9 February 2011

Pop Goes the Game Industry - by David Fox

A better phrase for “social games” might just be “popfast games”.

Start by thinking about pop music. Is the music that sells the most widely the “best” music? The most “inventive” or “innovative”? The melodic phrasings that took serious artistic risks or lyrics that tried to actually say something? Or is pop music, more than anything, the music that you happen to listen to? The music that plays in the background while you and your buds hang out, battling against crushing boredom?

Pop is everywhere, always, at once. On the radio/Pandora, on TV/YouTube, topping the Billboard/iTunes charts. Pop gets inside you, forcing your foot to tap before it remembers to be cynical, forcing the teenage-fangirl inside us all to shriek, “Gawd I luv this band!”

Sure, every once in a while an obscure, innovative song miraculously rises to the top of the charts and becomes naturally, organically pop. But more often pop is painstakingly manufactured by a very big industry.

Few record companies understand the current gestalt well enough to produce a tune and develop a pop star both new-feeling and familiar-feeling enough to work across the broadest of audiences.

But even fewer companies can take a nascent sensation and understand and manipulate the media machine and marketing ecosystem well enough to engineer the fact that everyone is listening to the same song at the same time.

Pop is also unique to the medium of music. Modern music is purely portable, able to be layered onto the rest of life – at work or study, driving or dining. There have been “pop art” and “pop film” and “pop fashion” and “pop fiction” movements, and other media certainly succeeds in manufacturing hits and using expensive marketing to make products feel ubiquitous. But only music can truly be pervasively pop.

Until now. With the mass adoption of the Web and smartphones, games too have become purely portable and able to be layered onto life. And with the dominance of Facebook games now have a context to live in involving chums and colleagues whose consumption habits you can continually follow like a wave carrying the same piece of flotsam in to shore, back out, and sometimes in again where it will, for a time, litter the beach of your consciousness.

With apologies to Wikipedia, check out this chart that clinically lists the characteristics of pop music versus those of social games:

Pop Music (via Wikipedia)
Social GamesAn aim of appealing to a general audience, rather than to a particular sub-culture or ideologyDittoAn emphasis on craftsmanship rather than formal “artistic” qualitiesYupAn emphasis on recording, production, and technology, over live performanceThe equivalent here would be an emphasis on well-measured systems vs. a consumable piece of creative expressionA tendency to reflect existing trends rather than progressive developmentsFo’ shoIntended to encourage dancing, or it uses dance-oriented beats or rhythmsSubstitute “clicking” for “dancing”

Of course the even greater potential and power of social games is that they are not media like a canned pop song – they are an ongoing service. So really the pop music metaphor breaks down once the player actually arrives at the game. A better metaphor at that point becomes a convenient place that people drop into out of habit, a place that nearly everyone passes by during their daily journey, a place with cheap, quick, addictive treats.

We’re talking ‘bout fast food.

So let’s review. For a company to succeed consistently at social games it needs to be masterful at:

The market research or raw skill capable of capturing or cloning a gestalt.The technical and artistic prowess to achieve scalable, fast-loading productions.Engineering the social network to make it seem like everyone is grooving to the same frequency.Merchandising, branding, and the systematic measurement and control mechanisms involved with running and scaling a successful franchise.

Social game companies (and wannabes) are just now grappling with the magnitude of capital and breadth of expertise required to release and run a continual flow of hits. They are painfully realizing the need to weave discrete disciplines together and get it all running in lockstep.

We all – as human beings or companies – have things in our repertoire we truly know because of sheer experience; the knowledge is inherent and core to our way of thinking. And we all also have things we copy baldly from leaders and fake our way through. Most social game companies are deeply in the latter category – either stuck in boxed-game mentality or so focused on metrics and feedback loops that they are unable to branch out and experiment with even the simplest of innovations.

Few companies will make the leap to popfast.

And even fewer will really harness the full potential of popfast anytime soon. After all, pop music brings people together because it truly heightens emotion and becomes the soundtrack of precious memories. Fast food restaurants, meanwhile, feed a very essential human hunger (arguably unhealthily, but certainly cost-effectively).

Popfast games have the ability to achieve true togetherness and give humans a platform through which to express and understand themselves in entirely new ways. The company that figures that out will dominate this new art form.

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Daniel Cook
9 Feb 2011 at 2:22 pm PST

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