Liveblogging from Inside Social Apps, New York: Social and Mobile Game Product Design and Development

We’re liveblogging our Inside Social Apps New York conference. What follows is a paraphrased account of the panel “Social and Mobile Game Product Design and Development,” moderated by Inside Social Games Lead Writer Mike Thompson.

Panelists include Mike Sego of Gaia Online, Mathieu Nouzareth of FreshPlanet, Doug Scott from ngmoco and Robert Winkler from 5th Planet Games.

The panelists begin by discussing the opportunities presented by the rise of mobile games.

Mike Sego: The audience playing mobile games is more diverse. Our premise has been to develop games for gamers and for those that want to play high quality game on social and mobile platforms. This opens up a whole new opportunity on mobile where new apps and new game types are emerging all the time compared to social, where two of the top three grossing games on Facebook are FarmVille and FarmVille 2 whereas mobile is more titled toward hardcore and games for gamers.

Mike Thompson: Do you find fast follows or original development works better?

Doug Scott: All games are a mix of both. If you look in free to play, it’s a mix of what they love – what they know – and new things. If you don’t bring your creative process into the mix, you’ll always fall flat. I don’t think a straight clone of a game will ever really find true success in the market. It’s always about being inspired from things that exist in the market.

Rob Winkler: What’s always driven us is creating games we want to play. [Card strategy games] weren’t as prevalent on Facebook and mobile a few years ago.

Sego: Fast following has never been as rewarded on mobile as it was on social, but over the last year with the changing landscape for how games are discovered and how much higher the competition, the strategy of looking at what the current top grossing games are and then rapidly iterating on a near identical clone will almost certainly fall flat on mobile. The way that audience discovers games, they’ve already seen the leader — there’s a lot more attention focused in the same place for app discovery, so they’ve seen it already. The arbitrage game trying to acquire users for slightly less than you can make has been crowded out with increased cost of acquisition. If you’re not bringing something users are going to have an emotional connection with, something they’ll want to share… [it's not possible.]

Thompson: What would work on other platforms that wouldn’t work on Facebook?

Winkler: I think the things that really pushed social are set up to be more successful on things like Kongregate, where there are core gamers that aren’t there to post pictures or something. We built our games for Facebook, but we were pushing social features like building a clan system — a hybrid of realtime interaction in your social groups and games and rewarding players for being heavily connected. That really served us well when we pivoted off of Facebook. We put our games [on Kongregate] and they had this realtime chat feature and that [had] and instant effect on us and we had this direct feedback loop. It’s good and bad for sales, we’ve learned, but it’s good for the guild and clan features and the raids. That’s something we felt was lacking on Facebook. We have the number one game on Kongregate and we really felt the platform, the type of gamer on it, really connected with us.

Sego: A game that wouldn’t work on Facebook would be a paid app. That concept does not exist. I think ultimately if you’re looking for a game to have longer term retention and higher monetization, you want in-app purchases and social features. That’s the most dominant style of games successful on all platforms. Browser based games in general as opposed to mobile platforms — mobile has ubiquitous access, but odds are even with great connections, it’s tough to have a great synchronous experience on mobile. With a browser-based game, you see companies making it more realtime. I don’t think it’s just possible, I think it will be an emerging category of game in the coming year.

Thompson: Is there too much innovation on the Facebook platform for you to be successful?

Scott: I think you could argue whether it’s too ambitious — it’s easy to argue. You really want to get that game into people’s hands as quickly as possible. Part of the challenge is knowing where the market is going to go.

Sego: Traffic acquisition changes so quickly in the ecosystem that emerging categories that didn’t have games in them a year ago can be flooded in six months. I think in deciding to play it safe versus building something new, you have to understand your audience and develop for them, not just for yourself. What’s interesting about [mobile/social] is that so much of the development happens after launch. You’re developing something where you hope to have a conversation with users for months if not years. If you are running the risk of innovating too much, it’s because you’re developing too much in a vacuum and not listening to what your users want.

