Since taking off in 2009, the social gaming phenomenon has drawn hundreds of millions of players, but it has also found more than its fair share of critics. Many claim that social games are too shallow and simplistic to attract a sustainable audience, while others assert that a free-to-play business model leaves too much money on the table to support the development of social games that compare favorably to traditional games. Some believe that the biggest threat to social games is the force that gave life to them in the first place — the fate of the industry seems inextricably linked to the ebb and flow of the Facebook (Facebook) platform, and Facebook's wavering commitment to developers does little to inspire confidence.
All this has led social gaming's biggest critics to suggest that social games are a flash in the pan that will eventually be subsumed into the rest of the online game industry. But social games are far more than a fleeting fad or a watered down version of "real" games. Just as social distribution has led to new forms of written media (i.e. the tweet) and new forms of video media (i.e. YouTube (YouTube) video), it has led to a disruptive form of gaming that plays an essential role in the way that people engage with the web.
Social gaming is here to stay, and it's here to stay for two fundamental reasons: 1.) The format of social games is a perfect match to the daily pattern and rhythm of how people use the social web, and 2.) Social games are the only form of interactive entertainment that are natively woven into and distributed via social networks — the Internet (Internet)'s new gateway.
Form Follows Function
Throughout the history of entertainment media, content has been developed in short and long formats. Five hundred page novels, full-length feature films and television mini-series coexist harmoniously with blogs, 30-minute sitcoms and two-minute YouTube videos. Why? Because each format serves a different purpose and, without subsuming the other formats, manages to engage users in unique ways and for different reasons.
Short-format show Seinfeld ran for nine seasons and generated hundreds more viewing hours than the typical 90-minute comedy movie, while the 56-second "Charlie Bit My Finger" video on YouTube has been viewed for the equivalent of nearly 4 million hours since it went viral in 2007. In many ways, the social game is to gaming what YouTube is to video: A shorter format that has been enabled by new, social forms of distribution and is no less compelling or permanent than longer-form content. This type of gaming simply enables different behaviors and attracts different users than subscription MMOs, free-to-play MMOs and casual games; but this deviation from the traditional model does not guarantee its demise. Instead, social gaming represents an adaptation to new social norms; a typical social networker's day is punctuated by periodic visits, and social games are designed to fit perfectly into these short bursts of activity where a user may spend just a few minutes catching up on the latest wall posts, browsing tweets, and tending to his or her digital farm.In addition, it's worth noting that long-format content and short-format content have very different price sensitivities. People who are willing to pay $10 to watch a two-hour Steve Carell movie in the theater aren't necessarily willing to spend $2.99 to buy a 30-minute episode of The Office. Social games leverage the perfect combination of cheap, viral distribution with a free-to-play model that allows 1 to 3% of the most active users to subsidize the game experience for the other users. This is a great mass-market model that requires fundamentally different content than traditional games.
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