Facebook has grown to be a powerful social networking force to be reckoned with, and game developers who have taken advantage of the popularity are pulling in plenty of money through ads, virtual good sales, and exposure. And now, EA purchased PlayFish, the biggest publisher of social games on Facebook, for about $400 million.
So what does it mean? PlayFish’s business model, selling virtual goods through social games, is appealing enough for a major mainstream game publisher to buy into it. And if EA is buying into it, it means we’re going to see a lot more of it.
On the one hand, indie developers now have to directly compete with EA on the Facebook platform. It was bad enough for a small developer to try to gain some exposure when Zynga and PlayFish were dominating. It isn’t too far-fetched to think that EA is going to get the most eyeballs and sales, leaving everyone else with smaller pieces of the pie.
On the other hand, this is Facebook. With over 2% of the entire world’s population running active accounts, it’s a very large pie. Also, just because PlayFish now has a lot more marketing and production muscle behind it, it doesn’t mean that the smaller indies can’t produce major hits themselves. Long-lasting indie games are the rule. If a game doesn’t last past a month, it doesn’t succeed. If you can create a high-quality game that takes advantage of the social aspect of gaming, you have a good chance of competing.
Earlier this year I created a social game called Sea Friends, based off of a simple game I created called Minimalist. The mechanics are simple, and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not a great game, but at one point I had almost 400 people playing it in a single month. I was surprised to find people I wasn’t friends with becoming fans of the game! The game was an experiment in outsourcing and rapid project development, and I wrote a Sea Friends post-mortem if you want to know how it went, but for a game that I think loses its appeal after a few sessions, it seems to have at least a tiny bit of staying power. As of this writing, I can see that a handful of people played it today, and many more have played it in the past week. The top ten players for the month all scored over 50 levels, and the number one player for the month broke 170! Who are these people?! I don’t know, but they’re saving real coral reef when they play, so that might be part of the appeal of the game.
Here are some questions: with EA on Facebook, what will happen to the markets outside of Facebook? Will casual portals see Facebook taking away their traffic? Will we find Facebook Connect on many non-Facebook sites? Can the market get saturated with virtual good economies, or is there unlimited potential here? Can Facebook as a platform be ignored if you’re going after a different part of the market, or is its size going to require you to acknowledge it in some way, even if you don’t make a Facebook app?
And when did single-player games become such a tiny niche product?