I was pleasantly surprised to see the end of the video console game focus of GDC this year. The game world has moved well passed xBox, PlayStation and the Nintendo Wii to bigger audiences, better revenue and a more diverse array of game content in casual, social, mobile mediums.
I attended a number of seminars and presentation on a verity of subjects and was impressed by the quality of the presentations. The following are some highlights.
Zynga In A Buying Mood - Apparently Zynga has decided to start buying up game companies in domains that they are not familiar with. I sat in on two seminars with speakers from companies that had recently been purchased by Zynga. Area Code now Zynga New Youk is a company that focuses on community style games in the conventional sense. These games are not standard Facebook social games. They are truly games that address the needs of physical communities. The presentation was on a game they created for the city of Macon, Georgia that encouraged community connections between different area codes using a community virtual currency. Not sure exactly what Zynga plans to do with this kind of company. Area Code is clearly not a Farmville or Poker oriented company. It will be curious to see how the Zynga Area Code relationship evolves.
New Toy Inc, now Zynga With Friends is the recent mobile game company that Zynga purchased. This makes a bit more sense to me then the Area Code purchase. Zynga needs a mobile strategy and Zynga With Friends helps to bootstrap Zynga into the mobile space. Zynga seems to be taking a hands off approach to this Texas company at the moment letting them create their own versions of games. However, I suspect that things will change over the coming months bringing this group into the Zynga fold resulting in games that are more closely allied with the current Zynga brand.
Sociology Meets Virtual Social Networks - There were a couple of fascinating presentations by academics from the social science and psychology domains. Their presentations brought to light that there is still much that can be done within virtual social networks(Facebook) to add richness and intrigue to our virtual networking world. It appears we have just scratched the surface of mimicking social interaction on the Web. The presenters worked for Playdom so these were not disconnected academics. Clearly, we are about to see more interesting social interaction generated by social games that will grow social networks even larger then they are today.
iPad As "The" Game Platform - Graeme Devine and old timer in the game development community and current Apple employee made it perfectly clear that the iPad is the ultimate game platform. He also made it clear that developers do not know how to develop games specifically for the ergonomics and capabilities of the iPad. Most of the iPad games to date are ports from the web or iPhone making them sub pair and even annoying on the iPad. Given the real estate and the ability to turn the iPad in an direction plus the touch, voice and video capability of the device it is predicted to excel in the delivery of unique and interesting game content. It could be argued that the iPad may become the replacement for the console providing a mobile alternative to console gaming.
Social Game Monetization - There were a host of seminars on social game marketing and the ability to slice and dice a game audience based on age, location and behavior. Much of this is well known with data being actively used to target game content and advertisers. However, the biggest revelation to me was the amount of money being spent by single individuals on virtual currency and virtual goods. One of the presenters posted a slide/graph representing a very step curve for a small segment of the social gaming community contributing a very large amount of the total revenue in games. These players were identified as "whales" a common term used in the gambling industry for individuals that spend a lot of money in casinos and in online gambling properties. In fact they are the ones that result in high profits for casinos. Some one in the audience asked how much per player these players were wagering or spending in social games. The answer was between $50,000 to $100,000 per player per year. I found this fascinating and a bit shocking. Apparently the game publishers were catering to these players in a similar way that casino's cater to their high roller customers. This is significant because the conventional wisdom is that social games and gamers do not really generate that much cash. It appears this perception is wrong. When you consider the total amount of social gamers even a small percentage of "whales" in this community actually results in relatively high numbers of players buying significant amounts of virtual goods and currency.
Analytics Are Everywhere - The degree to which social game play data can be sliced and diced is becoming an art form/science. The social web provides all kinds of data on individuals, groups, advertisements, activities, interests, behavior, etc. We appear to still be in the early phases of the use of this data for targeting, monetization, acquisition and retention. A game developer has to add features/api's into there games to extract this data if they want to have successful game. Publishers need to have data miners and systems to leverage this data to make a case for their publishing platform. These features could make or break a successful game. Where we cross the line on data mining and privacy is still uncertain. It look's like companies are pushing the limits (within Facebook policy) as far as they can to micro segment the social networking gaming population.
Gameification - Is it a game or a business application? I have written about this before and I am personally involved in the gamification of several applications. This topic was full on with the distinction between a game and an application becoming hard to detect. Check out Mod Cloth a company that has some clever ways to engage their community to further their business goals.
Clearly, GDC has gone all in and has focused on casual and social games as the wave of the future. The amount of side activity in separate meetings, parties and VC hosted events indicate that all the usual suspects are hot to get into the casual and social gaming space.
In a certain way this is a bit scary because expectations and decibel levels are really high. I could hardly move in some of the VC hosted cocktail parties and of course I could barely hear anyone. Despite this the conference was actually valuable from a practical perspective. I decided on a couple of new game development and publishing strategies based on information I received at the conference.
Kevin Flood is the CEO of Gameinlane, Inc. Kevin writes extensively about online games and their impact and integration into iGaming and E-commerce environments. Kevin is a frequent speaker at online game events and conferences in Asia, Europe and the US. Kevin and his Gameinlane team are currently working with online gambling, social gaming and e-commerce companies integrating social gaming with online gaming operations and integrate game mechanics into e-commerce applications.