Issue: Volume 35 Issue 7: (Dec 2012)

Social Studies


Douglas King
“I think you have what it takes to be in my mafia.”
“I just visited your homestead and left you a gift.”
“You’ve been invited to join me in The Ville.”

If you have ever received any of these messages, then you are a part of the revolution of social gaming on the Internet or on a mobile device. Unlike games played on consoles, PCs, or even handheld devices—which usually offer a solitary play experience—social games are designed to be played with friends and family.

Also known as “casual games” due to the fact that they can be enjoyed in a short play session often lasting as little time as 15 minutes, social games provide an opportunity for players to create unique avatars and interact with friends and family in a fictional world with virtual goods, gifts, and goals that do not require hours (or even months) of playtime in order to succeed.


Zynga’s popular games, including CityVille and Margaritaville, are a big social-gaming draw for players of all ages.

In September alone, Zynga added six new titles to its casual games list. These include the aforementioned The Ville, along with FarmVille 2, Rubber Tacos, Fashion Designer, Sports Casino, and Mini Putt Park.

Developers must be onto something with this new genre because Zynga’s CityVille reportedly boasts more than 100 million active monthly users and is the fastest-growing game in history. According to the company, it has 232 million monthly active users—as for those who log in daily, these total roughly 65 million on Facebook.

Playfish, another casual game developer, counts 70 million active monthly users who are drawn to the company’s various games (such as Madden Superstars, My Empire, Restaurant City, and Pet Society). Back in 2009, when social gaming seemingly was just starting its meteoric rise in popularity, Playfish’s titles generated 90 million virtual item transactions daily to the tune of $75 million.

And if you think social game development is for small, indie studios only, well, think again. Some forward-thinking graduates got into the social gaming business early on and were able to pay off student loans (and then some) after selling their companies to some big names that see this trend as big business. For instance, console game giant EA bought Playfish in November 2009 for a reported $400 million. And Playdom? It’s now a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company.

Another wildly popular mobile game franchise is Rovio’s Angry Birds. Founded in 2003, Rovio flew to the forefront of the genre after launching its casual puzzle game for touch-screen smartphones in 2009. Angry Birds quickly became a smash success (pun intended)—there were more than 648 million downloads by the end of 2011, and the total number of active monthly users, across all platforms, reached 200 million of the free, ad-supported, and paid versions of the game.


Rovio’s Angry Birds became a social media smash, leading to a number of spin-off titles.

And the fun continues. Rovio has released five versions of its Angry Birds franchise, now including the original as well as Angry Birds Seasons, Angry Birds Rio, Angry Birds Space, and Angry Birds Star Wars. Due to the franchise’s success, Rovio has created a network of more than 200 licensed merchandising partners (hats, T-shirts, plush toys, books, and a TV show—and there’s even talk of a theme park), generating sales of $100 million last year. Rovio recently released a new spin-off game series titled Bad Piggies, wherein the pig villains are now the game’s protagonists. Set on Piggy Island and told from the pigs’ point of view, players build machines to help the pigs reach the birds’ eggs. In early November, Angry Birds took to the air, traveling to a galaxy far, far away, as the company teamed up with Lucasfilm with Angry Birds Star Wars. Consumers reacted positively, quickly catapulting the title to the number one game spot in the US for iOS and Android devices.

It’s apparent that Rovio has not rested on its laurels. And, competitors have taken notice. Reportedly, Zynga attempted to acquire Rovio for $2.25 billion.

Social Appeal

Mobile games, such as Rovio’s, provide “light” gameplay that can be enjoyed while waiting for a city bus or a movie. Thus, this type of game appeals to a very wide audience—

everyone outside the hard-core gaming segment (and even those people fit that bill).

Without question, the ease of entry to play these social and mobile games is one of the factors that have spurred the success of this type of title. Instead of requiring costly, dedicated console systems and then equally expensive titles for that hardware (which average $60 per release), Zynga games can be played for free with an active account on global platforms, including Facebook, MySpace, Google Play, and Yahoo, as well as using an iPad, iPhone, or Android device. In fact, Angry Birds was developed for touch-screen smartphones, and the paid version (which has more levels than the free version and a higher degree of complexity) costs less than a dollar to download.

