gaming.  Maybe it’s due to the fact that well known guys from the traditional space are moving to social space.   Maybe it’s the fact that social games have been sustaining their success for yet another year.   Or quite possibly, it’s simply due to the fact social game studios are the ones giving jobs to traditional space developers/designers who were laid off from abandoned projects and closed down studios in this past year.   But I’m glad that developer community is finally starting to tolerate – although far from embracing – this distant relative that just arrived at the family dinner table.

Maybe now the community can focus on taking the lessons learned thus far from the pioneers and inject a dose of ingenuity to create a slew of fun, truly social, and financially viable games.   We are all on the same team guys!

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