Mathieu Nouzareth: We’ve launched many games before SongPop, but they weren’t successful and then we made a game called Dreamland that was very innovative. It was OK, it was successful. But we decided to move on because it wasn’t working.

Scott: The most important thing is being able to move on when you find yourself in that position. Particularly in a freeplay environment it’s difficult to get around that direct feedback and you have to listen to it and be able to move on. The most important thing you can do in a category is embrace opportunities.

Thompson: Is it too late to get on the mid-core bandwagon?

WInkler: We’ve been in that genre for two and a half years now and I don’t think so. I think there’s still an appetite for it. It’s been successful for us and I think there’s quite a lot of room there — as Mike was saying, more synchronous play, more innovation. People are going to try new things. There are 3D first-person shooters on Facebook right now that have traction, but they’re just starting to pick up. And I think there’s still a lot of room.

Scott: I agree. It was “too late” to go after mid-core/hardcore audiences in 1984. There are a lot of great genres and a lot of great gaming experiences, so the genre is wide open.

Sego: There’s a lot of debate about what mid-core means. I think it was created in response in trying to define a game and its clones. If you build a game that’s identical to Kingdoms of Camelot, is it going to be successful? Certainly not. You can try to use the things that made it successful in your game design and create something new and fresh, and that would be successful because a lot of those things are sound, will support the gameplay. But I think of mid-core more broadly as games for gamers — those that enjoy competition and interesting decisions. It continues to be the largest opportunity in that sense, but if you define it too narrowly, you’ll end up with Mafia Wars but with another theme. And the ship has sailed on that. But if your thing is taking a game that was successful on other platforms in a previous decade and creating a polished experience for free to play or mobile, that’s a fantastic opportunity.

Thompson: We’ve heard people say social games are dying. Why are they wrong?

Nouzareth: Social, if you mean Facebook and mobile together, is doing well. Canvas is not, but otherwise, social games are doing well.

Winkler: I think too much of social games have been defined by what Zynga is doing by people on the outside looking in. But there’s a lot of other stuff out there.

Nouzareth: Zynga is declining, but King.com and wooga are growing very fast.

Thompson: What do you make of Adobe Air?

Nouzareth: I don’t know if you can do that with our space. Adobe is committed to making their products better and better. We can do very high quality games with our technology.

Winkler: We have had a good experience with them. It is great for porting a game that we already made and want to do a cross platform launch and can be synchronous. We’re not convinced adobe air is ready for this, but adobe is never going to be out of town. With our CCG’s, we’re not sure if it will be ready for what we want it to do.

Sego: For us, Adobe Air, it provides a solution to a problem we’ve had. we’ve built up the talent that built flash games because it was the main for web based games. you want to build on mobile so you can’t rule out android. for us, adobe is doing things that indicate that are moving in the direction of being everywhere.

Crowd Question: We are seeing people moving toward paid games. Do you think they will suffer from this?

Scott: I think that we are going to see everyone going to Free to Play. Thinking about the motivation, why people choose to pay can be positive and negative.

Winkler: I think it is important to find the right way to do it because if you do it the wrong way, the product ultimately suffers.

Sego: It is really interesting to hear the backlash on free to play games. Free to play developers aren’t learning. It can be painful to experience how developers nickle and diming their players. It is about having users pay for something that they enjoy. The different trade offs that developers have with how they structure their free to play games are something that need to be understood fully.

Crowd Question: What is you think about the barriers between console gaming and mobile games?

Winkler: It’s important to realize the genre. I’m not going to play a FPS on a mobile device.

Scott: UI is the biggest challenge, but it also presents an opportunity. It reminds me of back in the beginning of television when you see the virtual sticks on mobile FPS.

Sego: We’re not at a point where genres are figured out. It’s not about maxing out your number of polygons anymore, it’s the way you are having players interact with your games and how you design their interactions.

Crowd Questions: What are specific game design elements or mechanics that have been successful on Facebook or social and how have adjusted to mobile?

Nouzareth: Push notifications on both iOS and Android are useful.

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