Social Games and the “Adoption” Pattern

I’d like to gather a few thoughts together here from various sources, and show a few conclusions.

“Communications tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” Clay Shirky

“The middle of the market is the juicy part, where profit meets scale.  The paradox is that it’s almost impossible to make a product or service for this segment, because they want the tried, the true and the boring.” Seth Godin

My friend and former coworker, David Fox just posted his own thoughts on social games, too.  He concluded that the social game industry is closer to pop music and fast food than to any other industries.

Each of these conclusions fits within the broader pattern of adoption.  Malcom Gladwell no doubt speaks about it in The Tipping Point, but I haven’t read that book.

Here is the story of adoption:

A new story begins. It could be a technology, like cellphones, e or moving pictures.  It could be a genre of book, like Teen Supernatural Romance, or a genre of game, like 2D physics puzzle, click management, or match-3, or first-person shooter.  It could be a dance craze, like salsa, breakdancing, or lindy hop.

The Early Adopters pounce.  The EAs are an interesting group, typically spending more than most and being more vocal than most.  They are the first to spend on something new that they perceive as solving a problem, easing a pain, or generally improving their lives.  It is their modest economic clout that starts the process of driving manufacturing prices down.

The public takes notice.  The first stage of critical mass is reaches, when an entire industry is speaking about the same thing.  When a clear pattern like this emerges, then the mainstream media begins covering the new item, because it’s in their own best interest to demonstrate awareness of a trend.  Social networks (a term that itself has only recently become ubiquitous) also take notice, and act as an accelerant, forwarding information and anecdotal evidence about the Coming Craze.  Social networks are like pouring rocket fuel on a fire.

It spreads in a novel, but primitive form. Novelty more than anything drives adoption.  This wave surges powerfully, as everyone is exposed to the new item.  It’s almost always crude and simplistic.  Look at the first movies, consisting of setting a camera on a beach and filming people who walk up to it and wave hello.  Look at casual games, which started out as the most primitive of products, well beneath the notice of an evolved multimillion dollar games industry.

And since it’s the new kid on the block, it will also get blamed for social ills, immoral behavior, and disrupting if not outright destroying some prior technology.  It’s usually hyperbole, and incendiary controversy started by the incumbent popular media.  It’s just a rite of passage for anything new, and will eventually blow over.

It becomes practical and ubiquitous.  Costs are driven down even as massive amounts of money are invested into the mass production of the item.  Demand remains high, but innovation gives away to accessibility and “market penetration”.  Features are steadily added, and consumers are monitored to see which ones get used.  And the incumbents who had previously sent looks of scorn and hostility towards the new item adjust and redefine themselves.

The Early Adopters are replaced with True Fans.  The novelty has worn off, and there is a changing of the guard among the consumers.  The Early Adopters leave to seek their new thrill, but the pervasive nature of the new item, now widespread, has finally reached those consumers for whom there is true resonance.  The True Fan drives incremental innovation by spending more than the average consumer, for whom the New has become the Commonplace.  The overwhelming majority of the item or product serves some common denominator that is low but reliable.

And, usually, the new item solves some problems while creating new problems that have never existed before.  Phones eased communication but demanded attention right away, and tethered you to a certain location at a certain time in order to communicate.  Answering machines and eventually cellphones came along, but then presented their own problems, moving the “rudeness” factors back across the phone line to the caller instead of the recipient.

Rinse, and repeat.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

In the games industry, I have witnessed multiple adoption waves, and have even played my part in a few.  When social games took off, I was pretty sure I knew how it would play out:

  • The current crop of social games is ubiquitous.
  • They are primitive, reacting to market trends and metrics rather than any human stories.
  • They are bland.  Nobody is offended in any way by the subject matter, premises, or themes of social games.  They do not challenge anyone’s cherished beliefs or perceptions.  There are no rough edges to pull us out of the experience and get us to consider walking away.
  • Since they are hosted on the very networks we use for our online interactions, they spread like wildfire.

They will not die.  Instead, the Early Adopters will get bored, the mass market will consume them in their primitive form like any other commodity, and a few passionate innovators will refine these rough beasts into something polished and compelling, while supported by the True Fans.



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