Tag Archives: Pogo

Does Electronic Arts Know How to Leverage Playfish Acquisition?

Now that Electronic Arts has purchased Playfish for up to $400 million to help it hasten the transition from retail package dependency to a more digital focus, what can we expect? Looking at the quotes from COO Sebastian de Halleux in the press and today’s EA earnings call might provide some clues:

“I can say that we’ll be working first to take our own IP and share it across EA’s other platforms.” – de Halleux on PaidContent.org

You can definitely see IP like Pet Society and Restaurant City being extended to the Nintendo DS and possibly for the Wii – they nicely fit the demographics of these more “casual” platforms. These games also have core social components that could take advantage of the connectivity being introduced via these devices. But a first priority? That surprises me.

“The basics is that this is not going to change anything much for users, specifically — only that some of the franchises in the hardcore space will be looked at more seriously [in terms of social gaming]” – de Halleux on games.com.

Where the first quote talks about extending Playfish IP to the EA’s core platforms, this looks at EA leveraging Playfish knowhow to bring their games to the social space. But I’m puzzled by the focus on “Hardcore” titles like Madden, Tiger Woods, Battlefront for a couple reasons:

  • The audience for the “hard core” games is predominately male, while Facebook has become more and more female
  • Social activity in sports games is typically head-to-head and that usually is synchronous play – most of the big social games that reach the masses are at their core asynchronous. Madden has had difficulties in creating a great online head-to-head league-style playoffs in the past because you need to sustain 32 users for a considerable commitment of time (if someone in your league takes off on vacation, the whole playoff process is delayed). This year they finally introduced computer-controlled teams to try to alleviate the issue of people dropping out.
  • Sports/hard core games typically require a dedication of a chunk of time to play, whereas social games on Facebook are relatively short-play, ten to 15 minute games. The challenge on bringing Madden or Tiger Woods to a platform like Facebook is how to capture the essence of a sports match but break it down into a five to ten minutes of gameplay.

While there is no question there is a niche that is under-served, it would seem that the surer bet is to focus on bringing EA’s most successful casual content from the pogo.com brand on to Facebook – the casual player is migrating from the Pogos of the world to Facebook. Poppit, Word Whomp, Jungle Gin already have created socially engaging games where users work together to “rescue” fellow players and seem to be a natural extension for the Facebook platform.

But that wasn’t mentioned at all today during EA’s earning’s call. Instead, for guidance about the titles Playfish might work on, they suggested “looking at top mobile games that we have.” Those top titles? Pretty much the blockbusters:

  • Tetris and Bejeweled (not sure of the rights for Tetris and doubt PopCap is likely to give them rights for Facebook since they are already there with Bejeweld Blitz)
  • The Sims
  • Need for Speed
  • EA Sports titles: Madden, FIFA, Tiger Woods
  • Hasbro titles: Monopoly, Yahtzee and Scrabble

Today’s additional announcements (EA cutting 1,500 jobs for games below 2 million units in sales that wasn’t a Hasbro or Sims title) further refine the scope (they’re going from the mid-60 titles of two years ago to the mid-30 titles next year). Then listen to EA Games Label Presient Frank Gibeau from today’s call: “[Free to play] opens up new access points to experience the game and upsell [to the full game].”

The conclusion I’m drawn to is that the EA brass sees Playfish as a way to help port their quickly narrowing list of existing IP and to use the channel to sell the full-blown games. Publishers like PopCap have already learned you can’t take a download game like the aforementioned Bejeweled and just put it on Facebook – they’ve actually re-worked the IP and introduced Bejeweled Blitz, to create a game that organically works within the Facebook platform. And as I mentioned earlier, focus on sports titles have their own unique challenges.

So while I think EA made a great acquisition in Playfish, my concern is that they don’t totally understand what they’ve bought or where the synergies are. Yes, there is no question you can take existing blockbuster IP and figure out ways to make it social – but I wonder if already-social games from the Pogo.com platform are a better fit for Facebook. Further, if Playfish is focusing on figuring out how to port the blockbusters, will EA also give them the leeway to create new titles outside the quickly narrowing EA scope (or is that pretty much a greenlight for other developers to stake out their claim knowing Playfish won’t have the bandwidth to compete)?

I am certain the strong team at Playfish will help focus EA on how to really leverage Facebook, I just hope the team at EA listens.

More Signs of a Game Industry in Transition

One astute analyst during the call asked the EA team if they thought some of the decline in console retail market was because of time competition with Facebook (e.g. more users spending time on Facebook – and ostensibly playing games – instead of playing console games). John Shappert, COO, responded “I think the economy is impacting footfall at retail; people are still playing and buying, but they are being more selective; Playfish opens up doors to folks that aren’t console players.”

