Game creators eye revenue, viral growth from social networks

Monetization options, viral channels and interaction among active users are key factors developers weigh when designing games for social networking sites.

The criteria for choosing a social network on which to build games is not solely down to user population, but the larger ecosystem supported by the social site, said game developers. Factors including the presence of active users with potential to bring about viral growth, willingness to spend, variety of monetization options, and support from the platform owner must be taken into account, they added.

Not long after Internet heavyweight Google made a splash in the social networking scene with Google+, it added a games feature to the platform. Within hours, social networking giant Facebook announced a revamp of its games system. Both are attempting to win over players and developers of social games, which is growing in popularity.

While Google+'s user population of at least 25 million is far lagging behind that of Facebook at 750 million, a survey of developers revealed that the majority believe that the newcomer will eventually catch up with Facebook.

Although the reach of a social networking site is a factor to consider in evaluating a platform for social games, there's more to the decision than a large number of users, pointed out Raymond Wong, general manager of Tecmo Koei Singapore, creator of the Facebook game Jollywood.

According to him, developers also look at how the site facilitates the interaction--and hence gameplay experience--among connected players as well as between players and strangers. "Does the social network only allow you the play with people you have designated as part of your group, or is it wider in nature?

"Or if I only have three friends who play games, am I still able to play the game?" he elaborated.

In his e-mail, Wong added that game developers do weigh the "benefits and pains" of developing games for any given social network in the decision making. Most, he said, are also not bound by any terms of exclusivity on social platforms, so porting to other platforms is always a viable option.

James Gwertzman, Asia-Pacific vice president at PopCap, told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail the most important factor is the number of active users on a social site. "It's not enough to look at the number of registered users, even though that's the number sites love to talk about."

Bejeweled Blitz, one of the Seattle, Wash.-based company's games, was among the 16 games released on Google+.

The Shanghai-based executive also noted that the next step would be to compare the nuances of user behavior for active users across various social networking sites. For instance, users on one site could be more active when it comes to posting messages to their friends, which in turn can result in much higher viral growth of a game.

The availability and amount of viral channels provided by a social site is hence another critical element for developers--to see how easily they can leverage those channels to attract new users without spending on advertising, Gwertzman highlighted.

But these viral channels need to be tapped right, he added. "We want users to tell their friends about our game [through such channels] because it's great, not because we cheated them into pushing a button by accident. We never want to be accused of viral spam."

Monetization rules
The availability and ability to monetize their games to churn revenue was also emphasized by developers as a key factor.

San Mateo, Calif.-based game maker Digital Chocolate considers whether the "physical plumbing" is in place for it to monetize games, and favors platforms that offer the widest array of monetization options, according to Jason Loia, its chief operating officer.

For instance, developers should be able to sell virtual goods within their social application, in order to enhance gameplay and help build the platform's virtual goods-based economy.

For Gwertzman, monetization opportunity comes in the form of "paying power", which refers to how willing are users of a platform to spend money and whether the online payment process is easy to carry out--all of which have a big impact on how successful one's game can be.

"A site with mostly students is going to probably have more gameplay, but lower revenue per user, than a site that targets working adults."

Gibson Tang, founder of AzukiSoft, a Singapore firm that develops mobile and Facebook applications, considers monetization opportunities from the perspective of the number of active users on a platform as well as the "cut" the site takes from game developers.

Facebook, he noted, takes 30 percent income from game transactions on its site whereas Google+, for now, charges a 5 percent commission. Still, most developers would still stick with Facebook due to its large user base, because "70 percent of US$1 million is better than 95 percent of US$100,000", he said.

Supportive, strong relationships
How lively and cohesive the game developer community is on a social network is another consideration, said Tang, who cited the speed at which replies to questions posted on forums, as an example.

If the developer forum of a social networking site is sparsely populated with very few postings, game developers may think "something is wrong with the technical infrastructure of that network and integrating elements of that site may be more trouble than it's worth", Tang pointed out.

This, he added, gels with another factor--how easy it is for developers to obtain the relevant technical documentation, which are used to help create and integrate games into the social networking site. Some sites make frequent changes to its technical infrastructure, so its documentation is often outdated, and developers have to spend extra time integrating their game into that platform, Tang said.

The amount and type of support sites offer to developers is critical, and has a direct impact on how easy it is for developers to successfully operate a game on the site, added PopCap's Gwertzman. Besides accurate documentation, support can include a stable software development kit (SDK), user analysis support and rich payment channels.

Ultimately, this draws back to the kind of relationship the game developer has with the social networking site, he concluded. "It's true that on many sites, you can just download a developer SDK, click 'I Agree', and begin hosting your application--but that doesn't mean it's the best way to go."

Sites have a lot of power to promote games they like, so it's a "good idea to maintain a good relationship" with the site, Gwertzman pointed out.

A good relationship also means a developer may find out about platform tweaks and changes before they happen, so one can begin design and plan for them in advance. In some cases, the site may even come to the developer for feedback before rolling out any changes, he added.

As Loia of Digital Chocolate put it, the relationship between the game developer and the social platform works best when it is a partnership, and not that of a vendor and customer.

"The entire process of engineering games for social platforms, from inception to launch, works so much better when there are good lines of communication around policies and testing."