First to Market Not as Valuable Anymore

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.

I owe my start as a game devel­op­er to two such game successes.Though D&D was devel­oped while I was in dia­pers, and I was in col­lege while Richard was putting togeth­er Mag­ic.

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.

The dom­i­nat­ing swath of brown — WoW.

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.

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