By guest author Cindy Weng
Social gaming has shown no signs of slowing down, and there are many who want to capitalize on this multimillion-dollar market. Google, in an effort to offer more socially aware services, recently purchased social entertainment company Slide Inc. for an estimated $200 million. If this price didn’t shock you, maybe this will: Disney purchased the fourth-largest game developer on Facebook, Playdom, for $700 million at the end of July. Playdom’s total funding is a mere $75 million.
With giants such as Zynga, Playfish, and Playdom ruling the social gaming world, how can any entrepreneur hope to penetrate the market? To find out, I enthusiastically embarked on a two-month journey in the heart of modern Beijing with a small startup called RedAtoms.
RedAtoms is a unique China-based company that draws its talent and experience from the rapidly modernizing nation. The company creates games targeted toward the U.S. and other English-speaking markets and is led by a few U.S. expats and run like a Silicon Valley startup. Young, hip developers can be seen coding furiously most of the time, but they occasionally enjoy fighting over who gets to take home the company iPad next. Jerry Lin, COO of RedAtoms, explains the company’s personality: “We have an extremely competitive team: while we respect all of our industry leaders and learn from them all the time, what gets us out of bed every morning is the thought of beating them at their own game.”
When I arrived, RedAtoms was focused on providing players with one quality game with a never-before-seen theme that at the same time included common social gaming features. The result was Bar Society, a place where users could own their own bar and mix trendy drinks to sell. Like earlier games, the goal is to make a product that can be sold for coins, which can then be used to purchase extravagant decorations for your personal space. Add a glittering dance floor for customers to enjoy, and an innovative but safely familiar game is born.
The process of programming a game, marketing it to Facebook users, and reaping the benefits sounds simple enough, but my time with RedAtoms showed me the struggles of a minnow trying to get a bite of the bait in a tank of sharks. A company with limited resources and manpower has to work much more efficiently to keep up with the weekly, if not daily updates that larger gaming companies push out for their games. Customer complaints have greater power when the user base is small, and comprehensive customer service is crucial to success. Getting it right the first time is also essential because fixing issues is a costly obstacle to releasing new features. Turning to agile programming is one way to maximize efficiency, but it takes an open-minded and willing team to make it work. Pressure from all sides for a perfect game necessitates that programmers are not only skilled but creative. A workforce lacking either will find itself with many bottlenecks in its productivity.
The most difficult part of the social gaming industry is that nothing is ever stationary. Players have come to expect constant updates and additions to existing games, or they don’t even think twice about leaving them for new ones. It is at a breakneck speed that social games are being developed, played, and then dropped. Coming up with ways to keep users interested is a task in and of itself. The Sticky Factor tries to make numerical sense of what determines a game’s success. Blame it on today’s mobile generation, but this shows just how important visionaries are in all areas of a company matters. RedAtoms calls many creative meetings and keeps the ideas alive by challenging its employees to think outside the box while maintaining a realistic sense of what will work. It’s a careful balance of fantasy and practicality. Scheduling updates is never a business set in stone. Flexibility and foresight are two necessary qualities when it comes to planning new features. Each addition should contribute to further interaction between players, which is what makes a game truly social.
Of course, there’s always the saying, “When you can’t beat them, join them.” It’s a cold and lonely world out there in social gaming for those who have not established themselves as a major force. The market is not necessarily saturated, as there are plenty of Facebook users who have yet to indulge in online games. However, the giants have huge established fan bases already since they all have multiple games with millions of players. When they release a new game, all they have to do is send a message to all their fans, and the game attains thousands of players within minutes. A startup cannot reach such a vast social gamer demographic as easily and instead must rely on Facebook Ads to hit-and-miss advertise. (Knowing who to target makes the difference between success and failure. Most would expect young adults to be the main consumers of games, but there is an even more significant group: women ages 34 to 45. They are usually stay-at-home moms with a decent amount of disposable income and quite a bit of free time during the day.) RedAtoms turned to Playdom and asked for its help in marketing Bar Society to more casual gamers. Simply enough, adding an icon for Bar Society at the top of each Playdom game garnered an impressive jump in users, and the number keeps growing at an exponential rate. There are certainly obstacles in working with larger companies, but the benefits are just as plenty.
Keeping up company morale is also imperative. Long hours and overtime are not uncommon at startups, and even the most dedicated workers need a boost. Never underestimate the rejuvenating power of a company barbeque or the energizing effects of a team karaoke night. They could prove to be the kick everyone needs to get past that mental block or to regain efficiency. I had the best time simply bonding with my coworkers, and when we returned to the office, we all felt more enthusiastic about discussing even the smallest ideas that came to mind.
Living and breathing social gaming is really the only way to be in the industry because of how fast it moves and how demanding it is. We can look to see where the industry is going now, but it will always change at an unexpected rate. It’s the ultimate form of crowd-sourcing where consistent user feedback becomes the next step in online games. The public has the power to shape the future, but no one person can determine where it’s going. We can only hope to accurately predict what will be the next big thing by watching what users do and say. In an industry that is constantly in motion, production cycles are greatly shortened. While this might make for some stressed employees, it also lessens the time impact of failure. It makes it easier to keep trying until you get it right.
Lin has encouraging words for those who hope to venture into the social gaming world: “The industry landscape is changing on a daily basis. In terms of the speed of shifting focus and priorities, small companies have certain advantages over large ones. Granted large players are in many ways becoming much more powerful, but we believe there are still plenty of opportunities for new entrants in SNS gaming.” Opportunities are certainly one aspect, but taking advantage of them as RedAtoms has done requires a notable amount of technological skill and social savvy.