Tools with Friends: Uncovering social tech

Tools with Friends: Uncovering social tech
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

July 30th 2012 at 5:54PM

We talk to the key tool providers on how devs can successfully harness the tech available

Social gaming is becoming an ever-more prominent subject of interest for both developers and consumers alike.

As browser and mobile platforms rapidly increase in power and are able to attract millions of users backed by highly scalable servers, catering for the huge and profitable sector is proving extemely tempting for many studios.

The emergence of Facebook in 2004 saw the social space dramatically rise in popularity, with multi-billion dollar companies such as Zynga taking advantage of the eager customer-base with titles such as FarmVille and Mafia Wars. Zynga now employs over 3,000 staff. Back in 2007 it did not exist.

An emerging space

Fast-forward to 2012, and with the creation of the iPhone and numerous Android devices, as well as improvements in the browser space to platforms such as Flash and the ever-improving HTML5, social games are flourishing.

With hundreds of millions of potential users up for grabs, those who have the right attitude can now create a mega-hit without going near a console. At the same time, the technology behind the phenomenon has enhanced greatly too.

“A few years is a long time in social gaming,” says Ngmoco UK’s general manager James DuBern.

“And from a technology point of view we've seen the explosion of Android – with Google Play now taking 30 per cent of revenues, iPhones doubling in power, and the establishment of the tablet industry. There have been seismic changes for a developer to cope with.”

Unity’s CEO David Helgason says that the nature of social games development for mobile and browser has changed greatly, in line with DuBern’s assertions of substantial developments in the space in a remarkably short timespan.

“Until recently no one was using anything but Flash for social games,” he says. “Now we see many new social games being made in Unity for iOS, Android, and Facebook, both through our Flash export and through our native browser plug-in.”

We R Interactive CTO Alex Whittaker agrees, stating that Flash has lost ground in the social games market, despite allowing access to 3D cards, citing the rise of the controversial and oft-criticised HTML5 – as well as Unity and WebGl – as providing what he deems as better options for game creation.

“Within the last two years we have really seen Flash lose ground in this space,” he explains. “Apple's growing dominance and the ascendancy of HTML5, WebGl and Unity have rendered Flash no longer the sure thing it used to be.

“JavaScript became a viable alternative with performance improvements in the browser engines and more powerful target platforms, and is likely to grow more dominant with its adoption for the Windows 8 Metro interface.”

Tooled up

With so many platforms to develop on, such a fragmented tech landscape has led to studios clamouring for solutions that successfully allow them to create and distribute their titles onto as many devices as possible.

Tools such as GameMaker:Studio, GameSalad, and NgCore through Mobage have been designed to provide easier coding and swift cross-platform distribution, without the need for developers to spend too much time entering new code for each platform.

Head of development at YoYo Games Mike Dailly believes that a fractured market is the biggest problem facing social and mobile developers, particularly where Facebook is concerned, and says that the company’s recently released GameMaker:Studio has been designed to help address this.

“It offers a simple solution in that it unifies all the different targets into a single code base, while making simple multi-target output a reality,” he states.

“The normal development cycle is to write a game or application, then port it to its nearest neighbour – Android to iOS for example – and then sometime down the line, rewrite the whole thing so it can go on Facebook; or vice-versa.

“With GameMaker:Studio’s HTML5, Android, iOS, Mac and Windows exporters, you can build content for every platform at once allowing you to maximise not only development resources, but also streamline marketing and promotions.”

Enriching the experience

Another feature hugely important to social game developers – and increasingly in all gaming markets including triple-A – is integrating monetisation options and fitting them seamlessly into the gaming experience.

This needs to be done without interupting gameplay and creating inbalance, whilst also making sure users can show off their recent purchases to their friends.

Gamesalad’s CEO Steve Felter says that in-app purchasing is quickly becoming the best way to monetise free-to-play social mobile games using virtual goods and currency.

“The best way is to incorporate virtual goods into the free-to-play model so that monetisation is seamlessly integrated into the gameplay experience” states Felter.

“Purchased items can be designed to have a direct impact on the gameplay, allowing players to show off various things they've purchased to their friends, or purchase items that provide a more satisfying experience.”

Scaling Out

Another important aspect for developers to consider is making sure their title is scalable for a sudden increase in user numbers.

Given the large potential user-base in social gaming, word of mouth can spread quickly, particularly through social networks such as Facebook if a game is visible on a friend’s profile, meaning developers need to be prepared for vast waves of new players.

Databases in MySQL and NoSQL offered by companies such as Couchbase, which has powered games such as the hugely popular Draw Something by OMGPOP, mean that developers can provide a server space to help ensure users have a smooth-running experience with little or no downtime disrupting their experience, which is very important when implementing updates.

“Social games developers need to make many decisions with respect to the software they use to develop their games,” says Couchbase CEO Bob Wiederhold.

“We think the selection of the database is one of the most important decisions a game developer will make. Making a wrong choice can severely impact a game’s performance and scalability, and a developer’s ability to rapidly develop and update their games.”

Using a NoSQL database appears to be finding favour amongst developers due to its ability to record big data and scale rapidly, whilst MySQL is useful for studios expecting a high volume of micro-transactions.

Eutechnyx CTO Andrew Perella, whose studio is developing social free-to-play racing simulator Auto Club Revolution, explains that the adoption of NoSQL databases has allowed games to scale and iterate rapidly without huge costs.

Wittaker adds that these terabyte databases are often found powering social games, with NoSQL perhaps usurping MySQL as the standard for data storage in the sector.

“Terabyte databases often sit behind social games. In fact, this data often represents the value proposition in some titles,” he explains.

“Schema-less [NoSQL] databases feel like they are starting to replace MySQL as the first choice for the start-up. They are naturally suited to ‘big data’ whereas pushing MySQL into these kind of sizes requires a complexity step change.”

