Traditional Publishers on Facebook

I was recently interviewed by Matt Martin of on the subject of publishers making the transition to Facebook. Since my correspondence with Matt was via email, I thought I’d take advantage and share the full transcript, for those of you who are interested in this topic:

Question: Is Facebook a viable format for traditional videogame publishers? Are there opportunities for someone like EA or Take 2 to make a significant profit? Or is Facebook as a platform over for those big publishers that haven’t already established themselves on the service?

Facebook is definitely a viable platform for traditional publishers. The short-term problem, as I’ve noted in the past, is that traditional publishers simply aren’t geared towards making the kinds of games that succeed on Facebook. In general, their game designers are trained (and prefer) to make games that are fun above all else, where a Facebook game designer needs to be as concerned with designing a free-to-play game that is capable of generating real revenue. And in general, their designers are also accustomed to thinking of player acquisition as “marketing’s problem,” whereas viral player acquisition is clearly a core design challenge on Facebook. But I don’t want to make it sound like design is the only challenge; traditional publishers don’t have much experience marketing these kinds of games, in this kind of channel, to this broad an audience. They’re set up to manage the relationship with Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, to push discs into retail stores, and to blow a wad of cash on TV and magazine advertising. Obviously this is a generalization, but you get my point.

But as I mentioned earlier, that’s all a short-term problem. There’s no inherent reason why traditional publishers can’t build (or buy) fresh studios to focus on this opportunity. They’ve done it before; mobile games are a good example. The traditional publishers will end up wasting quite a lot of money in the process — you can be certain of that — but some of them will ultimately succeed at entering the market.

Question: Would big game franchises such as The Sims or Civilization translate to Facebook gaming, or should publishers try new projects and IP?

Regardless of the platform, it always pays to have a healthy portfolio approach. There’s no reason *not* to try bringing established franchises to Facebook; you simply need to be wary of being too literal in the translation. Put another way: as long as The Sims on Facebook is different enough from The Sims on PC+console, EA has an opportunity to broaden the already huge audience for the Sims and make some extra cash in the process. On the other hand, if the two experiences are excessively similar, EA might find that it has inadvertently trained its consumers to expect all Sims content for free (assuming the Facebook version is F2P, which is likely but not a given). At any rate, I doubt they’ll make that mistake.

All that said, the early life of a platform is generally a great time to launch original IP, and publishers should clearly take advantage of the opportunity to the greatest extent possible. But who in their right mind would say no to a Facebook version of Civilization? 🙂

Question: What gaming opportunities are still available on Facebook, and how long do you expect until the platform suffers from a glut of games?

Currently, I think the number of gaming opportunities on Facebook dramatically outnumber the genres that one might call saturated. With a few notable exceptions, many of the most popular games on Facebook seem to be cut from the same cloth. They have simple art, they are oftentimes “social” in only the loosest of ways, and they’re generally simple puzzle games or RPGs. Many quickly devolve into unabashed time sinks. There’s clearly tremendous demand for these experiences so please don’t think I’m denigrating them, but there’s also room for many other experiences as well.

I should add that to my knowledge, there’s been little exploration of potentially lucrative niche audiences on Facebook. This is a platform with hundreds of millions of users — surely there must be some online audiences in the millions (or tens of millions) that would be unreachable in the console space but are reachable on Facebook! What do those audiences want? Religiously-themed games? Something else? Ironically, one might call “games that appeal particularly to hardcore gamers” an under-explored niche on Facebook!

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