GDC 2014: The Future of Social Games

27. January, 2014 Play No comments

Social games for Facebook and mobile devices continue to grow in popularity. But what role will they play in the future of gaming? We expect to see more soon at the 2014 installment of the Game Developers Conference, coming up in March, which will reveal the latest PC, console, mobile and social gaming trends. In the interim though, we asked a number of gaming’s top analysts and experts from top game consulting and mock reviews firm TechSavvy Global to weigh in, and give their thoughts on the future of the business, and how social games will impact systems like the Wii U, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One going forward.

Many social games are free to play, but make their money from purchasable in-game content. We’ve seen this model creep into console games with downloadable map packs for Call of Duty and Halo. When do you think we’ll start seeing console games that are both free to play and rofitable?

Possibly within the next two to three years, as the number of players enjoying online connected games through console systems begins to reach critical mass. Keep in mind though that there’s also a financial component to consider. Manufacturers like Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony do considerable business off licensing fees for every disc-based game published on their systems, and game makers know they can sell and recoup investment dollars on at least some fraction of physical goods they make. Which presents a complex problem: To begin with, you’ll need a proven publisher willing to commit millions up-front without any guaranteed return on investment towards backing a marquee title that’s strong enough to convince platform makers (e.g. MS, Sony, Nintendo, etc.) that there’s money to be made outside of retail channels and up-front licensing fees. Altnerately, you’ll need a platform maker that’s forward thinking enough to embrace this model, or think outside the typical royalty structure and partner with savvier studios who can make smaller, more innovative titles that make financial sense for everyone on a scale that a giant multination corporation would care about. Ultimately, these hurdles will be overcome, as all the technical elements and audience numbers are quickly falling into place. It’s just a question of how soon dealmakers can get it together.

If the barrier to entry for social console games is removed (i.e. they become free to play), will this finally bring the social web into the living room, from a gamer’s point of view?

Undoubtedly – what gamers look for most is quality, convenience and value, and gaming is an inherently social activity that speaks to one of the world’s most tech-savvy and connected audiences. Drop the price, tear down the walls that make interaction between platforms cumbersome and offer a selection of top-quality, must-see titles with strong social components that add to the core play experience, and gamers will quickly take to social play in their living room, or anywhere else it can be conveniently and cost-effectively enjoyed.

What kind of social web connectivity are we going to be seeing in the next generation of consoles? Do you expect that we’ll be playing Mario Kart and Call of Duty with our Facebook friends, or will it take another
form entirely?

From the smallest casual games to most sprawling adventures, you’ll begin to see social connectivity increasingly woven into virtually every facet of interactive entertainment going forward. Beyond the sharing of status updates, achievements and instant ability to monitor friends’ activity and quickly connect, collaborate and compete in favorite titles, you’ll also see games that offer a variety of entry points from different platforms and devices. That’s not to say Grand Theft Auto V or Mario Kart will offer the same experience on every gadget from tablet PCs to your next-gen gaming console. But we will see an increasing range of smartphone-, app- and social network-based game components that let you login and manage characters, enjoy standalone game experiences that offer lasting rewards in the context of the larger console experience (extra gold, new items, experience points, etc.) and similar features. I also suspect you’ll see games that begin to incorporate more alternate reality elements, location-based challenges (say, real-world scavenger hunts as a supplement to virtual quests with actual in-game rewards for completing them) and more user-generated content elements so you can snap photos or create levels, then easily incorporate them into the game itself or pass them along through social media channels. Above all else, expect a greater sense of community, persistency and continuity, as tomorrow’s console games aim to better connect players and help like-minded fans come together over common ground – kick-ass gaming experiences.

Given the convergence of web/cloud/mobile-based media and gaming, do you think this generation of dedicated gaming consoles will be the last?*

Dedicated video game platforms will always have a place in modern homes, especially in terms of budget-priced hardware and devices. But for premium console experiences, the question is simply what form they’ll take, and whether or not they’ll increasingly become embedded directly into TVs, cable boxes or in fact transform themselves into virtual platforms (e.g. software apps) that offer immediate, on-demand access to top gaming titles. Ultimately, the question isn’t whether the next generation of gaming consoles will be the last – it’s whether, for premium or blockbuster new releases, dedicated hardware-based solutions will in fact be the preferred solution of choice.

What’s the fate of the polished, finalized $50 game from a major publisher? Will these still see success, or will gamers be more interested in less expensive “works in progress” that they can update and customize with DLC?

Blockbuster gaming experiences will still continue to have a place in tomorrow’s gaming world, and continue to command a premium price. But they’ll also increasingly offer more online, connected and downloadable elements that help extend their relevance and add greater value, making them less apt to collect dust on the shelf, which is a fancy way of saying that your experience will begin, not end at what’s in the box. At the same time, we’ll also begin to see smaller, more self-contained gaming experiences grow in prominence that allow players a cheaper, faster entry point into new worlds and storylines, with a wealth of optional downloadable content and expansions offered on the back-end, so you can pay and play as little, or as much, as you like.

Arguably the most social games around are MMOs, but historically these have not fared well on consoles (with a few exceptions). What’s stopping Blizzard and the like from launching multiplayer worlds for console gamers?

Nothing, except save perhaps the economics – on the PC, they’re able to reach a larger audience more affordably, and more cost-effectively deliver games with greater functionality. Profit margins are also better, as you don’t have to split dollars with an intermediary (e.g. a console manufacturer or wireless carrier), and enjoy greater and more direct access to your own customers. The issue isn’t one of can game makers like Blizzard deliver top-tier MMO experiences on consoles. It’s whether or not it’s worth the time and effort, given that their resources and energy may be better rewarded by being spent somewhere else.

It’s fascinating to see the success and business model of indie PC games like Minecraft, where players buy in to a game that’s still being developed and shape its progress via social media. Do you think we might see
experiments like this for console games anytime soon?

That depends on how you look at it. If you count smaller, more downloadable titles sold in bite-sized or episodic installments, or those that offer downloadable content or in-game purchases (microtransactions), yes – game developers are currently experimenting, trying to figure out what the right balance is of game length and size vs. price, and are increasingly looking to right-size core game experiences and sell added content (additional characters, levels, maps, etc.) on the back-end to the benefit of all. But true works-in-progress, or crowdsourced initiatives are unlikely – console manufacturers impose certain minimum quality standards on games from their partners, require a certain level of investment and want full-fledged premium gaming experiences right out of the gate.

– Josh Walts

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Scott Steinberg

High-tech parenting and small business expert Scott Steinberg is the creator of the bestselling The Modern Parent’s Guide and Business Expert’s Guidebook series. The CEO of business consulting and product testing firm TechSavvy Global, he’s among today’s top strategic consultants, keynote speakers and expert witnesses.

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