The social games industry sprung back into the news last week after a quiet few months with the exciting revelation that Google+ had officially opened up its games business. Offering a clean design, an attractive financial package and even a hosting solution, it seems like it could be the next hot ticket platform.
But is it?
Here’s a quick summary of the key differences between Google+ and Facebook (for games):
- G+ will levy 5% of the sale price of virtual goods compared to Facebook’s 30%.
- Games are presented as a primary option in the main G+ interface. Facebook’s are not so immediately visible.
- G+ games are presented with a clear storefront showing featured games. Facebook has no storefront and relies on users discovering games through friends or advertising.
- G+ users can find their previously played games from the storefront. Facebook users can find them from the home page through an expanded list.
- G+ has, as yet, no advertising.
- G+ also has, as yet, no publically viewable metrics of game usage. Facebook does, which makes analysis of trends easier.
- G+ will apparently offer hosting for games on Google’s own servers. Facebook does not.
- G+ games seem to have a larger canvas area to play with, around 930px wide. Early games are not using this yet, so many games are appearing with large grey borders on each side.
- Notification feeds seems to be more formally separated from the main feed (For example, game invites, high score boasts) and have no front page presence in G+. Facebook’s are intermixed.
- Facebook games can cross-publish to other players’ walls. G+ games don’t seem to have an equivalent ability.
- The Google+ presentation is, on the whole, very clean. The Facebook presentation tends to be more cluttered/noisy.
Most of my industry friends and clients immediately noticed that 5% figure. Many of them are already finding Facebook’s 30% a real stumbling block, especially when they also have to fund the cost of their own hosting. So 5% makes them immediately happier.
The possibility of Google-run hosting is also interesting, depending on the cost. On Facebook there are essentially two failure points for games: Facebook itself and your cloud hosting. This causes a lot of lag or even a lack of service if one or the other is down. So in theory having your game on the Google stack where G+ also lives should be more robust and faster.
Another positive is the storefront (as shown in the image at the top of this post). As I wrote about a few weeks ago, one of the reasons Facebook is no longer an interesting platform is the lack of a storefront to talk about new games, which is why it has become stale and dominated by Zynga. In theory (depending on how Google manages that storefront) G+ is more capable of promoting interesting apps and so keeping the ecosystem vital and less beholden to a few super-developers.
The larger canvas is also welcome. Facebook games have often had very cramped interfaces, and are surrounded by distractions. This makes it harder for developers to establish deeper engagement with players. Interestingly, and possibly in response to the Google threat, Facebook has recently announced that increased canvas size is also coming soon to its platform.
… And Losses
One downside is that the various mechanisms that social game makers use to acquire or retain users in Facebook are much more curtailed in Google+. G+ keeps games within their own area, and doesn’t have any advertising space in the main interface yet.
This means that G+ is more reliant on users noticing the games feed that appears under the storefront, and the game notifications (including invites) in the menu on the left. When Facebook took similar steps at the end of 2009 to shut down the abuse of viral channels by developers it killed growth. So much so that Facebook had to turn those channels back on.
The problem with hiving notifications off to such an extent is that players don’t really care about the social side of social games nearly as much as the industry imagines they do. Unless notifications are actually in players’ faces, they rarely notice or think to go find them. At the same time this creates a tension for other players that don’t want to be bothered by social network spam.
Likewise the lack of an advertising space in the interface impedes acquisition and retention. A company like Zynga, for example, doesn’t just use social advertising to tell new players about their wares: They also advertise to their existing audience as a way to remind them to come back and play. This helps Zynga to overcome the significant usage blindness that the Facebook interface induces, and the G+ interface too.
Together, these issues mean that the G+ interface is incredibly reliant on the storefront to drive users. In essence Google have created a social network with many advantages, but with the marketing structure of the iOS app store. Whether the two can play well together is an unknown that will magnify as more games come into the channel.
Google+ is only open to a few key already-established developers like Popcap, Zynga and Wooga. This is a very significant issue for the platform for two reasons, one short term and the other long.
In the short term, G+’s game selection looks awfully familiar. The platform story of Google+ can’t just be that it’s another Facebook. It needs to be more adventurous than that, and different (especially desirable) game content is the primary way to do that.
The long term reason is that as established developers figure out how to maximise G+ in a relatively protected environment, it increases the likelihood that one or more of them will become the dominant force in the platform permanently.
At first glance that may not seem like an issue. An established developer brings the skill in making successful social games, and so can help Google solve the major issues with the platform. However if it carries on long enough then what will happen is that one or more third party content providers will be powerful enough to dictate the future of the platform. As has arguably happened to Facebook games because of the might of Zynga.
The console industry has known this for a long time, and it is a source of unending tension between first party (platform holder) ambitions and the contradictory needs of almost-as-powerful third parties. Third party publishers often have ambitions that are at odds with those of platforms because they are looking beyond just one platform. They want to be able to be cross-compatible across many platforms, offering as uniform a software experience as possible, but for a platform that can be a death sentence.
In the console industry this often resulted in games created with middleware that look identical across all platforms and which tended to behave sluggishly in comparison to exclusives. That's why Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all work hard to get exclusive killer apps. Exclusives draw users to a platform like nothing else and make it the place to play.
G+ currently does not have any exclusives in its arsenal. It has a lot of me-too content which could just as easily be on any one of a dozen other platforms (and in many cases is). Zynga Poker, Bejewelled and Angry Birds are just not going to get it done because everybody’s played them to death already. The risk of having such commonplace content is thus that Google+ may end up looking an also-ran platform.
Perhaps the most important question is whether Google+ turns out to have a different flavour of community than Facebook. It seems to me that it will.
Just as Gmail tends to attract more of a certain kind of savvy, web-engaged user than Yahoo or Hotmail do, I suspect that G+ is the same. There is something about how and what is used for that has a sophisticated air (particularly the focus on Circles) and for many that will seem a bit complicated, just as threaded mail still is for your average used-to-Outlook user.
G+ is essentially a social network for smart people. If so, I think this means it will not beat Facebook in terms of raw user numbers, but it will have more engaged users. It will also attract a smarter class of gamer, and this will mean that the audience fit for game content will be different.
A game like Horse Saga will not easily find an audience in Google+. The viral hooks which use appointment-driven gameplay will find it more difficult to gain traction when those channels are less available, and the subject matter will probably not sit well with the audience. However a game like Realm of the Mad God, which would struggle on Facebook, might do very well.
G+ might also prove to be a better venue for the simultaneous style of social games that Raph Koster foresees. It has integrated video chat and a generally better chat client than Facebook, and both developers and creative people are already toying with its capabilities in new and interesting ways. With Google+, you might finally have an effective way to play Dungeons and Dragons with all your old college buddies even though they’ve moved abroad.
How awesome would that be?
Google+ is not a second Facebook, and it’s unlikely to ever be so. It probably won't be a social network for your mother or a self-advertising tool like Twitter. Instead it looks like a social network that geeks and other assorted smart people will get.
That’s if Google handle it right. There are a number of challenges, most especially that of making their API available to developers soon, and then working with them to develop some special content that defines the platform. Handle it wrong and it will be dead long before it has a chance to be interesting.