In a space where the metaverse concept is becoming more prevalent than ever, it's a race to create the next big game where players can gather together in an immersive environment that'll entertain, and more importantly retain them for years to come.
Social First is a new studio that aims to be at the forefront of this, with a mission to create a new wave of cross-platform multiplayer games that have a hard focus on social elements.
The company is headed by Kim Soares, founder and CEO of Finnish mobile studio Kukouri, and COO Mikko Kähärä. It also pulls talent from other European studios, including Nitro Games, Paradox and Housemarque. With a confident team and a $2.5m cash injection to fuel its plans, Social First is full steam ahead in drafting a new gaming experience which, as you might have guessed, puts social first.
"We are gamers ourselves, and playing together with other people is the best part of the hobby," Soares tells GamesIndustry.biz. "These days there are much more opportunities for social gaming than when we were in our teens or twenties."
Kähärä adds: "There's no better user acquisition or retention driver than an invitation from a friend, no better first time user experience than your friends showing the ropes. We've seen this play out in previous titles, done thorough analysis, and found proven ways to boost the social network effect in gameplay design, live ops and marketing."
When asked why now felt like the right time to launch a studio dedicated to building social experiences, Soares says that these aspects of games are only going to grow in importance.
"The production values grow, the price of marketing and user acquisition grows, and we know from years of experience that those can be mitigated by building your games to be inherently social," Soares says.
"There's no better user acquisition or retention driver than an invitation from a friend, no better first time user experience than your friends showing the ropes"Mikko Kähärä
"We have seen personally as gamers, in our previous games and in our own kids, that people can create meaningful social connections and relationships through games. That is also very important in a business sense: Making games that offer people platforms to meet and find other like minded gamers increases the lifespan of the game."
Kähärä also notes that the investment scene is in "good shape" right now, and there has been a trend of talent shifting from established companies to either start their own or join a new team. And it helps that the industry in Finland has a wealth of mobile talent, spearheaded by the likes of Rovio and Supercell.
In terms of audience, Social First is planning to target Gen Z -- a demographic that, as Kähärä notes, is more expectant of socal elements in games.
"For them, social gameplay has always been a standard," Kähärä says. "With Pixel Worlds, we grew together with a Gen Z audience from early teens to young adulthood, which gave us valuable insight into what drives motivations in this group of players."
But with so many social titles on the market as it is, retaining players can be a struggle when the next new trend inevitably comes along. Soares and Kähärä have both worked on live ops-intensive, long-tail titles before, and are confident in the experience they bring to Social First's plans.
"We have a good take on balancing content and feature updates, live community management and endless game features," Kähärä tells us. "In the end, it's the meaning and importance that the audience attaches to the game experience in the long run that keeps the story alive and evolving. Even though the audiences play various titles, the ones your friends are playing tend to stick around."
Soares adds that it again boils back down to the social gameplay and how people are creating new relationships in games. He tells us that 96% of the players of a previous Kukouri title reported they had made new friends by playing it.
Social First has cross-platform play at the heart of its mission, and crafting live games for mobile and PC require different thought processes. While there's a perception that PC players will generally play for longer than mobile users, Soares says that's not always the case.
"Players do play quite long sessions on mobile too," he says. "In some of our previous games, people could play the game several hours per day in a few sessions that could easily be hours long."
"The so-called 'Starbucks test' -- for example, 'can a meaningful session be played in a time it takes a barista to make you a macchiato' -- hasn't been reality in mobile games for years."
Kähärä mentions that the user acquisition landscape has become a lot more challenging in mobile recently, but doesn't see that as a massive hurdle.
"Our experience is that strong social games are inherently viral, and that enables us to focus more towards brand marketing and managing organic growth, rather than highly granular, IDFA-dependent user acquisition methods," He adds.
"The games we are making will have different kinds of approaches for varied session times and devices -- they'll allow for different things to be done on the devices. However, what we have seen is that the experiences have been converging in quality and playability between small and big screens."
In the current landscape, consideration of the metaverse is unavoidable. Social First has its own approach to the trend, with plans to create a portfolio of games that revolves around the same IPs.
"Your identity, collections, heroes, items and so on can be interchangeable and add value across titles," Kähärä explains.
But of course, adding "value across titles" in the form of collectibles has become increasingly synonymous with the ever-dubious trend of NFTs in gaming. Soares thinks that NFT is an "intriguing evolutionary step -- If done in a gamer-friendly way."
"Even though the audiences play various titles, the ones your friends are playing tend to stick around"Mikko Kähärä
"It is no wonder that the gaming community has expressed mainly outrage towards current blockchain games," he adds. "They're not as much games as they are platforms for blockchain elements and speculating. We are game developers and we make games, not blockchain platforms."
Soares says that as a gamer, he can see the potential for added value in NFTs -- for example, getting a magical sword in an RPG game, being able to mint that into an NFT and then selling it for, say, $50.
"The currently so-called play-to-earn model smells awfully a lot like World of Warcraft gold farming, the only difference being that farming is the main content in the blockchain games," he continues. "I don't think those kinds of games will ever appeal to the larger gaming community.
"Referring to the $50 magical sword example, we do see that play-and-earn is a much more viable way to make games that appeal to the mass market of gamers. And let's face it, if you are in the business of making games then you want to make products for the mass market."
While Social First has built a strong founding team, it does see recruitment as a challenge later down the line.
"Team building is always a challenge, but we do have a good track record in building efficient teams and our core team is also well networked with industry professionals," Kähärä says. "We do believe that our mission is something that a lot of people want to be a part of."
He adds: "There are also a lot of people that primarily got into the games industry to make big, ambitious and rich games, like ours. Combining the motivation of making cool games with a full heart and professional and analytical experience is a strong mix for diversified game development."
The company is also cognisant of the lack of diversity often seen at new startups, and is keen to counter this from the start. As Kähärä notes, Social First's core roster is composed of 40-something veterans, and a historic lack of diverse talent still shows in veteran teams. He does think that this is changing rapidly though, as more younger professionals rise through the ranks.
Soares adds that building a diverse team is "very important" to Social First.
"For us it is key to have varied viewpoints and perspectives from a diverse team of people," he says. "Our audience is diverse and we need to reflect that in our team building and recruitment as well."