Once I tweeted that response, I immediately got back one from David Scott, Founder of Casual Collective: I was in my local Game store and this guy’s wife said to him “leave it, I’m just going to play that farm game.” (I kid you not).

Revisiting: Did Facebook Eat the Casual Game Market?

I spoke to the New York Chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) last week, touching on a previous blog post but updated with more data showing how:

  • Facebook is rapidly capturing the traditional casual game demographic that has been a mainstay of sites like Pogo.com (over 400% growth between February and September of this year)
  • Big Fish Games is continuing to watch it’s traffic decline
  • declining traffic, over-saturation of product is exerting downward price pressure and less margin for developers

There is no question that working with Facebook has its own challenges and requires a different level of investment, but it’s hard to ignore the macro trends when trying to figure out where to invest next.

Facebook Ate the PC Download Game Model

Over 16.4 million people played a single game (FarmVille) on Facebook yesterday. That’s 60% more daily users than the top online game portals combined based on information compiled using Quantcast.com:

Portal August Daily People in US Portal August Daily People in US
Pogo.com 5,500,000 Miniclip.com 320,000
Yahoo Games 1,100,000 Shockwave not available
MSN Games 463,000 Wildgames.com 297,000
Games.com 422,000 iWin 237,000
Big Fish Games 410,000 Wordlwinner 231,000
Addicting Games 389,000 Popcap.com 157,000
King.com 323,000 Gamehouse 124,000

Noted exceptions on this list include Oberon Media (listed at 83,000) and RealArcade (66,000) as Oberon Media manages several sites (including parts of MSN, Yahoo and Pogo) that I don’t believe are counted here and Real Arcade relies heavily on a client which quantcast can’t measure thus might understate their size.

Granted, the models for some of these sites are different (some more online play, or more download game focused), but these top portals are generating only 10 million visits per day in the US in August. To do a US-only traffic comparison, only 35.4% of Zynga traffic comes from the US (according to Alexa), which would put FarmVille at 5.6 million players. That’s still bigger than Pogo – and that’s just one game.

OK, so sure Facebook has grown into a huge games platform, with over 300 million users globally (about 95 million in the US), but the portals deliver the higher margins with their traditional $19.95 price point for download games, right?

Downward Price Pressure: From $20 to $0

A glut of games had already set off downward pressure on game prices. Big Fish Games touted a “game a day” as a major distinguishing point and as more portals began to compete, they began to offer lower prices in return for a subscription commitment. At the time, the stats showed that the average users would jump from buying 3 games to 20 games with the subscription, thus the lower prices were justified by the significant increase in volume and a recurring revenue stream.

This year the need for a subscription to get lower priced games was eliminated, first by Amazon jumping into the ring at $9.95, then Big Fish Games in mid-May allowing $6.95 purchases without any commitment, followed by Shockwave matching the $6.95 price and dropping their commitment requirements yesterday.

Even by slashing the prices by 65% to $6.95, it’s still a lot more expensive than free. As Zynga and Playfish continue to delve into more casual fare (FarmVille and Restaurant City are just spins on the popular Virtual Villagers and Fish Tycoon download sim games), users are migrating to playing free with the added benefit of playing with their friends (something few download games can do with scale because of the up-front purchase required).

To illustrate the impact of Facebook and the phenomenal growth of games like FarmVille, take a look at the daily number of users coming to Big Fish Games:

Steady growth over the last couple years, and then it drops starting at the beginning of the year. The argument for lifting the commitments in May (the red dot signifies when Big Fish Games removed the subscription commitment to get games for only $6.95) was that the low prices would open the floodgates and more users would buy. I cannot attest to the level of sales going through Big Fish Games since the change, but the number of daily users has dropped precipitously, especially in August which coincides with the growth of FarmVille and the news that between July and September Facebook grew from 250 million users to 300 million.

Transformation of a Business Model

The model change here is significant. Just as newspapers are struggling because users have shifted from the physical paper to the online version, game developers and publishers reliant on PC download games are going to continue to see users move towards more “freemium” online games that are run on the service model that Zynga and Playfish are doing. Retail stores won’t touch a PC game price of $6.99 and the retail box will go the way of the CDs which are already disappearing out of Best Buy stores. Power is shifting from the old online portals and retail stores to a more open free-for-all on Facebook.

I think anyone who follows the industry has seen this coming, but I think it’s happening faster than we expected.