2012 Wrap-Up

It’s that time of year again–the obligatory year-end wrap up post. I figure I’d do some bullet points about stuff that happened that may or may not have been foretold by this here blog…along with some other random musings.

Canaries in the Coal Mine

Two new consoles were launched this year–one handheld and the other is the first traditional console release since the mobile disruption. Fortunes are looking bleak for both. The Vita had 3 quarters of dismal sales figures leaving Sony with junk bond status and totally mystified as to why nobody is supporting the last dinosaur at a mammal convention. Nintendo has been spinning the Wii U launch figures, but it’s too early to tell.

Hey, it’s not all bad. ZombiU was a close call for my game of the year pick! I also really like the Vita–there have been some games of astounding quality on it. Too bad nobody is there to play them.

Social Gambling Supernovas

Social games such as FarmVille and its ilk are frequently criticized as nothing more than compulsion-driven skinner boxes. So, it’s no surprise that in an increasingly desperate quest for hockey sticks, 2012 was the year all subtlety was dropped and social gaming companies built straight up slot machines for mobile and social platforms…as previously predicted by this blog.

Social gambling ARPUs are through the roof, but investors are still waiting for the legal structure to change for real-money-gambling to thrive online. Zynga has been loudly proclaiming their interest in the sector since before their disastrous IPO–perhaps because they realize they are far better at optimizing pure compulsion loops than building fun-based games.

Crowdfunding Explodes

By the end of 2012 famous game developers and studios successfully used Kickstarter to fund large independent projects. Sparked by Double Fine’s wildly popular campaign, the frenzy hit its peak with Chris Roberts’ $6.2 million haul for Star Citizen. Some of this may be due to a crowdfunding bubble that may burst when high profile games show up late, or not at all.

The real story here is that investors have largely abandoned the game sector as ZNGA’s IPO left a blast crater that scattered the herd…as previously predicted by this blog. For many, crowdfunding is the only remaining source of financing. What are you going to do–go back to a publisher?

2013?

Next year will be fascinating as we watch Sony and/or Microsoft (and perhaps others) defend against disruption with the introduction of new consoles. Disruption is a force of nature. Fighting it is like fighting earthquakes.

Also, production values on mobile will continue to rise and tablets will continue their breakout as a unique platform…as previously predicted by this blog.

Oh and while we’re at it…

* Best Album: good kid, m.A.A.d. city / Kendrick Lamar
* Best Game: Dragon’s Dogma / Capcom

FarmVille 2 Illustrates Zynga and Facebook’s Desperation

The launch of FarmVille 2 last week was interesting to watch. Sequels to social games seem like a bad idea–why fragment the user base of a highly popular service for a numerical sequel? MMOs have had the same problem in the past and Zynga’s own Mafia Wars 2 is largely seen as a failure. I was curious to see what approach Zynga would take with their next attempt at a sequel to a flagship game.

The good news is FarmVille 2 is a gorgeous and even charming follow-up to the original game. The 3D graphics using Flash 11 are beautiful and the whole thing is ultra polished. This is one of the slickest Facebook games I’ve ever seen. The mega talented team that built this should follow all the ex-EA executive carpetbaggers and bail. I bet they could raise money and build a great company based on quality like this–for the right platform, of course.

As we’ve discussed here for years, and has become obvious in recent times, Facebook games are dead. Zynga’s and Facebook’s catastrophic stock declines are both linked to a collapse of the Facebook game ecosystem. Both Zynga and Facebook have failed to effectively monetize mobile users, especially in gaming.

Earlier this year, Zynga actually shut down the iOS version of FarmVille. They just couldn’t figure out how to make one of the most popular social games of all time work on mobile. Yet, Zynga doubles down on Facebook with an elaborate and exquisitely detailed sequel. The fact that the primary platform for FarmVille 2 is Facebook proves Zynga still has no effective mobile strategy. It could be contractual. If so, Zynga is tied to a sinking ship.

