Social network games have revolutionized the gaming industry and created an impressive footprint on the Web as a whole. 235 million people play games on Facebook every month, and some estimates say that by 2014, more than one third of Internet population will be playing social games. Given that market, it's no wonder that the vast majority of game studios, small or big, have prioritized games to be played on Facebook, Orkut, StudiVZ, VK and other social networks.
Developing and launching a game in general is not an easy task. It takes a lot of time, a lot of people, a lot of planning and a lot of assumptions. On top of those operational challenges, the social gaming market is a jungle where "survival of the fittest" is a very, VERY visible reality: One day everyone is growing tomatoes, the next they are bad guys taking over a city, and the next they are crushing candies. An army of genius developers with the most stunning designs and super-engaging game ideas can find it difficult to navigate the fickle social waters, but in the midst of all of that uncertainty, the most successful gaming studios have all avoided five of the most common mortal sins gaming companies commit when launching a social game.
SoftLayer isn't gaming studio, and we don't have any blockbuster games of our own, but we support some of the most creative and successful gaming companies in the world, so we have a ton of indirect experience and perspective on the market. In fact, leading up to GDC Europe, I was speaking with a few of the brilliant people from KUULUU — an interactive entertainment company that creates social games for leading artists, celebrities and communities — about a new Facebook game they've been working on called LINKIN PARK RECHARGE:
After learning a more about how Kuuluu streamlines the process of developing and launching a new title, I started thinking about the market in general and the common mistakes most game developers make when they release a social game. So without further ado...
The 5 Mortal Sins of Launching a Social Game
1. Infinite Focus
Treat focus as limited resource. If it helps, look at your team's cumulative capacity to focus as though it's a single cube. To dedicate focus to different parts of the game or application, you'll need to slice the cube. The more pieces you create, the thinner the slices will be, and you'll be devoting less focus to the most important pieces (which often results in worse quality). If you're diverting a significant amount of attention from building out the game's story line to perfecting the textures of a character's hair or the grass on the ground, you'll wind up with an aesthetically beautiful game that no one wants to play. Of course that example is an extreme, but it's not uncommon for game developers to fall into a less blatant trap like spending time building and managing hosting infrastructure that could better be spent tweaking and improving in-game performance.
2. Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe – Geographic Targeting
Don't underestimate the power of the Internet and its social and viral drivers. You might believe your game will take off in Germany, but when you're publishing to a global social network, you need to be able to respond if your game becomes hugely popular in Seoul. A few enthusiastic Tweets or wall post from the alpha-players in Korea might be the catalyst that takes your user base in the region from 1000 to 80,000 overnight to 2,000,000 in a week. With that boom in demand, you need to have the flexibility to supply that new market with the best quality service ... And having your entire infrastructure in a single facility in Europe won't make for the best user experience in Asia. Keep an eye on the traction your game has in various regions and geolocate your content closer to the markets where you're seeing the most success.
3. They Love Us, so They'll Forgive Us.
Often, a game's success can lure gaming companies into a false sense of security. Think about it in terms of the point above: 2,000,000 Koreans are trying to play your game a week after a great article is published about you, but you don't make any changes to serve that unexpected audience. What happens? Players time out, latency drags the performance of your game to a crawl, and 2,000,000 users are clicking away to play one of the other 10,000 games on Facebook or 160,000 games in a mobile appstore. Gamers are fickle, and they demand high performance. If they experience anything less than a seamless experience, they're likely to spend their time and money elsewhere. Obviously, there's a unique balance for every game: A handful of players will be understanding to the fact that you underestimated the amount of incoming requests, that you need time to add extra infrastructure or move it elsewhere to decrease latency, but even those players will get impatient when they experience lag and downtime.
KUULUU took on this challenge in an innovative, automated way. They monitor the performance of all of their games and immediately ramp up infrastructure resources to accommodate growth in demand in specific areas. When demand shifts from one of their games to another, they're able to balance their infrastructure accordingly to deliver the best end-user experience at all times.
4. We Will Be Thiiiiiiiiiiis Successful.
Don't count your chickens before the eggs hatch. You never really, REALLY know how a social game will perform when the viral factor influences a game's popularity so dramatically. Your finite plans and expectations wind up being a list of guestimations and wishes. It's great to be optimistic and have faith in your game, but you should never have to over-commit resources "just in case." If your game takes two months to get the significant traction you expect, the infrastructure you built to meet those expectations will be underutilized for two months. On the other hand, if your game attracts four times as many players as you expected, you risk overburdening your resources as you scramble to build out servers. This uncertainty is one of the biggest drivers to cloud computing, and it leads us to the last mortal sin of launching a social game ...
5. Public Cloud Is the Answer to Everything.
To all those bravados who feel they are the master of cloud and see it as an answer to all their problems please, for your fans sake, remember the cloud has more than one flavor. Virtual instances in a public cloud environment can be provisioned within minutes are awesome for your webservers, but they may not perform well for your databases or processor-intensive requirements. KUULUU chose to incorporate bare metal cloud into a hybrid environment where a combination of virtual and dedicated resources work together to provide incredible results:
Avoiding these five mortal sins doesn't guarantee success for your social game, but at the very least, you'll sidestep a few common landmines. For more information on KUULUU's success with SoftLayer, check out this case study.