Is "Social Gaming" Threatening the MMO Industry?

Social games like Facebook's Farmville are "the next big thing" to enter the gaming industry within the past few years; how much will they influence the way MMOs are developed?

Have you played Farmville yet? Judging by its popularity—which includes a player base of 69 million people, according to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg—it's a safe bet that at least some of ZAM's readers have tried it out. As Zuckerberg noted, more people play Farmville than those who use Twitter, let alone Blizzard's world-dominating MMO, World of Warcraft, with 11.5 million players.

As many bloggers have pointed out, if Farmville was an honest-to-goodness MMO instead of a Facebook app, it would have WoW's player base beat by almost a 6:1 ratio. However, can Farmville and other "social games" like Mafia Wars—developed by the industry-leading Zynga—really be compared with what most gamers consider "true" MMOs like EverQuest, WoW and Final Fantasy XI? It's an issue that's inspired occasional debates in our own forums from time to time; many MMO players consider social gaming a passing fad that owes its recent popularity to mind-numbing simplicity. On the other hand, it's difficult to ignore the sheer success of the genre, and wonder if this new gaming platform might change the face of the MMO industry as we know it.

In February, we featured an editorial about the financial stability of game developers and what it might mean for the future of MMOs. It's no secret that the "Western model" of MMO and online gaming is gradually succumbing to the influence of Asian free-to-play and micro-transaction revenue models. Subscription-based MMOs are incorporating more "premium" services and items like Blizzard's recently-launched vanity pet store, and publishers of upcoming MMOs are surprising the community by announcing free-to-play revenue models (like the recent news from Gamigo that Black Prophecy won't be a subscription-based MMO, as everyone expected).

Part of the "Asian influence" that readers stumble upon in many business- and industry-related MMO news stories is the prevalence of online gaming in China. As we reported last year, China is expected to claim half the world's online gaming market by 2012. Despite its strict censorship laws, two-thirds of China's Web users are also online gamers, according to a Wall Street Journal article.

It's important to remember that "online gaming" and "MMOs" aren't synonymous in this context, though. The majority of China's 200 million online gamers aren't MMO players—or at least, not in what we consider the "traditional" sense of an MMO like WoW or EQ. The same is true here in the West; "online gaming" includes everything from MMOs to multiplayer Web- and browser-based games, including Facebook apps like Farmville. Usually, the term "social gaming" is used to differentiate these products from MMOs and other multiplayer PC/console games.

Now that we've explained the distinction between these two platforms, what about our original question; "Will social gaming change the face of MMOs?" If the recent business decisions of industry veterans like Richard Garriott (Ultima Online, Tabula Rasa) are any indication, the line between social gaming and MMOs might become blurrier in the years to come.

After visiting the International Space Station and suing NCSoft for $27 million, Garriott finally returned to the gaming industry last February and founded Portalarium, a development company aimed at "Bringing Premium Games to the Social Web," according to its mission statement. As Gamasutra explained in an earlier article, Portalarium will develop Facebook and browser-based social games, directly competing with the likes of Zynga and other market-leading social games developers.

In an interview with Gamasutra not long after the announcement, Garriott explained his motivation to invest in the burgeoning Facebook and mobile games industry. "I as an artist, as a creator, and a gamer myself, my passion completely lies with creating and playing story-based content," he told Gamasutra. "As I review my 30 year career, I don't think the market has necessarily tended to reward that."

We're not too sure how Garriott believes that better storytelling can be accomplished via social games played on Facebook or with your iPhone, but it's clear that he's one industry vet who recognizes that change is just beyond the horizon. As points out in a related article, this new wave of free-to-play, browser-based gaming is more accessible than any other medium in video gaming history; players can jump in with no up-front costs and minimal—if any—product installation and setup. With "one account to rule them all," Facebook offers its users an unprecedented way to access hundreds of multiplayer games, all just a few mouse clicks away.

Regardless of Facebook's popularity and the success of its apps, mobile and social networking as-a-whole have already influenced many of today's MMOs. Publishers like Blizzard, CCP, NCSoft and more are beginning to incorporate Web 2.0 features in their MMOs, giving players the ability to review their characters and share information via the Web and mobile applications. Blizzard, for example, has already released its popular iPhone Armory application, and an Auction House app is on the way. Forward-thinking developers have adopted these mechanics in the design of their upcoming MMOs, such as BioWare's HoloNet component of Star Wars: The Old Republic.

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the reason why
# Apr 11 2010 at 4:20 PM Rating: Decent
70 posts
As stated if Zynga was actually to start charging for their games i think the player base would drop drastically.

I also believe that people would rather play games like farmville because they dont have to pay 15 dollars a month, and they can play these apps without actually having to put a dime into it.

granted the 2 types of games are totally different but i think if WoW lessened their monthly/ bimonthly fees they would actually attract more players. so say you made it 10 dollars a month instead of 15 more people might be willing to play. so if you had another million players join WoW it would offset making the subscription fees cheaper.
the reason why
# Oct 12 2012 at 10:10 PM Rating: Decent
As stated if Zynga was actually to start charging for their games i think the player base would drop drastically.

UPDATE: Zynga has always (1) tracked the most active players' in-game actions via elaborate and processor use intensive metric programming, in order to quantify said game play, that is to design incessantly popping up ads to "by this/buy that" to gain an advantage over other players in the game(s), and presently (2) has instituted a VIP subscription of $25/mo which is one of the most expensive in the MMO gaming world.

Furthermore, most of the Zynga/Facebook "social games" are plagued by 3rd party script developers who hawk their pay-to-play scripts to gain unfair advantage over the millions of other players. Which, by the way, neither Zynga nor Facebook care to deal with in any concrete way.

