Oh this is a read and a half. The first few paragraphs may confuse: push onwards. It reveals.
Math is funny, especially when you’re looking at numbers that represent people. People tend to be pretty different from one another. Crazy-different people are what statistics call “outliers”. Outliers skew the averages. In the case of social games, we’re dealing with a couple mammoth outliers and an abundance of zeroes. This creates, in the $1.70 user, the fluffiest of math ghosts.
“Should we let the user play for free?” the smaller man rhetorically asked the older men.
“Of course we should,” the larger man said with an amicable face, standing up, rotating slowly, shining the spotlights of his cheeks over all gathered faces, showing his palms diagonally to the ceiling.
“The question is, how much should we let them play?” the smaller man asked, pointing a pen at the ceiling so nonchalantly no one looked up. He tapped the pen on the table. He clicked his Macbook Pro’s trackpad. The slide changed with a little sideways wipe effect: this is the part in the presentation where he had decided to get fancy.
One of the older guys stopped chewing gum for an instant.
It's really fun. But also revealing, and it'll make you feel a little sad, and romantic for the Old Ways of designing games. That said, the old ways haven't gone away, they're just a tiny bit silenced by the New Way that is slurping up so much of Silicon Valley's VC money right now.
Having made their squillions on some terribly cheap gambling tactics ("daily spin!"), psychological tricks and some long-proven, resource management game mechanics, Zynga (for one) is now moving into deeper game territory. Sure, the "pay up! pay up" mechanics are still there, but there's more game present than ever, thanks to Zynga's 13+ game companies acquisition in the recent year or so.
It's their only hope, of course, because without actual games and gameplay, the thin veneer of "game" over some of these social games - in actuality little more than slot machines with a sort of narrative - must rapidly wear thin for most people other than the terminally unhappy. Over in Vegas (I just got back from there), the slot machines themselves in the big casinos have giant videogame-style screens now - touchscreens! - and all sorts of familiar brands & characters, including Sex & The City, Alice in Wonderland and - horror - our beloved Star Wars.
The lines between gaming and gambling have gone, blurred completely.
(Tip: don't miss the Epilogue. Yes it's a long piece. The epilogue is funny.)