Growth of gaming on Facebook slows, stiff challenges ahead
Update: Screen Digest's Steve Bailey adds his comments to the report on the social network's future in gaming
Screen Digest's senior analyst Steve Bailey commented further on the report, and said that for Facebook, advertising would always come ahead of the needs of game developers.
"The fact still remains that 85% of 2011 revenue for Facebook came from advertising. So, while gaming is a significant priority, it's not going to be utmost," he told GamesIndustry.biz
He also pointed to the use of Facebook's mobile apps as a reason for the relatively static unique-gamer figures, pointing out the the SDK for Facebook on mobile only became available to developers towards the end of last year.
"That's changing now, and it will be a priority for Facebook to make this happen. It's also a monetisation issue; those games with FB logins that are iOS apps were not giving FB 30 per cent cut, it's going to Apple. Facebook's mobile SDK gives the company more users but crucially give back the revenue 30 per cent share, too."
He predicts a drop in developers who rely purely on the social networking site for their total revenue, and an increase in the number of indie developers migrating to new platforms.
"A lot of indie developers targeting Facebook will have turned to mobile opportunities during 2011," he explained.
"Facebook makes sense for those companies with diversified distribution channels, those that have a major network on the platform already or those that are looking to target an underserved niche."
He also suggested indies could still benefit from the network and remain competitive by signing deals with publishers, like the recent alliance between Spry Fox and Disney for Triple Town.
The future of Facebook as a platform for gaming has been called into question by a new report from analytics firm IHS Screen Digest.
In 2011, the rapid growth in the number of gamers on Facebook seen in previous years slowed, falling behind the expansion of the platform as a whole.
The report states that, at the end of 2010, around 50 per cent of Facebook's MAUs were gamers. By the end of 2011 the absolute number of gamers remained relatively flat, though they now represent only 25 per cent of Facebook's total MAUs.
Social gaming giant Zynga is used an example of the decline facing the market, with the company's MAUs falling sharply at the end of 2011, from 266 million in Q3 to 225 million in Q4. However, Zynga's struggles reflect those of its nearest competitors.
"Facebook rocketed to prominence as a gaming platform in 2009 and 2010," said senior analyst Steve Bailey. "However, with equal speed, the market then settled into a state of maturity in 2011, with conditions becoming markedly more challenging for game operators."
The market settled into a state of maturity in 2011, with conditions becoming markedly more challenging for game operators
Steve Bailey, senior analyst, IHS Screen Digest
"While Facebook remains a worthwhile opportunity for companies able to meet these challenges, the tone of the market in 2012 will be somewhat muted compared to the optimistic outlook of the past few years."
The report points to the escalating cost of acquiring new users as one of the key problems facing social game companies.
Facebook has long since closed the viral channels that allowed early movers like Zynga, Playfish and Playdom to rise so rapidly, but the increasing number of competitors is making marketing, advertising and promotion more expensive. Last month, Sterne Agee analyst Arvind Bhatia claimed that Zynga is losing as much as $150 for every new customer it acquires.
And the fact that growth in terms of MAUs is more challenging and costly also places greater emphasis on player retention and effective monetisation.
The report notes that Facebook gamers are becoming more demanding in terms of both production values and gameplay. Development overheads are rising fast, and users are migrating away from "the most accessible game genres" and towards more engaging experiences that place emphasis on skill.
A number of publishers and developers are aiming to serve the needs of these players as they churn from the major publishers. Earlier this month, core social developer Bossa Studios told GamesIndustry.biz that there is a big opportunity for developers that can address the malaise among Facebook gamers.
"Social games should be growing at the same rate as social networks are growing, but they are not," said co-founder Henrique Olifiers.
"There is something there to look into. Clearly, [companies like Zynga and Playfish] are churning players, but they are only replacing those players with the organic growth of the social networks. Where are these people churning to? Hopefully to us."
There are also doubts over what direction Facebook will take in the future. With the audience share of gaming decreasing, so too is the power to influence broad policy changes. Screen Digest highlights the closure of viral channels and the introduction of Facebook credits as examples of past decisions that made business more difficult for social gaming companies, even though they held benefit for the platform as a whole.
However, Facebook is currently preparing to go public, and gaming remains a key revenue stream for the company. Zynga alone accounted for 12 per cent of the company's total sales in 2011, and its new shareholders are unlikely to further inhibit such an important source of income.
The question is how the company will grow. The report claims that the most promising strategy, smartphones, is "already occupied with established content and competition." The same is true of growth in Asian markets, which already have entrenched social networks and an audience with a more established culture of free-to-play gaming.
Facebook will experience growth in both areas, but the report states that the "intoxicating ski-ramp growth" enjoyed by game companies in Facebook's early days cannot be recreated.