What Kristian Segrestrale’s departure could mean for EA’s social game plan

0f91dc9This week’s departure of Kristian Segrestrale, the last Playfish founding executive at Electronic Arts, marks a turning point for the company that could shift it away from the Facebook platform. Here’s a look back at how the social game ecosystem has changed for Playfish following its 2009 acquisition.

EA at one point was viewed in the industry as the example of how mainstream publishers could successfully straddle the lines between social, mobile and traditional games. This was, in large part, due to EA’s $400 million acquisition of Playfish in 2009. It was a smart investment, as Playfish was one of the major presences in the early days of social games with user numbers on par with Playdom, Crowdstar and Zynga.

The benefits of the acquisition went both ways with EA gaining an experienced Facebook games developer and Playfish gaining access to major brands like MLB, Dragon Age and FIFA. For a short period of time, each of these Playfish-managed titles performed well in MAU and DAU rankings, but they lacked staying power beyond about 12 months. Meanwhile, the Facebook games ecosystem began to change in ways that made it harder for Playfish to maintain their position in the leaderboards. First, the platform cut back dramatically on the viral channels available to social game developers to address quality concerns. Then, the mandatory introduction of Facebook Credits throughout the spring and summer of 2011 made it more confusing for people to purchase virtual goods — because first they had to buy the platform currency and then spend it within specific games. Moreover, a player could spend Credits on any game they wanted instead of just purchasing Playfish currency that could only be spent in Playfish games. Toward the middle of 2011, as Zynga moved closer to its initial public offering, it came to light that Facebook was providing exclusive advantages to the developer (which while Playfish may have known about all along, likely came as a nasty surprise to EA). (more…)

The biggest surprises of 2012 in social and mobile gaming

2012 was a major year for the social and mobile games industries, with huge moments like  the legal battles between Zynga and developers like EA and Kixeye, the shutdown of kompu gacha mechanics in Japan and the expansion of major game brands onto these platforms. As the year comes to a close, each of us here at Inside Social Games and Inside Mobile Apps are looking back and noting what we found to be the biggest surprises.

AJ Glasser

Angry Birds Star Wars was a big surprise. Given all the iterations of Angry Birds out there, it didn’t seem Rovio could come up with a lot of canon-relevant bird powers, but — particularly after the Hoth update added a Leia bird — the game proves itself to be both relevant and entertaining

Pete Davison

My biggest surprise is the success of Rage of Bahamut in the States — the game is still riding high in the Top Grossing charts right now, meaning that people are not only playing it, but they’re spending money on it. This is particularly surprising given Rage’s many glaring flaws: it’s a game with a slow, cumbersome Web-based interface, a complete lack of sound and simplistic, repetitive and frankly rather dull gameplay, yet it resonates with people enough for them to be willing to put money into it. It has also inspired numerous other developers to try and repeat its success to little avail — despite, in many cases, these rival titles providing a vastly superior experience for players.

Kathleen De Vere

The big surprise for me was Japanese hits flopping in the United States. GREE’s Driland was a total flop in North America, but has been the most popular and profitable ard battle game in Japan for a long time. Puzzles and Dragons also seems DOA. Meanwhile Rage of Bahamut is a mega hit here after being only a middling hit in Japan.

Mike Thompson

The biggest — and most disappointing — surprise for me was SimCity Social. This was billed as Electronic Arts’ next big social hit after The Sims Social. After all of EA’s bravado about how the game was going to give players an experience that was “more city, less Ville”, we realized the play experience was certainly polished but pretty much the same as any other citybuilder (and it wasn’t any more impressive six weeks later). I clearly wasn’t the only player who got bored with the game, as it peaked in July with 1.8 million daily active users and quickly started to lose traffic (it’s now at 430,000 DAU). Another disappointing piece of news this year was that EA recently revealed it killed or delayed 10 social games at it switched to mobile; that makes sense following SimCity Social’s high-profile launch and subsequent floundering.

