In a typical race, a head start is pretty valuable. And in a new medium it used to be damn valuable to be first. Being first attracted players that bore with them their own gravity, their own social weight to draw on yet more players. This has been especially true for multiplayer games of any kind. Sure, you could predict the arrival of competitors who would chase the latest source of money, but that just served as testimony to success. And as I think back, though the popularity of gaming media waxed and waned, the “industry-leading game” has seemed impervious to also-ran competitors.
We should not expect this trend to continue for two reasons. The first, a bit theoretical. Our attention spans seem shorter, and we seem happy to move onto new things faster than ever. Remember when a hit game would consume us for months and months? Now, it’s lucky to last a few weeks. The second reason, perhaps more provably, is that today’s games struggle to create stickiness. Not only do they face more competition, but it’s my supposition that today’s platforms work against them. Let’s examine what I mean here by considering the platform, or format, behind a few leading multiplayer games.
Pen & Paper Games. Dungeons & Dragons, despite occasional competitors such as Vampire and others, was never dethroned as the king of paper RPGs. Even when it stopped publishing new product for almost a year. And what was the platform? A pile of hardback books, a character on a piece of paper, real-world friends, and your imagination.
Collectible Card Games. Magic: the Gathering was never dethroned as a paper card game, unless you count the craze of Pokemon, a highly collected game that was seldom played and which has long since crashed (probably not coincidentally). The platform: a pile of cards, and opponents that are real-world friends or acquaintances.
Multiplayer FPS. Every multiplayer console action game has a brief half-life. Even the most popular of multiplayer console games are displaced within a year by a successor, even if it’s a sequel from the same publisher. Is this something inherent about the “realistic” genres, or the fact that there’s no persistent character to get attached to, despite all the equipment unlocks? Here, the platform are consoles that are obsolete in a decade, and a CD. Largely anonymous and transient human contacts.
MMOs. Ultima Online… no, wait, EverQuest… no, wait, WoW ate their lunch. EverQuest was the leader from 1999 to 2004 — after which Blizzard owned the Western market (see below). At present, WoW seems unlikely to be dethroned, 5 years on. The platform: A Windows-based PC, an installed piece of software, your character. Persistent human contacts and relationships that are necessary to reach game content, though contact with other players grows more automated, more fleeting, and easier all the time.
Social Games. Today, we have Facebook, the premier social networking site. And FarmVille, game leader for the past couple years. In about a week, Farmville will lose its #1 rank among Facebook’s application hierarchy to a lightweight Phrases app. No doubt the news will be hailed as a milestone moment in FarmVille’s decline from unstoppable industry giant to popular social game. Though you shouldn’t cry too much for Zynga. For now, anyway. Judging by its DAU/MAU, the core of the player base isn’t fleeing, and it’s those dedicated users that supply more of the cash.
More on point, the platform would seem to provide FarmVille with every advantage. Any internet browser and just about any mobile device allow players to access the game. State-of-the-art machinery isn’t a requirement. Really, no investment of any kind is necessary to start playing. Plus, you’ve got real world friends and acquaintances already hooked into the network. Of course, all of these reasons are the same causes that could lead to the game’s obsolescence. With prior gaming experiences, players had layers of investment keeping them attached. Books, cards, disks, consoles, subscriptions, etc. Those are all gone. It’s no wonder then that Zynga’s developers spend so much of their time trying to craft new Skinner boxes that keep the audience hooked (and measure their success as precisely as possibly). My long-term bet, though, is that this is a Sisyphean task. The social gaming platform works against you — it’s too easy to find the next game, suffer no investment loss, and play the next game with all your friends.