Unfortunately, Social Gaming via massive platforms of Zynga/Facebook have experienced significant decline in the numbers of their player base as scamming by both Zynga and 3rd party script developers runs amok!
the reason why
# Apr 15 2010 at 3:40 AM Rating: Decent
44 posts
Math not your strong suit, Jallil? If Blizzard did what you're suggesting, with the numbers you're listing, they'd lose 20 million dollars a month. The subscription price would have to be dropped to $13/month in order for an extra million people to make a minimal profit for Blizzard. That would likely not be worth it given the extra load on the servers and/or addition and maintenance of new ones.
Does it even mater?
# Apr 09 2010 at 2:15 PM Rating: Decent
747 posts
Games last because of three (if not more) things, which all have to be there to be succesful for long (more than a passing fad).

1) Entertainment- In any way shape or, exciting, funny, enjoyable, mind numbingly hboring yet satisfying time killer... it's like Sudoku vs Mario Brothers vs Counterstrike vs Everquest... all of them are entertaining but for different reasons.

2) Skill- If it doesn't take skill or effort to perform the tasks in the game then people will get bored and it won't be entertaining anymore. Even if you love a game, you won't play it more than a few times if the challenge is gone.

3) Risk vs Reward- If you don't get anything for what you do in a game, there's no reason to play it for long periods of time and if there is no risk involved in getting what you are working towards there isn't any challenge or any real skill involved in getting it... anyone can play the same thing 100 times and get it eventually.

Another thing to look at is the time spent playing these games. My wife plays Fishville, and loves it and has spent some money on it (went on vacation for a week, had to buy something so her fish wouldn't die while we were gone) but she doesn't spend more than maybe 20-30 minutes on it over the course of a day. I spend at LEAST an hour on WoW, usually more like 2-3 hours, and I want to play more, my wife CAN'T do more if she played more than 20-30 minutes... she's just done everything there is to do with the game that she is able to in that amount of time.

In short... why are we comparing these at all? Completely different kinds of games aimed at entirely different audiences and aren't mutually exclusive from each other. Playing Farmville wouldn't keep me from WoW and vice versa, this article and the perceived threat in it are bogus.
Does it even mater?
# Apr 09 2010 at 7:31 PM Rating: Excellent
93 posts
Katchii, did you read the full editorial? The subject wasn't "WoW vs. Farmville" or "Will Farmville steal WoW's subscribers?" -- it was about the emerging popularity of social gaming, and whether or not that popularity/accessibility will influence the MMO industry in the years to come, from both the player and developer standpoint.
Does it even mater?
# Apr 15 2010 at 3:52 AM Rating: Decent
44 posts
The question still remains: why are we comparing these free, limited social games with a subscription based MMO? If you play any of them, you'll realize, like Katchii states, they're very limited and don't require a lot of time to be done with it for the day. While I won't claim to have played the majority of them, the 15-20 I tried were all the same, especially the Zynga ones: 10-15 minutes of game play and you're done. The rest of the time I'd waste it chatting with people or playing multiple games. After a while, they do get extremely repetitive and boring.

I have read a lot of similar articles over time about the newest fad stealing customers from the most popular game, be it Runescape, Facebook apps, and whatnot. The fact remains, Blizzard knows how to stay innovative and make the game fun and challenging enough to keep a stable customer base, and there's simply no comparison between the two.
# Apr 08 2010 at 6:21 PM Rating: Good
4,445 posts
Chances are if Farmville charged $15 a month it would lose a lot of subscribers.
# Apr 08 2010 at 7:49 PM Rating: Good
1,882 posts
Agreed. I've played a decent handful of Facebook apps from Mafia Wars to Viking Clan to My Town and then some. Although they are an interesting outlet to burn some time when bored the whole concept of paying money to play them or even enhance the gameplay experience is laughable at best for me. Do people really pay money to get better "gear" in Mafia Wars?

As fancy as the pages may be, the base concept of most of those games is the same and very simple at that. I remember back to my early days of when I played kid games in DoS of of floppies...many of those games were far more entertaining and in-depth than "social games".

I think the most I played one of those games straight was about 15 minutes in Viking Clan...what's the longest reasonable time players play WoW at a time? I dare say if you tried spending the same amount of time playing Farmville that we invested into real MMORPGs people would start going batty.
Would they pay?
# Apr 08 2010 at 5:25 AM Rating: Decent
67 posts
With as many subscribers Farmville has, I wonder if people would actually pay for it.
farmville wtf!
# Apr 07 2010 at 7:12 PM Rating: Good
I dont think they really can compare. When something is free of course more people are going to take advantage of it. There is just no real comparison between farmville and wow.
farmville wtf!
# Apr 08 2010 at 2:26 PM Rating: Good
57 posts
I agree...with both points of view...
I agree that they aren't comparable directly
and the point that they may be a viable new business model based on micro-transactions.

The only negative I've seen with social gaming is the fact that some games force you to
'snooker' your friends into playing...some more blatantly than others.
Some, while you might be at a disadvantage, allow you to play enjoyably -- but, some, unless you
get 97 of your closest friends to play are utterly unplayable (unless of course you want to fork over
some cash)
And, then there's also the game spam...every game posting some message about itself to your friends...filling up space with zillions of messages.
farmville wtf!
# Apr 08 2010 at 8:18 AM Rating: Decent
I agree cant compare the too. Also, compare the average number of hours per week spent on "Farmville" or "Mafia Wars" versus any pay to play MMO. You'll see a wide difference.
farmville wtf!
# Apr 08 2010 at 1:20 AM Rating: Good
1,882 posts
That's worse than comparing Runescape and WoW.

Its like comparing Checkers to a game of Soccer.
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