Emanuel Maiberg

The biggest and most pleasant surprise of the year for me was that social and mobile game developers are actually making an effort with bigger, more ambitious projects. Between Zynga publishing Horn and Respawnables, nWay’s ChronoBlade, Rumble Games’ KingsRoad and many more titles of an equally impressive scope, it seems that developers and publishers in the mobile and social space are no longer content with simply rehashing the same word and management sim formulas (which we still have too many of). I’m afraid that, as is the case in the AAA console titles, many of these teams will not find financial success but I am excited to play their games in 2013 and see how they push the whole industry forward.

Guest Post: Social and mobile convergence will lead to better games

Editor’s Note: Inside Social Games has been quietly expanding its coverage to include mobile games with social features, as the social and mobile sectors are becoming more and more interconnected. As a result, the concept of “social games” is continuing to be redefined. The following guest post was written by Anil Dharni and Ken Chiu of GREE and provides perspective on the convergence of mobile and social games.  Dharni serves as Senior Vice President, Studio Operations and Chiu is the company’s Senior Vice President, Games Studio. Dharni was the President and COO of Funzio, which GREE acquired in May 2012. Chiu left Zynga to co-found and served as Funzio’s CEO.

In today’s world, the words “social” and “mobile” go hand-in-hand. We are seeing social and mobile become more mainstream and are crucial components of any game trying to achieve widespread adoption and success. There is no doubt that mobile games with robust social elements will be leaders in entertaining, engaging, and ultimately retaining loyal users. With users becoming more and more sophisticated, the bar will continue to get raised  in terms of production quality, graphics, and game-play — forcing game-makers to be more innovative in their development. (more…)

Come on, DC: Give Batman his own social game

When it comes to comic book characters, you can’t get much bigger than Batman. He’s been on television (in one animated series or another) since 1992, his last three movies have grossed $2.2 billion worldwide and there are currently 13 “Batman Family” comics in publication. Oh, and his public figure page on Facebook has 5.7 million Likes. So why isn’t there a Facebook game starring the Dark Knight?

Despite his widespread popularity and marketing power, the Caped Crusader has been notably absent on both social and mobile platforms. The only game to show up on in the immediate search results on Facebook is what appears to be a clone of the Flash title Batman: Gotham City Rush. Meanwhile, the only recent Batman games on iOS  are Batman: Arkham City Lockdown (a tie-in for October 2011’s AAA game, Batman: Arkham City) and Gameloft’s licensed version of The Dark Knight Rises. User reviews of these reveal similar experiences: Despite very strong artwork and presentation, there’s a number of complaints about shallow/buggy gameplay.

Superman hasn’t fared any better. In spite of his popularity and next summer’s film, Man of Steel, he doesn’t have much of a presence on Facebook either. The only game showing up in iTunes searches is Chillingo’s eponymous Superman (which launched in November 2011); the majority of reviews we’ve seen note that the game is fun, but nothing noteworthy thanks to its shallow plotline and mechanics.

It’s not like DC hasn’t had an opportunity to leverage a social game based on the DC Universe in a timely manner. The Dark Knight Rises was one of the most anticipated sequels of all time when it came out in July, but the only game treatment it received was an advergame called The Fire Rises; the title used Facebook Connect to login, but used the movie’s IP so little that it was nearly impossible to tell it was a Batman game.

By contrast, Disney-owned Marvel Comics has been hitting home runs in the social games scene. Marvel: Avengers Alliance stormed up our weekly gainer charts thanks to all the marketing it received from this summer’s The Avengers film (which is now the No. 3 grossing movie, worldwide). Likewise, we’ve gotten a preview of what the company is planning to do on mobile devices and we’re very excited about what’s coming in the near future.

DC’s vaults are filled to the brim with iconic characters like Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, not to mention countless others. Characters like these are arguably more prevalent in pop culture than Marvel’s own big names — including Spider-Man.

