Not Safe. Why Mobile Social Games Are Just As Vulnerable As Zynga

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a game designer with 20 years experience. He is the creator of leading game design blog What Games Are, and consults for many companies on game design and development. You can follow him on Twitter here.

Even while Facebook crosses the billion user mark, for Zynga the misery continues as the over-use of the same game model yields ever-thinner results. Yet on mobile things seem a little rosier. Games that use broadly the same game design as many of the previously successful Facebook types (role-playing games, village defence, city simulators, zoo-keeping and pet-care games) are often at the top of the Top Grossing charts. They’re monetising very well, and also they often look better – particularly on tablet – than their Flash-based counterparts in-browser.

Games like CSR Racing, Rage of Bahamut, Dragon Vale, The Simpsons Tapped Out and Clash of Clans are doing very well using in-App Purchase as a way to make free-to-play economics work for them. Just as was the case with social two years ago, many wonder what the secret sauce of these new games is and – in light of my recent Zyngapocalypse Now article – ask me directly whether these new games are examples of generation-two (G2)? Are they new, safe, the new frontier?

To which I answer: Nope.

Platform Amnesia And Shovelware

A quote that I always think of when it comes to gaming generations is Joseph Conrad’s “As if it were too great, too mighty for common virtues, the ocean has no compassion, no faith, no law, no memory.” The shortened version of which is: The sea has no memory.

When looking at how shifts in gaming platforms have worked out over the years, the wider audience often seems to behave like the sea. I don’t necessarily mean from one console to another (Xbox gamers are well aware of what’s going on on PS3), but in form factor. When Nintendo invents a new kind of controller, for example, they often bring it to market using one of their traditional brands, and while some gaming journalists bemoan this lack of outward creativity, it usually works. People treat it as brand new.

The cycle of platform amnesia strikes again and again, which seems odd to those of us who study games over the long term (“Why does nobody remember the old games that already did this 100 times before?” we wonder). And yet it is very real.

Facebook was a massive beneficiary of platform amnesia. The vast majority of people had never played a persistent browser game before (those of us who had played Urban Dead or Planetarion were very few in number by comparison, for example), and so simple interactions and rediscovery of old ideas (like levelling up) seemed brand new again. The smartphone and tablet revolutions likewise reset the expectations of millions of users. Cheap or free awesome games that you can play on your phone? It was a brave new world.

These kinds of platform shifts often allow a few brand-new ideas (which I call “founderworks“) to emerge, and those games commonly set the templates that many others follow. Angry Birds is a founderwork, for instance, as is Draw Something. However, new platforms also give birth to a lot of low-rent games (called “shovelware”). One example of this is when Nintendo put a lot of effort into making sure there were great quality titles that really told the marketing story of the Wii and DS (like Wii Sports and Brain Training). A lot of shovelware followed along, too.

Shovelware is developed to cash in on a rising tide. It often has the appearance of a great game in line with the marketing story of its host platform, but is usually cheap in execution. Its developers mostly seek to exploit the novelty aura surrounding the platform, when expectations are low, before moving on to other platforms. Because the attitude of the shovelware maker tends to be more “it’ll do” than “it has to be great,” they only have a certain window of opportunity available to them before the audience starts to get tired (usually about 3-5 years).

Shovelware can be mildly diverting, even fun for a time, but its key trait is that it has low gameplay value. When expectations rise and other developers start to deliver more on value than the shovelware developer is able to, they can be quickly left behind. This is where the nature of the platform (and the market) becomes important.

Consoles are “short platforms”: In the console industry both developers and fans expect the core technology to change every few years, so in a sense it’s expected by both that key franchises, winners and losers will also change. It’s in-built (and liked) by the fans that consoles are Etch-A-Sketched (and the fact that consoles market to younger audiences plays into this) every half decade, leading to new hits, different graphics and new experiences.

However, Facebook and the PC are examples of “long platforms.” Rather than reset every few years they evolve. They have backward compatibility and long back catalogs, and so they become clogged with competing software. In long-platform markets, change is more incremental and the audience slowly evolves into a more dedicated, tribal and long-term-interested group. It becomes familiar with what happened on the platform before. Its value expectation rises, as does its expertise with interacting with the platform. Unlike the sea, the long-platform audience remembers.

Mobile Is Long

Possibly because of the whirl of innovation that saw Nokia emerge, then Blackberry and now iPhone, many of you probably assume that mobile and tablet are short platforms. However I would argue that they have actually become long. It’s been like the early years of the PC before the market eventually settled on a couple of common standards, but now it has.

Mobile devices now have stable, well-known operating systems and developer communities. Their major innovations these days are mostly about appearance, specs and screen size rather than interaction models. Users are used to app stores, apps themselves and are invested in those ecosystems. No provider is going to step away from touch-screen, tilt and shift controls in these devices – and arguably no customer wants them to. Like the mouse-and-keyboard or the web browser before them, the touch-screen mobile device has achieved an evolutionary apex.

This is all great news for developers who want to create G2 games. The time is almost ripe for audiences who want deeper, more valuable engagement. However for developers who are more used to making shovelware, things are getting very sticky. Mobile developers have started to complain in earnest about discoverability (the supermarket-shelf effect is killing their business) and worry about Apple revising the terms and conditions of cross-promotion. A lot of time is going in to worrying about the tactics of finding users, whether through advertising or social means.

However I would argue that the problem is even deeper than that. The same sort of fatigue that’s made Mark Pincus’s life difficult is about to hit mobile in much the same way. Issues of formulaic game design, reskinning of the same ideas and delivering low-value gameplay in new clothes are all at play in mobile just as they are in browser. Even successful publishers like ngmoco need to be wary as gameplay value is an expectation to which any platform audience (short or long) eventually returns.

It’s really great that developers have been able to experiment with technology and production values in the mobile space, and also good news for them that mobile platforms (particularly iOS at the moment) often monetise at a better rate. However G2 is about gameplay value, not distribution, monetisation or production values. It’s been profitable to make simple games with basic rules like wait times, roleplaying level graphs and so on, but that by itself is not really enough to last.

In a sense, social game makers need to re-learn the art of game design.

No platform remains a perpetual motion machine by just churning out the same level of content forever. Their audiences expect more and they deserve more. Whether that means more in terms of mechanics, simulation, narrative or any of the many delights that games can bring is an open question that will be different for every game, but it can no longer be ignored. Just because you are on iPad does not mean you are immune to those same forces that are tearing Zynga apart.

You’re looking at your likely future. The time to act to save it is now.