Brian Reynolds, chief game designer for Zynga, summed up the appeal of this game genre during a keynote address at the GDC Online conference last fall: “In a social game, the very most important thing is the ability to play with all my friends. The game might be fun, but what I really want when I am on Facebook is ways to learn about [my friends] and share stuff about me with my friends. So, the more you give people chances to giggle together or talk about something they actually care about, and provide them with ways to express themselves, you will have a lot more success.”

Players of social games are not concerned with high-tech graphics played in real time on souped-up computers, nor are they bothered with complex story lines or strategy nuance. The NPD Group, a leading market research company, recently stated in Social Network Gaming that 20 percent of the US population ages six and older have reported playing a game on a social network in the past three months. That equates to 56.8 million US consumers. “Although 35 percent of social network gamers are new to gaming, it’s clear that a lot of existing gamers have been drawn into the social network gaming arena as well,” says Anita Frazier, an industry analyst at The NPD Group.

The study also found that while the perception is that social gamers are predominately female, the fact is that the players are divided fairly evenly between genders, with 47 percent male and 53 percent female.

Top on the Playlist

Without a doubt, the world’s leader in social game today is Zynga, with more than half of the top 10 Facebook games (at least at the time of this writing), including FarmVille, Mafia Wars, and CityVille. While Zynga’s FarmVille is not the first farm-themed game, it is the first to do it well in a social-context environment.

Zynga’s success has generated interesting cross-promotion and marketing tie-ins, including the launch of GagaVille, an in-game farm featuring pop sensation Lady Gaga’s “unique style,” featuring colorful crystals, magical unicorns, and sheep on motorcycles, which was live for a few short months last year.

Rovio released its successful Angry Birds tie-in with the Blue Sky/Fox animated film Rio. And THQ, along with developer Exploding Barrel Games, partnered with Jimmy Buffett to bring Margaritaville to Facebook and iOS devices.


Playfish lets people play with their virtual pets in Pet Society.

“The Margaritaville laid-back state of mind is inherently social, and THQ has captured the spirit of that lifestyle in this game,” Buffett had stated. “With Margaritaville Online, fans across the globe can party together any time, any place. You can build a boat. You can build a bar. You got to evade the pirates. You can have adventures.”

What sets Margaritaville Online apart from CityVille and the like is the fact that it is an immersive 3D world. The 3D open world features tropical environments and a full catalog of Buffett’s music. Players will be able to create their own island resort, play mini-games, and interact with characters from Buffett’s songs and literary works, including Captain Tony and Joe Merchant. They’ll even be able to create their own band. At the same time, it has all the great core tenets of a Facebook social game.

Presently, there seems to be a new king lording over the genre. King.com, a UK-based developer, has been on Facebook for about two years now, and this spring became the second largest social network game company with a reported 10.4 million daily users and the second largest game developer on Facebook with 12 million daily active players. To do this, King.com had to overthrow EA on the social media site, and did so in a sweet way: with its match-three games Candy Crush Saga and Bubble Witch. (As of this writing, Candy Crush was the fourth most popular Facebook game with 5.2 million active daily users. However, it’s difficult to keep track of all the numbers in this genre, as they seem to change quickly as new titles and companies are entering this “game” daily.

Most recently, King.com ported Candy Crush Saga and Bubble Witch to iOS mobile platforms for a full cross-platform experience, as players can now synchronize their progress in the games between their Facebook and iOS devices.

Social Business

Many social games are cheap—either free or very inexpensive. So, how do these companies—especially the likes of EA or Disney—make money? A number of ways, including the sale of digital assets.

According to a September 2010 article on “The Blog Herald,” Zynga was estimated to be earning more than $1 million per day in real-world sales of virtual goods—people pay real money for in-game, or “virtual,” goods, which allow the player to gain greater success or social status within the title. The total? Nearly $450 million in annual sales. Although each transaction is relatively small (most are approximately $15), when you multiply that by 100 million users, you have yourself a tidy little business. Surprisingly, considering the total in annual sales, the percentage of gamers who spend money is incredibly low, only 10 percent.

However, like Las Vegas, the longer one stays and plays, the more likely they will spend money.