So why isn’t DC jumping onto the social/mobile bandwagon? There are a number of possibilities, but the biggest is probably the fact that DC’s got a mixed success rate when it comes to video games. In spite of some major successes lately, DC is still sporting some pretty ugly black eyes from its previous video game efforts. In fact, three DC titles often wind up on sites’ “worst games ever made” lists: Superman 64, Batman: Dark Tomorrow and Superman Returns. Now that DC’s starting to get a reputation for great games thanks to Batman: Arkham Asylum, DC Universe Online and Batman: Arkham City (not to mention all the excitement currently being stirred up thanks to Injustice: Gods Among Us), developing high quality social and/or mobile titles seems like a no-brainer.

Back in 2010, Warner Bros. announced its Montreal studio would be focused on making lower budget social and mobile games. Why the company hasn’t decided to let casual gamers live out their comic book fantasies is, honestly, mind-boggling. Not only would games like these be dreams come true for most comic fans, they’d also likely be a license for Warner Bros. to print a near-limitless stream of money.

After all, if there’s one thing Bruce Wayne knows a lot about, it’s making lots of money. Well, that and fighting crime.

No, EA, you are not “standing up for the industry” by suing Zynga

Earlier this week Electronic Arts COO Peter Moore talked to Eurogamer about his company’s lawsuit against Zynga over The Ville. One of Moore’s biggest points — which has made a lot of headlines since — is that EA is “standing up for the industry” by taking Zynga to court.

Moore’s statement mirrors an earlier claim by GM of EA’s Maxis Label Lucy Bradshaw, when she said, “By calling Zynga out on this illegal practice, we hope to have a secondary effect of protecting the rights of other creative studios who don’t have the resources to protect themselves.”

What Moore (and the rest of EA) isn’t willing to address is just how potentially damaging this lawsuit could be to video game industry at large if it actually sees the inside of a courtroom. While EA claims Zynga copied exclusive elements from The Sims Social when it created The Ville, the complaint also alleges Zynga copied things like the game’s customizable skin tones and isometric camera perspective. Mechanics like these are present in more games than can be counted, so what happens if they’re considered evidence in this suit?

In a worst case scenario, this could open a legal Pandora’s Box. If legal precedent is established that lets companies claim ownership of mechanics, it could very easily lead to developers taking each other to court in order to engage in patent trolling. Maybe the next step would be EA going after developers who’ve created city-builders, since SimCity pretty much created the game type. Or perhaps Taito will start filing lawsuits against groups like King.com and Peak Games over their success with bubble shooter games after Puzzle Bobble popularized the genre. Based on this train of logic, Atari could probably be able to take everybody to the wall. It also bears noting that EA is already on the receiving end of similar legal trouble as one of the named defendants in Gametek’s recently-filed patent lawsuit over virtual currency and goods.

It’s no surprise EA was unhappy when The Ville launched, as the similarities between it and The Sims Social were immediately obvious. Of course, this isn’t the first time Zynga has been accused of cloning (or “fast-following”) a successful social title, and even when the company’s been publicly called out for the behavior in the past it’s showed no remorse. However, this is the first time that Zynga poked a proverbial bear as large as Electronic Arts, which has to prove to both the public and its shareholders that it will fight to protect its intellectual property.

Based on public reaction, one would think that EA taking Zynga to task for its shenanigans was so delicious that it just had to be fattening. EA’s been continuing to win the general public over by making the company seem like the kid on the playground who finally stands up to the bully stealing everyone’s lunch money. It’s certainly a smart tactic: Lots of mainstream gamers and developers we’ve talked to are rooting for someone to take Zynga to the cleaners and make it much more difficult for them to continue their fast-follow practices in the future.

It’s a brilliant piece of spin, but let’s address the gorilla in the room. EA isn’t standing up for the little guy. EA is standing up for EA, and EA’s interests just happen to run parallel to those other companies who feel they’ve been wronged by Zynga in the past. We know it, and EA knows we know it.

The problem is that EA doesn’t seem to realize — or perhaps care about — is how it’s making game developers much more tempting targets for patent warfare. If that happens, we all lose.

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