Given all the technology that is available to developers on mobile and browser, professionals in the industry are in general agreement that there is great opportunity to create highly technical social games.

Graeme Barlow, CEO of Greenspace studio RocketOwl, says that tech in the sector has now reached the level where developers are largely able to create the games they want to, with tools available in almost every aspect of development and distribution.

“Tools are always the barrier for ambitious developers, even on consoles and PC games,” he says.

“It’s even truer on mobile and social platforms. That being said, we’ve hit a point in the development of the hardware and the tools that allows developers to do a lot of what they want to.

"There aren’t too many ideas or goals that are thrown off the table completely due to hardware or software limits.”

Socially awkward

But despite such a well-stocked foundation of technology for the sector, there are still many challenges and problems posed by mobile and browser for creating social games.

Eutechnyx’s Perella says that the lack of standardised cross-browser 3D acceleration support is hampering more ambitious games, meaning titles such as its own Auto Club Revolution are still using a connected yet standalone game application, rather than something fully integrated into the game and with other users.

He highlights potential upcoming solutions to the problem emerging such as Unity and NativeClient, but questions whether they are ready for the intensive support needed to run and create a socially-focused game.

“Unity is a powerful solution for a user-base willing to install the plug-in, but the jury is still out as to how well it scales for a larger game,” he explains.

“Google NativeClient is a promising solution, but is still held back by limited browser adoption and lack of UDP support.”

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges facing developers is getting their game noticed. Whilst social games inherently have the advantage of word-of-mouth, particularly if the apps they are playing are linked to their Facebook accounts, it is difficult to get noticed on the various app stores such as Apple’s and Android’s.

Social and casual gaming giant Zynga is well versed in using its large consumer-base to its advantage, using in-game advertisements – a tactic other developers could be well advised to use – and moving users from one game to another, based on analytics and usage patterns to discover games what the customer would like be interested in.

Barlow states that many studios have been, and are beginning to, push into the social space, with the companies at the top having large amounts of control over the bulk of the player base.

For smaller developers then, who cannot afford to spend $210million on OMGPOP to acquire a new audience, there are options such as Gree, Mobage or PapayaMobile, which can promote titles within their own private networks to relevant users.

PapayaMobile’s director of marketing Justin Mauldin says that for most developers, this has become the difference between success and failure, and unless they have a sizeable budget when going it alone, makes it impossible for them to get discovered.

He says that so important is getting noticed, that distribution can be just as important than the game itself.

“Developers have to think more about distribution than gameplay in my opinion. So what if you have a great game?” he asserts.

“This is a fast-follow market, and as much as I hate to say it, there are companies out there willing to burn and pillage your idea. This makes the launch of the game even more important and why tapping into Papaya is even more essential.”

YoYo Games’ Dailly further states that whilst attracting players can be a big battle, which can prove costly, social games developers need to give their users a reason to stay once they have acquired them, which can be done through expanding the number of platforms the title is available on.

“The challenge facing social games dev is attracting players and keeping them,” says Dailly

“The best way to do this is by giving them access when they want to play, and that means across many different formats, including Smart TVs and consoles.

“Making these games work as seamlessly as possible is a challenge but is necessary for success. A full social game is no longer just about writing a little Facebook game, sitting back and waiting for the cash to roll in. More users are turning to their mobile devices to play, so social games have to adapt.”

Pushing boundaries

With this ability to scale to multiple platforms and serve millions of users, whilst also keeping them engaged in the long-term, social gaming could eventually replace many traditional triple-A titles, or at the very least have similar features integrated into a blockbuster title.

Dailly criticises the current state of games at the top-end of the scale for a lack of creativity, especially given the lack of risk developers are afforded with budgets upward of $50 million, and believes social gaming is becoming a much more attractive proposition for developers as they are able to immerse and engage their users in their titles for the long-term.

“Social game budgets will increase, but they will be far more realistic than current triple-A projects,” he says.

“But unlike triple-A titles, social games have the advantage of releasing and updating once they’ve shown momentum. Developers don't have to produce a massive game only to find out no one wants to play it.

"This makes social games far more cost effective for publishers so they are likely to increase in number.”

A connected future

It appears then that the social gaming sector will continue its astronomic rise, offering ever-more ambitious connected experiences more akin to that of triple-A titles than the typical 2D variants often seen in browser and mobile games currently.

Ngmoco’s DuBern says that the outlook for the genre looks rosey, and will continue to improve as the tech behind it becomes ever-more powerful.

“The future is incredibly positive for social gaming, particularly mobile. Early signs point to the rest of the world following the success seen in Japan, which we are at the forefront of,” he says.

“The mobile tech will continue to improve, and this will provide more and more opportunities for talented games developers.”

At the Core

An integral part of creating an engaging and friendly social game comes from its connectivity through social networks such as Facebook, where users can share their achievements and experiences with friends.

Platforms such as PapayaMobile and Mobage provide social APIs and SDKs enabling developers to offer this social engagement through their own services, providing notifications, newsfeeds, chat rooms, leaderboards and achievements.

“NgCore – part of Mobage – offers tried and tested social features that the majority of developers will be looking for, and as a company we work closely with developers to help design and optimise the social experience,” explains Ngmoco UK GM James DuBern.

Mobage social APIs also allow users to create their own avatars, a crucial aspect in establishing immersion and characterisation, whilst developers can monitor activity through social graphs and access in-game user data.

PapyaMobile’s social SDK, meanwhile, enables customisable challenges between players, and also allows users to recommend their favourite games to their friends through its platform.

This is a crucial feature in most successful social games as it can allow a given title to go viral and attract thousands – and potentially millions – of new users.