“While social network gaming has caught on with a mass-market audience, it’s not without its challenges,” says Frazier. “Players are frustrated by slow-loading and performance issues, and report getting bored by the games easily. Clearly, these types of games will have to continue to evolve if they hope to hold their audiences and incentivize them to spend money playing.” This is particularly true of this connected generation.

On the strength of its Bubble Witch and Candy Crush Saga, King.com has established itself as a gaming destination of choice for women aged 22 to 55—a key demographic, the company points out, since advertisers recognize this group as more often than not the household decision-makers. And there’s something to be said about that: In November, the company revealed that advertising revenue from its social games has increased tenfold in 2012 and that its top advertising solutions, such as incentivized video, have averaged a click-through rate of more than 5 percent. King.com cites its ability to “craft solutions that are less intrusive and enhance player experience, leading to higher-than-industry-average user engagement and positive brand experience” as reasons for its success.

Clearly, King.com has found a way to attract advertising dollars to boost its revenue. It has run campaigns during the past few months for major brands such as T-Mobile, Samsung, Procter & Gamble, Macy's, and Nestle, and the company contends that online advertising revenue now accounts for nearly 15 percent of the company's total revenue.

Advertising solutions such as King.com’s incentivized video ad unit, where a user opts into watching a 15- to 30-second video ad in exchange for an additional life in the game, averages a click-through rate of more than 5 percent and a video completion rate of 85 percent. Other advertising opportunities, such as King.com’s “Brand as a Friend” solution, allows advertisers to include themselves as an in-game “friend” to players, helping users unlock new content to advance in the game. Not only does this significantly enhance the player’s gameplay experience, but it also firmly drives positive brand sentiment for the advertiser.

Farm and City Life

Despite these hurdles, developers see social gaming as a captivating business. One of the key attractions for developers to social and mobile games is the shorter development cycles compared to high-end console games. Consider this: FarmVille was conceived and launched in just six weeks, compared to an average of two years for a Triple-A game. Moreover, the cost of development for social and mobile games is much lower. The hardware and software costs to craft these games are low, and the number of artists and programmers needed to build them is a fraction of what is required for console and PC titles.


Playfish serves up the popular social game Restaurant City for those looking to cook up some great food and competition among friends.

And there’s more appealing factors in terms of development. With a quicker to-market time, game developers are able to refine their game theory after users have played the title and begun providing feedback.

“We knew we wanted to create a city-simulation game for Facebook players, but didn’t quite know where to start. For a while, we thought about the gameplay in terms of infrastructure (for instance, power lines, roads, traffic) because that’s what traditional city-sim games did,” says Mark Skaggs, senior vice president of product development at Zynga. “We found that most folks don’t think of cities in terms of the infrastructure, but rather in terms of the people who live there, the places they work, the restaurants they can eat at, and the stores where they can shop. Based on those cues, we changed the core design. It turns out that was the right decision because with a few iterations and a simplification pass, the game became CityVille.”

For the development of CityVille, the designers solicited the help of Yick Kai Chan, an architect with little game experience who found designing for the game world particularly liberating since he no longer had to worry about building codes and physical limitations.

“I really enjoy being able to design a lot of different types of buildings that I would never be able to design as a real-life architect—for example, factories, zoos, stadiums, courthouses, and observatories,” Kai says enthusiastically.

Kai begins with online research, pulling reference images from the Web and crystallizing the ideas with the team art director. “As soon as I feel good about the overall framework of the building, I begin refining the sketch [in Adobe’s Photoshop] by blocking in colors and material. During this process, it’s essential to think about the many design details, like how things are being connected and the visual relationship of different materials.”

The next step is finalizing the drawings with refined details: lighting, shadowing, and shading. Once the concept is done, which can take between one day and a few days depending on the complexity and size of the asset, the 3D team takes Kai’s concept and produces models using either Autodesk’s Maya or 3ds Max—and these models are what you see in the game.

“The file size of our final rendered assets presented a technical challenge for us,” notes Matthew Winalski, senior art producer. “Prior to launch, the team was focused on getting the greatest visual detail in the least amount of space. We experimented with a variety of different compression and rendering techniques, mixing and matching them until we achieved the desired look. In the end, the team was able to deliver content small enough to accommodate the massive number of buildings and objects in CityVille, while still letting the art and design shine through.”

