Thứ Ba, 12 tháng 7, 2011

Free online games reflect sea change

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Wellington games developer Sidhe will release its first browser based and social smartphone games in the next few months as it shuns bricks and mortar retailing for digital downloads.

The 100-person company is responding to a sea change in gaming that means games are no longer only sold for $50-plus by retailers for a few select consoles.

Instead they are increasingly distributed online for a range of platforms including smartphones, tablets, consoles and computers, and in the case of mobile and social games – which are linked to people's social networks – are free or almost free, and often supported by ads.

Sidhe plans to release six iPhone games under its PikPok brand over August and September as well as the Rugby World Cup-timed Rugby Challenge – potentially its last traditional retail title.

Managing director Mario Wynands says it will publish more and more of its own games as the work for hire model "is becoming more challenging regardless of whether the output is physical or digital".

"There is typically less and less projects and more and more competition. A lot of developing Asian and Eastern European nations are acquiring the skills to develop basic games and they can do that so cheaply."

Physical distribution is limited. There are only so many games a retailer can put on their shelves and "retailers only want to stock the stuff that's doing really well", he says.

Intense competition means relying solely on an upfront retail price to make money is challenging, and the proliferation of free or near-free games had decreased the perceived value of games, Mr Wynands says.

"In order to be effective in monetising content you need to be able to show that content up front for free.

"Some people will only ever consume that content for free but if you make it really engaging they may want to buy vanity items, or items that accelerate your experience or unlock new content. You rely on those people to provide the return."

Sidhe will be "generally platform agnostic" in its approach – "one of the advantages we have is we can do everything from iPhone through to PlayStation 3 and the XBox 360" – and play to its strengths in certain genres such as sports and driving as well as trying out new categories and styles, Mr Wynands says.

He does not rule out work for hire or traditional retail titles in future, and says Sidhe is working on franchise titles directly for movie studios.

"One of the advantages of continuing to work on larger projects and externally funded projects is we get to build our technology and experience on somebody else's funding and roll that learning and those improvements into our games as well."

Sidhe could use traditional retail as an incremental revenue stream, releasing physical copies of games after the downloadable version as it did with its self-published brick-breaking game Shatter.

The company laid off about six staff at the end of last year as it changed tack and in the coming months will look to hire staff in areas such as community management and marketing.

Sidhe sees an opportunity to bring polished gameplay to social games, many of which are popular simply because they are social, Mr Wynands says.

One company that has managed this is United States firm Zynga – behind six of the top 10 games on Facebook including Farmville, which has more than 42 million active users a month. Zynga studio manager Tim Train says unlike traditional multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft, social games let people compete and collaborate with real friends, and they don't have to be online at the same time.

"People like playing with other people they know in their real lives. I give you parts of my barn or he gives me parts of his barn. There's a light social touch that's very simple but incredibly powerful.

"I might be playing at night and you're playing at noon but we can leave evidence that we have been playing together, you might see that someone has tended your crops."

The social dimension motivates people to do well in the game, "that makes you cool", and makes for potent viral marketing – "your friends are telling you they're playing a game and enjoying it", Mr Train says.

It's also a form of expression, and virtual farmers on Farmville have purchased purple cows to stand out from the herd or used different coloured flowers to recreate famous artworks such as the Mona Lisa on their farms.

Social games are cheap and relatively quick to create – Farmville took five weeks to develop, and new features are constantly added and tracked to gauge their popularity, Mr Train says.

"Most game development happens after launch so we can see what players actually like."

The games can be consumed in short sessions multiple times a day, fitting around people's busy lifestyles. "You can play for five minutes at a time when you're watching TV or on the phone with grandma."

The US researcher ThinkEquity estimates between 3 and 5 per cent of social gamers pay for them, Mr Train says.


The top three applications on Facebook are games

On average Zynga has 250 million monthly users across its games

Farmville has on average more than 42 million monthly users

500 million acres of virtual farmland and 20 billion trees have been planted in Farmville

Between 3 and 5 per cent of active users directly pay for social games, according to United States researcher ThinkEquity

Research firm Gartner estimates spending on online gaming will reach US$28 billion by 2015, up from the current spend of $11.8b

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