Opinion: Signs Of Life, Maturity In Social Games

Amid an anxious climate for the most notable companies in the Facebook game space, major players on other frontiers are stepping up to create heartening signs of life for mobile and social play.
The Facebook gaming platform has never existed other than beneath a certain pall of anxiety. At first, it suffered from the perception that its games weren't "really" games. Then, once Facebook games were brought into the fold and accorded a grudging acknowledgement from the industry, they contended with being viewed as manipulative, cheap slot machines. Now the prevailing concern is that the intense, metrics-driven business exists in an unsustainable bubble. The market dominance of a few has made it impossible for the platform's offering to stay rich, some say, and it's getting harder for those few to continue acquiring and maintaining users amid long-term evolution for Facebook's viral channels. Zynga's highly-anticipated IPO on December 16 is a key waypoint for this anxiety, as the offering saw delays amid declines in the company's user base. Around the same time, a pair of high-profile articles about the consequences of the company's reported high-pressure environment -- disgruntled employees and stress over user attrition -- surfaced, helping contribute to the environment of uncertainty around the business for which Zynga is seen as bellweather. As the growth of Zynga's CastleVille, which is far and away its highest-quality title, fails to meaningfully offset the decline of its other games released to date, buzz and whispers wonder if the heyday of fast-growing Facebook gaming may suddenly choke on the end of its own chain. But if we accept naysaying and uncertainty is the order of the day for the Facebook space, then once again it may be too soon to assume a grisly crash is ahead. We're seeing the growing pains of a maturing platform -- one that has the opportunity to continue to grow even if Zynga itself is headed for a big market correction, as many seem to believe. The most heartening sign of this maturation is the interest of the traditional game development space in making social and mobile games that appeal to the core player. There is a multimillion-strong addressable userbase on social gaming platforms, and if casual or traditional paradigms are failing to hang onto them, it's this new and different perspective that can leverage its years of experience with tech and community to bring a breath of fresh air to the space. No matter what happens to the big social guys, and no matter how pessimistic some might be on the sustainability of those game models, developers that target a more "serious" gamer will continue moving toward the platform. Here are some reasons: It's a startup phase. The long, mature hardware cycle in the console space has created a boon for other sectors. The advances and challenges in traditional development begin to narrow, and the leaps-and-bounds excitement on which many creators thrive has plateaued. For some developers, this means the comfort and stability to pursue real innovation. For others, it means they're seeking environments where they can work with smaller, more independent teams to explore brand new ways of doing things. The mobile and social space offers many that opportunity, and news of mobile and social studios founded by experienced developers is plentiful: Former BioWare/Pandemic CEO Greg Richardson's young mobile and browser start-up just raised $15 million, and Chris Archer, formerly of Activision, has founded a studio that aims to bring the FPS genre to the Facebook platform. That's just news from this month. The quality advantage has begun to matter. The common criticism of Facebook games is their formulaic nature, as the bones of its business has historically been copying mechanics that work and keeping production values. But even Zynga, which gets much of the blame for shaping that aspect of the space, has a charming game in CastleVille. True, at its root it's still basically another Facebook game -- farm and earn, gift and click -- the look and feel of it is vastly beyond anything the studio has done. The art is wonderful, even stylish; the characters are whimsical, rich and a pleasure to look at. The visual and user interface quality bar on Facebook is ramping up feverishly, and the space better understands how to use tech on the platform. Not only will this raise user expectations, but it might also attract those accustomed to working in high-fidelity environments that might have been turned off the platform by the simplistic, cartoony flavor of its early entrants. Gamers are ready. The cultural war between passionate, engaged traditional gamers and Facebook titles has gentled some. That's because for all the players who might have scoffed at Facebook titles being too light, or who might have mistrusted their monetization strategy, use of social media has become a part of daily life. Players are so acclimated to the use of Facebook and smartphones for their social lives, and to making small content payments on traditional games that the stratification between Facebook games and what they'd call "real" ones is more of a gray area. Activision's major Elite initiative aims to wrap Modern Warfare 3 in a social network, the Infinity Blade games show off what AAA can do on the iOS platform, and nearly every developer at work on a major franchise considers creating a Facebook tie-in or mobile app to help players socialize around its property better. All of this cross-pollination means that gamers will be less hostile toward games on Facebook than before, especially if it's in a genre they find familiar or likeable. Perhaps the big guys on Facebook are struggling to sustain their growth, but the road they've paved to a mature, connected mobile and social gaming platform has created many opportunities for others. The social gaming space has an enormously bright future ahead of it.

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