As traditional publishers look towards Facebook and other social networking sites for new business opportunities, they face a real danger of wasting significant money on getting games right for a new audience.
That's the warning from David Edery, former XBLA games portfolio manager and now principle of consultancy Fuzbi, who said that there could be rich pickings for companies who can tackle short-term problems associated with development and marketing.
"Facebook is definitely a viable platform for traditional publishers," said Edery. "The short-term problem is that traditional publishers simply aren't geared towards making the kinds of games that succeed on Facebook."
"The traditional publishers will end up wasting quite a lot of money in the process – you can be certain of that – but some of them will ultimately succeed at entering the market."
If a publisher doesn't establish a dedicated team, or as in the case of EA, buy a whole company specialising in social network development, it must change the way it designs games and markets them to the public, said Edery.
"In general, their game designers are trained and prefer to make games that are fun above all else, where a Facebook game designer needs to be as concerned with designing a free-to-play game that is capable of generating real revenue. And in general, their designers are also accustomed to thinking of player acquisition as 'marketing's problem', whereas viral player acquisition is clearly a core design challenge on Facebook."
He added: "Traditional publishers don't have much experience marketing these kinds of games, in this kind of channel, to this broad an audience. They're set up to manage the relationship with Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, to push discs into retail stores, and to blow a wad of cash on TV and magazine advertising."
Take-Two is currently working on a Facebook version of popular franchise Civilization, while Ubisoft said last week that it can be assumed some of its IP will arrive on Facebook in the near future.
Expanding established gaming brands on Facebook is possible, said Edery, so long as care is taken not to cannablise sales on other formats or cheapen the franchise.
"There's no reason not to try bringing established franchises to Facebook; you simply need to be wary of being too literal in the translation. Put another way: as long as The Sims on Facebook is different enough from The Sims on PC and console, EA has an opportunity to broaden the already huge audience for the Sims and make some extra cash in the process.
"On the other hand, if the two experiences are excessively similar, EA might find that it has inadvertently trained its consumers to expect all Sims content for free – assuming the Facebook version is free-to-play, which is likely but not a given," he added.
The early life of a platform is a perfect time for publishers to take advantage of it, offered Edery, noting that although some genres are already saturated on Facebook, there are more opportunities to create new niche experiences.
"The number of gaming opportunities on Facebook dramatically outnumber the genres that one might call saturated. With a few notable exceptions, many of the most popular games on Facebook seem to be cut from the same cloth. They have simple art, they are oftentimes 'social' in only the loosest of ways, and they're generally simple puzzle games or RPGs. Many quickly devolve into unabashed time sinks. There's clearly tremendous demand for these experiences so please don't think I'm denigrating them, but there's also room for many other experiences as well," he said.
"There's been little exploration of potentially lucrative niche audiences on Facebook. This is a platform with hundreds of millions of users – surely there must be some online audiences in the millions (or tens of millions) that would be unreachable in the console space but are reachable on Facebook. What do those audiences want? Religiously-themed games? Something else? Ironically, one might call 'games that appeal particularly to hardcore gamers' an under-explored niche on Facebook."