第1种猜想已经被今年的许多社交游戏所证实，其中包括《The Sims Social》、《CastleVille》和《Gardens of Time》等高生产价值游戏。而且Facebook切断了使早期游戏迅速成长的病毒性渠道，与2009年相比，现在开发商已更依赖广告来进行营销。这使得开发商现在需要花比之前更多的精力和金钱来制作游戏和营销游戏，影响到游戏的总体盈利。但是，第2和第3种猜想仍还没有事实依据。
根据Inside Virtual Goods收集到的数据以及AppData流量跟踪服务多个流量样式研究结果，我们了解到不少社交游戏的成长时间可能是发布后的三个月。但是，我们也发现了某些值得注意的案例，有些游戏的初始成长阶段超过3个月，而有些游戏的初始成长并非在游戏发布之后。根据Facebook收集到的数据和许多游戏开发者展开的自主调查，我们还知道了社交游戏的主要用户并非35岁或者更老的妇女，而是18到35岁的人群，男女兼有。
但是，正如我们之前说过的那样，这个市场处在不断改变中。该平台上还有其他类型的游戏，比如战略题材，用户付费购买防止被其他用户攻击的道具，或者让他们在战斗中取得明显优势的道具（游戏邦注：比如减少生产战斗单位的建筑的修理时间）。在这些类型的游戏中，道具的价格比Zynga得道具平均价格更高（游戏邦注：比如有些炮塔需要7美元，而装饰性横幅只需要5美元），但是由于游戏本身的性质差异，玩家却更愿意支付更多金钱来购买这种道具。当玩家的基地被全盘摧毁，立即重新建成需要小额金钱而普通建造需要1天时间，那么玩家很有可能投入金钱。即便是休闲和模拟题材游戏也在尝试添加新类型虚拟商品，增加游戏模式和互动，比如花5美元购买游戏券就可以在1周时间内无限玩《Tetris Battle》，《Sims Social》以12美元的价格出售可供玩家休息的床铺道具。
Facebook很清楚，自己对于影响平台上社交游戏成功的作用要超过开发商本身。除了创建和维护平台，Facebook也是新游戏曝光和成长的首席仲裁者，现在它还增添而来一项责任——通过平台货币Facebook Credits的力量来维持游戏经济。因为Facebook Credits的盈利来源于游戏内的交易，而且游戏开发商需要购买Facebook广告，因而社交游戏也是Facebook盈利的重要组成部分。
为了平台将来的成长，Facebook似乎已明白自己需要通过广告和有机方法来让社交游戏获得成长。在广告方面，Facebook近期将页面上展示的广告总数从4个增加到6个，而且引进了赞助广告和推荐。在有机成长和曝光方面，Inside Network前主编Eric Eldon曾指出Facebook已经做出了改变，社交游戏通知的数量相对于2011年夏天和秋天的情况来说有所增加。Facebook似乎还尝试根据玩家的当前游戏偏好来推荐新游戏，比如当我们经常玩某款解谜游戏时，平台会向我们展示好友的解谜游戏活动，而不是向我们展示他们的战略游戏活动。最后，通过发布手机平台的方式，实现智能手机和PC的跨设备体验游戏，Facebook使其开发商更容易进入手机市场，在那里获得更好的成长。
就游戏本身来说，Facebook能够做的就是改善供开发商使用的配套工具。这包括装饰和小范围功能双方面，比如成就和高细节化游戏故事内容，甚至对平台做出较大的基础结构改变，使之可以支持新游戏类型、超本土化游戏和在平台下运行同时深度整合Facebook Connect的游戏。比如，两年前根本不可能想到Facebook能够支持同步多人竞技游戏。现在，我们已经可以在Facebook看到这种游戏和第一人称射击游戏，甚至还有赛车游戏。明年或者数年后，Facebook甚至可以支持大范围的同步MMO角色扮演和战斗游戏，亚洲和欧洲市场的表现已经证实这些类型的免费游戏是可行之举。我们也期望Facebook Connect整合能够变得更为先进，使开发商可以同时在Facebook和自己的站点上发布游戏，类似Zynga的Project Z计划。
Can Games Still Succeed on Facebook?
With Facebook’s star game developer Zynga in the middle of its IPO process, some speculate that the Facebook games market has reached its peak and no longer showing enough growth to justify betting on launching new social games for the platform.
