Emergent dynamics in Facebook games
A few days ago, I talked about the primary business model of Facebook games: give us money, visit our sponsors so they can give us money, or propagate the game to your friends so maybe they will do one of the above. Here’s two examples of why this model is broken.
Attack of the Clones
In Warbook, the primary mechanic revolves around how to allocate your resources: towards resource generation, attack, or defense. You’re encouraged to team up with friends with the ability to send resources to other players, and two players who coordinate and assist one another are going to be more powerful than if they just played separately.
However, what’s even more efficient is if a single player controls multiple characters: several that are pure resource generation with no attack or defense at all, that funnel all their resources to a main military character. This allows the main character to field a much larger army than they would otherwise be able to support.
This is not difficult to do. You can create free email accounts at a variety of places, and create a free Facebook account for each of those, and then add these alter egos to your friends list.
So, the game actually rewards you for creating “alt” characters, over and above inviting your friends. So much for propagation.
About the only thing the developer could do is to make “alts” against their terms of service (which is what Warbook does). And then they have to devote a substantial ongoing support cost to the game playing whack-a-mole with players who abuse the service, get kicked off, then create more Facebook accounts and come right back. Or else don’t bother, and then the policy has no teeth and is blithely ignored anyway.
Friend your friends.
In the game Elven Blood, progression is blocked at several points until you have enough people in your “adventuring party.” You get more party members by successfully inviting friends into the game, of course. You may add your friends to your party if they already play, though, so this is not guaranteed propagation for the game — you might be “propagating” to someone who already plays.
The other day, I found out this can go in reverse. I received a friend request on Facebook from someone who plays this game and is looking for new party members. (In order to add someone to your party in Elven Blood, they have to be on your Facebook friends list, so he couldn’t just add me in the game without Facebook-friending me first.)
So, here is a case where not only has the propagation method failed (this player is friending people in the game, rather than propagating the game to their friends who don’t play), but it has the interesting social side effect of introducing two people who never would have met otherwise. Fun for me, not so great for the developers.
Don’t worry, we’ll do it for you
Recently in the game Mob Wars, the developers added a new feature: it will automatically search your Facebook-friends list and tell you which of your friends are already playing, so that you can “friend” them in the game too.
I assume the developers added this feature from popular demand, because players would incessantly ask for this to be made easy for them. The down side is that it gives people large groups without having to propagate the game to someone new. The developers get absolutely no benefit from this feature, and have (unfortunately) just destroyed half of their revenue model in the process.
There are too many easy ways to abuse a propagation mechanic. Facebook games have to limit their rewards for inviting friends, and focus more on monetary rewards (paying the developer directly, or visiting sponsor sites). Propagation does not have the value that a game developer would like it to.
Finding alternate monetization methods (without relying on propagation) should not be that hard. Non-Facebook games like Kart Racer and Maplestory somehow manage to do well with the free-to-play microtransactions-for-premium-content model without any built-in requirements to invite friends.
– Ian Schreiber