FarmVille 2 is also a sign of desperation. A few years back social game developers flooded Facebook with spam notifications from games as a so-called ‘viral expansion loop’. Facebook newsfeeds were cluttered with stories about lost sheep and found energy packs. Concerned with spam levels worsening the user experience, Facebook severely restricted access to viral channels.

FarmVille 2 seems to violate the spirit of Facebook’s carefully considered spam policies put in place after the viral channel crackdown. The biggest evidence being the opt-out newsfeed notification. If you look at almost every alert dialog in FarmVille 2, the only way to not have it not shared on your newsfeed is to click a tiny checkbox in the lower left corner. I can’t say I haven’t seen this tactic before, but it seems extra insidious in FarmVille 2’s case. The box is almost invisible and it has to be clicked every time, as the check box is reset on every alert. As a result, FarmVille 2 is bringing Facebook spam back to 2010 levels of annoyance.

Yes, FarmVille 2 uses sleazy tactics to gain free users. Even worse is the fact that Facebook enables this tactic. It’s not like Zynga is some rogue developer. Their special relationship with Facebook gives them access to a lot of early platform perks–including timeline stories, frictionless permissions, and now deceptive spam newsfeed posts. Both Facebook and Zynga are seemingly out of ideas and are going back to blatant spamming to reach and retain users.

Oh, and you can turn off newsfeed spam using this method.

Facebook’s Mobile Gaming Apocalypse

Crowdstar recently announced they are abandoning the Facebook platform to focus on mobile social games. After amazing success on iOS, they have discovered what many of us have known for years: Facebook games are dead.

In the wake of Farmville’s massive success in 2009, investment in social gaming hit a fever pitch. The Facebook audience grew to 500 million with the rising tide floating all boats. We went from “RIP Good Times” to a veritable all-you-can-snort coke buffet in the little over a year.

During this period, Facebook shut down viral channels making it more difficult to acquire ‘free’ customers and instituted a 30% tax on social gaming revenue in the form of Facebook Credits. By 2011, user growth flattened out and user acquisition costs skyrocketed as social gaming companies blew their war chests fighting over the same group of casual social gaming customers.

Apple, on the other hand, introduced In-App-Payments for free apps and created an entirely new genre of tablet games with the introduction of the iPad. News of new social gaming startups declined, but mobile gaming investments became white hot. The mobile social gaming gold rush was on.

Recent filings from Facebook show that Zynga, one of Facebook’s single biggest contributors of revenue, is now responsible for a shrinking portion of Facebook’s income. This may be due to a change of focus. New game releases on Facebook from Zynga have slowed to a trickle. Meanwhile, Zynga has been feverishly acquiring mobile startups and barking up their stock price with social gambling chatter. While some companies stubbornly cling to the Facebook platform, in most cases social gaming companies are evacuating Facebook for mobile.

Facebook can’t earn a dime off of mobile social games despite their usage of the Facebook API because mobile billing is all controlled by Apple or Google (and now Amazon). There is no place for Facebook credits in the mobile ecosystem. If you try to use any alternative payment system in an iOS app, Apple won’t approve it.

This is why Facebook is making carrier billing agreements and beefing up their HTML5 platform. They can’t get a cut of native app revenue, but can position themselves as a premier destination for HTML5 mobile browser games with Facebook Credits as the billing system.

Even if buying Facebook Credits can be made as seamless as iTunes billing, Facebook still has to fix the fact that HTML5 sucks. This is a problem that is somewhat out of their control, as HTML5 performance is affected by features in mobile browsers developed by Apple and Google.

Facebook is desperately trying to figure out mobile–spending $1 billion on Instagram is an example of this. The unstoppable shift to mobile media consumption threatens Facebook’s core revenue streams from all angles. Facebook Credits have no use in native mobile games and Facebook can’t generate much ad revenue as ads are largely non-existent in their own mobile apps. Facebook’s walled garden is under attack from another walled garden of closed mobile devices. I guess it’s karma.