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Social games lose their 'cool'

The fun run, it seems, is almost over. With players hanging up their joysticks, can game makers turn into game-changers?

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Shweta Gugnani, mother of a three-year-old, is done playing and Farmville—popular where users build and maintain virtual cities and farms. Having spent Rs 500 on in-game items to make her virtual ‘city’ and ‘farm’ look awesome, Gugnani now says she has grown weary of them. “There was a time when every friend of mine was growing corn and buying stuff on to share them on Facebook. It was very addictive,” she says. “But after you achieve a certain level, the interest wanes, as there’s no new challenge confronting you.”

And Gugnani isn’t alone. In March, Pritha Krishna got hooked to a social app called Draw Something, where people would sketch pictures of objects which their friends (on social networks) could then guess. “Pretty soon, I had invited and linked up with more than 30 of my friends on this app. We exchanged our doodles furiously, trying to guess their names. But then it got boring. All you did was guess the same set of words,” she says. Even though Krishna still has the app on her iPhone, she logs on to it only once in two days.

This, rue gamers, is the hurdle facing social gaming. You lose interest in it too soon. The wearing off of the novelty factor and the “mild boringness arising with the games,” says Mike Vorhaus, head of analysis firm Magid Advisors, are some of the reasons for the decline in social gaming. So, the challenge looming before developers—to keep players from succumbing—is to keep aiming at the sweet spot.

FLIRT WITH THE FUTURE WITH…
* Smartphone social gaming 
* HTML5’s development, which will blur the lines between different platforms. This will ensure that a new Facebook game can immediately, and without having to install any additional application, be run on an iPhone, Android phone or tablets such as the iPad. 
* Social gaming on a connected TV. But, as of now, leading social networks, gaming platforms and developers are loathe to reveal their connected TV plans
* Tablets, which would suit casual gamers

Data collected by industry analyst Business Insights reveals that in India social gaming is majorly a feminine activity, with 18 million women players, compared to 15 million male ones in 2010. By 2012, there would be over 50 million social gamers in the country. For game makers, however, this translates into an average revenue per user (ARPU) of just about $1 (or Rs 52). Business Insight analysts estimate this to rise marginally (to $1.14 by 2015).

The social gaming market in India is also dominated by the youth—29 per cent of the players are under 18 and over half are under 30. To reach this critical mass, developers are looking to straddle across multiple genres, embracing a number of platforms including Facebook, iOS devices and also digital platforms on gaming consoles.

Tablets are also well suited to casual gaming, and the steady rise in the popularity of these is expected to provide a fillip to the social gaming market. This already is a convenient option for many like Freeda Elvira, who recently bought the new iPad, and claims spending over Rs 1,000 on gaming apps and social game purchases. “At just $0.99, you can download virtual goods for social games. This is far cheaper than any console game that costs upwards of Rs 1,500,” she says.

Consumer reports on the social gaming sector hint at the possibility of developers uniting on a platform such as Facebook or Game Center, Apple’s social gaming network on iOS devices, so that casual gamers can purchase virtual goods easily, connect with their friends and use resources across platforms. There’s no denying that with over 45 million Indian users, Facebook continues to remain the biggest platform for developers and gamers alike. Facebook’s strength lies in the fact that are interwoven into its network. That’s what gamers have come to expect. A young gamer, Abhijeet More who is studying engineering at Pune, says, “What I prefer is a uniform currency in the form of Facebook credits for all games which ensures that if I do purchase virtual credits with real money, they won’t be wasted because I lost interest in a particular game.” Anyone who has played Facebook-based games such as Cityville or Texas Hold ’Em Poker is likely to be familiar with “Facebook credits”, which is the default method of payment for all games and virtual gifts on the social network. However, while social games are not accessible on Facebook’s mobile platform yet, Apple iOS devices allow users to play and purchase directly on the mobile platform via a registered credit card.

Developers are already finding ways to keep gamers hooked. Raj Menon, the director of Games2win.com, is hoping to keep players interested with the company’s own social platform, Appucino, which allows users to capture their favourite locations on Google Maps. Users can also challenge their friends and strangers and dislodge them from their locations by beating their score. Mango Games, an independent social game developer and publisher, believes that localising the content is the key to reach Indian audience. The company’s new game, Don: The Social Mobsters, is based on a Bollywood theme and Social Rummy is a popular card game with several mini variations. “The concept of building farms, houses, cities, etc is now outdated. Only a handful of Indians can relate to such foreign content,” says Charandeep Singh Hattar, country head (Operation), Mango Games. Aware that Indian gamers are tough to please and even tougher when it comes to paying for in-game features, the company has decided to offer discounts to lure them. “It is important to have a healthy monthly active user-base and daily active users to drive monetisation via virtual goods and products,” says Hattar. “To strike a balance, we’re offering huge discounts on the purchase of virtual goods in Indian currency which until now was in dollars and without any offers.” Gamers on Mango’s platform are already spending an average of Rs 5-7 per day and the developer is adding models to expand the daily spend. The main emphasis, says Hattar, is towards broadening the virtual catalogue and inventory on games, offering users more variety.

Some critics believe that the social games market will simply become oversaturated and drown in its own excess. Social gaming, they feel, is in need of a controlled cull as there are so many options, most of them are free, and only a handful can be considered top quality. Casual gamers like More say, “For most gamers like me, games that don’t require the player to be tethered to a PC, Wi-Fi or 3G connection will receive a lot more play as they can be pulled out anytime, anywhere.” Are the developers listening?

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