Going Viral on Mobile: Lessons from Social Gaming
Social gaming is a fiercely competitive industry. Just look at how quickly and widely successful models like Zynga’s Frontierville or Playdom’s Social City are ripped off by eager copycats. Even Farmville started off as a clone of another popular title, Farm Town. The rewards of cultivating a captive gaming audience certainly justify the efforts. In the past year or so, Zynga’s estimated market capitalization has risen to over $5 billion and we’ve seen traditional media companies like EA and Disney snap up social gaming companies like Playfish and Playdom for $400 and $763 million respectively. When users have over hundreds of Facebook games to choose between and Facebook itself is taking efforts to undercut virality on its network, how can game developers make their games stand out?
Many are looking toward mobile as the next unclaimed territory to vie for. Smartphones are being adopted faster than any other hot technology in recent history, including the storied internet itself. Given the inevitable rise of mobile computing, social gaming companies are hustling to make strategic acquisitions to edge out their competitors. Zynga released a mobile version of Farmville in June and acquired a spate of mobile game developers, the latest being NewToy, producer of the popular Words with Friends app. DeNA, one of Japan’s most popular mobile networks, snapped up NGMoco, a mobile gaming platform, for $400 mil in mid-October.
The Rise of Mobile Microtransaction Economies
With the merging of social gaming and mobile comes a mashup of monetization and distribution models. Traditionally, mobile apps are either ad-supported or paid downloads and achieve wild success only by climbing app store charts and staying there. Social games, on the other hand, offer free-to-play models that are sustained by convincing a small percentage of users to pay up for virtual goods and the rest to evangelize the game to their friends. Well-timed releases like Farmville were able to ride the viral channels and explosive growth of Facebook. As mobile OS makers like Apple and Google increasingly support in-app transactions, mobile games are adopting similar monetization strategies by building virtual goods economies to increase engagement and monetization opportunities. Recent data from mobile app analytics firm Flurry show that from Sept 2009 to Sept 2010, virtual goods went from producing $0.25 of average monthly revenue per user to nearly $9 for the mobile applications in their portfolio. In contrast, mobile advertising has stayed steady at $1 average monthly RPU.
Of course, there’s a catch. Successful virtual goods economies are hard to grow and sustain without an engaged network of users like Facebook’s or an immersive and addictive virtual environment like World of Warcraft’s. Additionally, mobile game players have a shorter attention span than their online counterparts, often catching just a few minutes of gameplay during brief downtimes throughout their day. The average shelf-life of a mobile game is about 6 months to 1 year, even for a wild success like Angry Birds. Existing mobile hardware also limits the complexity and depth a mobile game can have relative to console games.
Virality in Mobile Social Networks
So what’s a mobile game developer to do? You could spend tons of time, effort, and money running marketing campaigns, getting onto Game Portals like GetJar or Steam, and hustling for reviews and press. For the majority of game developers who are one or two-man teams, this is really a non-option. Enter the mobile social network, or mobile SNS for short. These are platforms like Open Feint, ScoreLoop, and Papaya that allow developers to easily add social dynamics to once solitary gaming. The value proposition is that leaderboards, public achievements, and social challenges make games more fun. More fun means more engagement means more revenue.
Just giving gamers the opportunity to interact meaningfully with each other increases stickiness. Papaya, a social gaming platform for Android, took a hint from successful mobile SNS like GREE and Mixi of Japan and opened multiple channels of user-to-user communication like news feeds, chatrooms, and intra-game commenting systems. According to Paul Chen, VP of Business Development, the company has aimed from the beginning to monetize around a mobile user’s impatience. While the average user on Facebook visits 27 times a month for 9 minutes per visit, the average user on PapayaMobile’s network visits 55 times a month for about 3 minutes per visit. Also critical to maximizing user stickiness is providing a frictionless virtual payment platform. Papaya offers game developers the option to use Papaya’s virtual currency, which can be used for other games on the platform. Users are more likely to trade real dollars for virtual ones if they know there are many ways to spend them.
Founded in 2008, Papaya now has 8 million users and provides an interesting case study on why mobile social networks, particularly those centered around games, add value on top of existing networks. When the platform first launched, users had the option of logging in with Facebook Connect. Turns out that feature was hardly used as the gamers on PapayaMobile preferred to have virtual identities. In the context of games, this makes sense. No one likes getting Farmville spam on Facebook and no one wants their coworkers or families to know that they’re playing games all day. For developers, there’s another benefit: a clearer path to the top of the app charts. Using the distribution channels within their own network, Papaya was able to get Papaya Fish 3D, an in-house game, to #2 on Casual Games and #4 on All Games in the Android app rankings in just 24 hours after release.
To be clear, mobile SNS are no cure-all for distributing and monetizing your apps. Like all social networking platforms, their value depends on the number of engaged users they have. How well any individual game does on mobile SNS depends on the quality of the brand and content. One of the biggest challenges of platforms like Papaya or Open Feint is to convince game developers of the value mobile social networks can add. Whether they can be won over is yet to be seen.
1) Virtual Goods in Asia – Ben Joffe
2) Social Games on Mobile – Paul Chen, Papaya Mobile
3) Madison Avenue and the Land of Make-Believe – Peter Farago, Flurry
Many thanks are due to Paul Chen of Papaya Mobile for contributing to this article and to Charles Hudson and MediaBistro for hosting informative conferences like the Social Gaming and Smartphone Games Summit where I get to meet plenty of cool folks working on social and mobile gaming. For those interested, Papaya Mobile is hosting a Global Game Developer Contest where you can win $10k and cool prizes.