This conclusion is generally based on three types of assumptions. The first is that games are now too expensive to make for Facebook to bring in healthy profit given that the level of quality in art and design has risen along with user acquisition costs, plus a 30% fee taken out of Facebook Credits transactions. The second is that games only have a window of two months to hit a peak reach with users before an inevitable decline begins, which leads many to believe that all a game’s resources and pre-loaded marketing are banking on a single point in time. The third is that all Facebook games must have a predetermined set of features in order to appeal both to the broader market — which is perceived in the coarsest terms as a “35-year-old housewife” — and to the unpredictable whales (players who spend hundreds of dollars in-game per month as opposed to just a few dollars at most).
The first can be backed up by some examples from the 2011 season of social games — which included high production value titles like The Sims Social, CastleVille and Gardens of Time — as well as by the fact that Facebook cut back on the viral channels that made early games grow so quickly, thus forcing developers to rely more on advertising now than they did in 2009. This creates a situation where developers spend more now on creating games and advertising them than they previously needed to, which eats into profits. The second and third assumptions, however, are harder to substantiate with empirical evidence.
We know based on data collected by Inside Virtual Goods and multiple case studies of traffic patterns in our AppData traffic tracking service, for example, that many social games do see the most growth in their first three months. We also have, however, notable cases where that initial growth period exceeded three months or the initial growth period didn’t begin until well after the game had launched. We also know based on data collected by Facebook and by several game developers in self-funded surveys that the primary audience for social games isn’t necessarily women 35 and older, but men and women from 18 to 35.
In short, yes, there are higher barriers to entry on the Facebook games platform now than there were a year ago. But that doesn’t mean the market for social games has stopped growing.
Why We Can’t All Be Zynga
Zynga is a developer that had the right idea at the right time with the right set of favorable circumstances to produce massive viral growth on the Facebook platform. The developer built its empire on simple, compelling game mechanics like harvesting crops or playing poker and then set about acquiring talent and intellectual property at a rapid rate to sustain that growth with new game releases and technology upgrades to improve the user experience.
But it’s not 2009 anymore and the Facebook platform has changed. For one thing, there’s less access to viral channels for social game developers. For another, Facebook is expanding in international markets where the potential audience for social games already has expectations of quality, content, and monetization practices. Lastly, there is more competition both on the Facebook platform and off now than there ever has been for free-to-play game developers.
Two years ago, a potential Zynga rival could release a city-building game or a restaurant industry sim within weeks of Zynga’s own entries into those genres and both games would experience growth (Zynga usually seeing quite a bit more thanks to its extensive cross-promotion network and possibly some help from Facebook). This is no longer a viable growth strategy for social games as many of the major Facebook genres — farming, city-building, crime, pets, and restaurants — are well and thoroughly saturated. This also goes for companies that make “reskin” versions of their own game, changing the setting or characters of a game that is still the same game concept underneath the hood.
How We Still Make Money
While developers can’t expect to grow like Zynga, they can at least hope to monetize like Zynga and potentially even monetize better. Whether it’s Zynga or not, a developer is always looking at the core equation: User Lifetime Value (LTV) > cost per install (CPI) = profitable game. While CPI is largely out of the developer’s control because virality and advertising depends on what channels Facebook makes available, the LTV of a user is something that developers can impact directly by monetizing their games in ways that differ from what Zynga has done.
Based on regulatory filings, we know that Zynga made over 5 cents in “average bookings per user,” which is the amount of virtual currency purchased by a user in a day, in the financial quarter ended in September. Most of Zynga’s virtual goods sales in the bulk of its games are based on premium decoration items and components for completing quests or building objects. These items go for anywhere from one or two premium currency units to 50 at between 10 and 14 cents per currency unit.
Note: Zynga also has a low CPI because they’ve already amassed a large network of players and don’t need to spend money to gain more.
As we say, however, the market is changing. There are game types out there, like the strategy combat genre, where users are paying for item types that provide protection from other users, or a distinct combat advantage (e.g. speeding up repair times on structures that produce combat units). In these games, the price of the item is more expensive than Zynga’s average item price (maybe $7 for a turret compared to $5 for a decorative banner), but players are more compelled to spend it based on the nature of the game itself. Monetization in these games is particularly compelling in cases where a player’s base can be completely destroyed, but instantly rebuilt for a small fee (say, 30 cents) at multiple re-builds a day. Even casual and sim titles are experimenting with new virtual good types that add game modes or interactions — like game tickets that allow for a week’s worth of unlimited play in Tetris Battle for $5 or Sims Social bed items for sleep and sexual interactions that go for $12 or more.
