How to Compete with Playfish and Zynga on Facebook

If you read the previous post about Zynga’s “ghetto testing” market research and listened to the podcast in which the CEO talked about how every aspect of the game is thoroughly tested, allowing Zynga to identify what customers want and what changes will bring in more revenue and fans, you might have had a scary thought: how the heck can you compete with a company that has such an infrastructure?

You may be only one person, a lone wolf indie. You don’t want to hire full-time staff, let alone hundreds of employees. If you make a game, what stops Zynga, Playfish/EA, or any other game developers from essentially stealing your ideas and applying their vast resources towards making something similar, or worse, better? Are you doomed to always lose out to the bigger, better financed game companies?

Also, in the time it takes for you to create ONE game, there are hundreds of others being made. Is it realistic to think that your game has a chance to stand out?

The idea that someone will rip off your game and quickly release their own, possibly improved, version is a common one. Look at the casual game space, and you’ll see hundreds of Tetris, Zuma, and Bejeweled clones. There have been stories of developers iteratively working for months to put together a great game, only to see perfect clones with different graphics getting sold by other developers. It can be demotivating, demoralizing, and downright frustrating, especially when it feels like your livelihood can be threatened by someone with a few hours and a will to reproduce your work.

Which is why it was a pleasure to read an article at GeekStack called Why Zynga Is Unstoppable, and Why It Doesn’t Matter. The article addresses three concerns/complaints about the success of Zynga. One is that Zynga simply copies games, another is that Zynga’s games are simplistic and appeal to the lowest-common-denominator, and the last is that Zynga dominates the social gaming landscape and so you’re doomed as an indie developer.

Bottom line: Yes, Zynga is huge, good at what they do, and makes games that appeal to a large number of players, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t opportunities for an indie to fulfill neglected market desires.

Being an indie, your ability to focus on a niche and satisfy it thoroughly is a strength. Very large companies such as Zynga can’t afford to go after every opportunity, even if it were profitable. It wouldn’t be an efficient use of their resources. Microsoft, for example, spends millions of dollars on research and development, but very rarely will they produce full products out of it because the return on investment is too low to justify it. Earning $100,000 in revenue for otherwise useful and popular software just isn’t going to be enough for them, even though that money for the same product made by a small, one-person start-up might be a fantastic ROI.

Similarly, Zynga needs to appeal to a broad, general market of players to ensure that they maximize the revenue they can get.

But that doesn’t mean you need to appeal to the same players, nor do you need to appeal to the same number of players to run a profitable MMO. It’s possible that Farmville has left some people wishing they could play a heavier, more serious farm simulation. Since most people aren’t interested, Zynga is not going to satisfy these players, but maybe you can. In the end, it goes back to identifying a niche and being the best at it.

What concerns do you have about your ability to compete as an indie game developer? Are you worried about larger companies taking away potential business, or do you see their interest in the market as a good thing?

(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pierrelaphoto/ | CC BY-SA 2.0)

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