Kai expounds on his design principles for CityVille: “The buildings have to be cute and real! However, in actuality, it’s a hard task to accomplish. I have to be extra careful with building proportions. For example, some parts of a building have to be squeezed down and others have to be made extra large in order to gain a certain visual impact. I also somehow need to inject realism into the design that our players can easily relate to. This is important because CityVille is truly an international game with eight different languages, but we don’t put text on any of our buildings. The visual props that I choose to put into the design not only help give the buildings a more realistic feel, but also help to identify the purpose and function of each structure. For example, when I designed the Chinese buildings during the Chinese New Year, I put in a lot of traditional visual props, like Chinese lanterns, Chinese opera faces, firecrackers, and stone lions.”

Animation is another challenge that Kai must design for when he feels it might help sell an idea. “When I designed the ski hills, I needed to plan with the animators how and where the in-game characters would ski off the hill and how the animation would loop.”

While the game is built using 3D modeling software, the animation is completed in Adobe’s Flash, with a number of artists using Adobe Illustrator running on Wacom Cintiq tablets.

Sky View

Unlike CityVille and FarmVille, which are popular social media games playable through Facebook, Angry Birds was hatched as a mobile title. Nevertheless, its developers have set their sights on social networks after their title soared on a mobile app. Currently the game is available on the iOS, Android, Palm WebOS, Symbian^3 (Nokia), Windows, and Mac, with Windows Phone 7, Bada, and BlackBerry Playbook versions soon to be released. “So far, we have had limited social gaming support (in the form of Game Center scoreboards and so forth), but we’re really kicking things to the next level with our proper social game,” promises Ville Heijari, vice president of franchise development.

Like CityVille, Angry Birds is a casual

game where success can be achieved in just 30 seconds of gameplay, or 30 minutes. And, like other social games, the strong and easy-to-understand visual design coupled with simple controls and easy-to-learn gameplay have made Angry Birds a phenomenal success.

“The original game cost approximately $100,000 to create and was developed by a core team of four people,” Heijari says. “A team of 12 people worked on the game to get it published. With over a year of content updates and new platform development, the initial cost has more than doubled.” Today, the Rovio studio employs nearly 80 people, with the creative and programming teams making up over half of the head count.

Angry Birds gameplay is straightforward but addicting: A flock of multi-colored birds are trying to retrieve eggs that have been stolen by bad green pigs; players use a slingshot to launch the birds at the pigs in structures made of various materials, with the intent of destroying all the pigs on the playfield. To create the game, Rovio uses a proprietary development environment, wherein the group compiles the game to different platforms. The physics are based on the open-source Box2D engine; scripting is done via Lua.

The biggest challenge facing the Rovio developers has been making the game run smoothly on older, slower devices. “While the game is casual, cartoony, and looks very simple on the surface, the physics calculations are actually rather demanding on the mobile hardware,” Heijari describes. “We actually spent a lot of time optimizing the code for devices with less processing power and have definitely learned a lot about the limitations, scalability, and variation in the current smartphone platforms.”

Not long ago, the big developments in gaming were all about hardware evolution, as computers and game consoles offered an abundance of power, and powerful content creation software enabled artists to produce amazing game graphics that ran in real time, ushering in the phase of realism. Perhaps there is some irony in the fact that the next revolution was not in a new generation of consoles, but on social and mobile platforms—with graphics that are cartoony, not realistic.

Nonetheless, this trend is a bright spot for video game developers that have recently seen greater growth in consumer spending on used games sales, full-game digital downloads, and downloadable content, mobile gaming apps, and social network gaming, all of which is offsetting declines in console game sales.

Additionally, while most parents are concerned about their kids spending countless hours wasted away in front of a television or computer monitor, social and mobile gaming allows for, and even requires, social interaction (even if it is just virtual).

So the next time you receive an invitation to join a friend on CityVille or receive a gift for your farm, consider yourself immersed in the latest trend in gaming, and prepare to join the revolution.

Douglas King is a freelance writer and producer based in Dallas. He has worked in the entertainment industry for more than 20 years, including time spent as a creative director for a game developer, product development manager, and writer/director for film and television.

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