At rates like these, it’s not hard to imagine that there are games on Facebook right now that regularly make around or just above $1 per user per day — and many of these with more than 100,000 daily active users. The big question is, how high is the CPI variable in the profit equation?
Facebook’s Role First Role: Keeping Down Costs
Facebook is well aware that it’s responsible for the success of social games on the platform more so than the developers themselves. Aside from creating and maintaining the platform itself, Facebook is also the primary arbiter of discovery and growth for new games and now it has the added responsibility of preserving game economies through the strength of its platform currency, Facebook Credits. Based on Facebook Credits revenue gained via in-game transactions and Facebook ads purchased by game developers, social games could make up a significant portion of Facebook’s revenue.
Note: Facebook couldn’t be reached for comment on the breakdown of revenue, but for the sake of a rough sketch, assuming that Facebook Credits revenue hits $1.2 billion this year and 30% of that was collected from social games (even though Credits wasn’t officially mandated until July) and that Facebook hits the estimated $4 billion in revenue, that’s $360 million — or 9% of revenue just from in-game transactions.
Facebook is also aware that it created a monster by allowing social game developers near complete freedom in the early days of the platform, once opened to third party developers. Spam apps and abusive use of the viral channels led Facebook to cut back on those tools dramatically in 2009 and 2010. This led to consternation in the developer community, which only swelled when Facebook made Credits integration mandatory across all apps. Facebook has tried to smooth things over through developer outreach programs and restoring some of that lost virality through features like the canvas app ticker and via new algorithmic discovery that sometimes surfaces social game activity to non-gamers in the site-wide live app ticker.
As for future growth on the platform, Facebook seems to understand that it needs to do more to produce growth for social games both through ads and organic means. On the ad side, Facebook recently increased the total number of display ads on pages from four to six and has introduced sponsored ads and recommendation surveys into the canvas app ticker. As for organic growth and discovery, former Inside Network Editor Eric Eldon points out over on TechCrunch that Facebook has been making changes that expose a higher volume of social game notifications than we saw over the summer and fall of 2011. The social network also seems to be experimenting with exposing new games based on players’ current game preferences — for example, showing us a friend’s arcade puzzle game activity when we frequently play a particular puzzle game instead of showing that same friend’s strategy combat story. Lastly, by launching a mobile platform that allows for cross-device play between smartphones and PCs, Facebook has made it easier for developers to enter the mobile market and find more growth there.
On their own, these changes might not be enough to get new social games to that arbitrary 100,000 daily active user mark mentioned above without developers having to spend on ads. But Facebook still wants to social games to succeed, we can expect to see it doing more in 2012 to spark organic growth, which in turn offsets the cost of user acquisition.
Facebook’s Second Role: Supporting New Game Types
As for what Facebook can do for games themselves, it’s all about improving the tool set available to developers. This means both cosmetic and small-scale features, like achievements and highly detailed game story content, as well as larger infrastructure changes that can support new game types, hyper-localized versions of games, and games that run off-platform while leveraging a deep Facebook Connect integration. For example, two years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine Facebook supporting a synchronous competitive multiplayer game. Now, we have those and first-person shooters, and even rudimentary racing games. We also see support for apps in new emerging languages that goes beyond mere translation and into actual game adaptation. In the next year or so, it looks like Facebook could even support large-scale synchronous MMO role-playing and combat games, which are both proven free-to-play genres in international markets like Asia and Europe. We also expect Facebook Connect integrations to become more sophisticated in a way that allows developers to simultaneously launch games both on Facebook and on their own sites — similar to what it sounds like Zynga is planning with Project Z (a.k.a. Zynga Direct).
Where Does the Growth Go? To the Right
As the social games industry matures, we’ll see fewer growth trajectories like this:
And hopefully begin to see more like this:
A sustainable social games business that hinges largely on Facebook is indeed still possible, but it depends on the ability of the developer to conceive, launch, and monetize a game on a reasonable budget and on the evolving nature of the Facebook platform itself. We can’t all be Zynga, but that’s probably the best news of all. A private developer has more freedom to try new things in an emerging market than a publicly traded one. (Source: Inside Social Games)