Monday, July 15, 2013

The Unfulfilled Potential of Virtual Pet Games – Part 1

Pet Society was the best game on Facebook, beloved by players of all ages and descriptions. But it suffered from some of the same problems as other virtual pet games, the biggest problem, of course, being that it closed when many people still wanted to play. 

Can we keep him?
Virtual pets tap into our instincts. Human beings just love caring for little moving things! Toddlers worldwide, when they’ve encountered all manner of creatures, have uttered these words in all languages, “Can we keep him?”

Game companies want you to form an attachment, in the hopes you’ll spend more money. But when they close the game, they paradoxically don’t want you to protest. In an article by Brendan Sinclair called Perils of Whale Hunting, he talks about the effect of game closure on diehard fans, the ones who spend the most money and time on the game. When it comes to pet games, the backlash cannot be underestimated.

I’ve found the biggest virtual pet gamers, are often people who have little experience with games at all. They bond with their first virtual pet, and the community, in a very real way. When the game ends, these heavily invested players become jaded. I know many players who have vowed to never pay for Facebook games again, and stuck to it.

Game companies have also alienated these diehard customers while the games were still running. For example, sometimes stop gap measures meant to thwart hackers do more harm to legitimate big spenders, than they do to curb hacking. I’m talking about things like inventory limits, and gifting limits. And when I say big spenders, I mean not only those who spend a lot of money on the game, but those who spend a lot of time. People who recruit friends, write out information to help fellow players, and the like. Without that kind of community, games like this don’t catch on.

Virtual presents!
In the 2010 article How Social Games Ate Our Lunch, the writer Erin Hoffman touches on the ways generosity affects customers and game play, and helps you bond to fellow players. Personally I’ve found the big spenders are often the most generous players, but game mechanics may stop a grandmother from showering her grandchildren with virtual presents.

And rather than catering to the customers who actually pay the largest part of the profits, game companies may dismiss their concerns, because they are a small percentage of users. But this small percentage of users are the ones paying, and their enthusiasm for the game is the best form of advertising. Game companies are often at odds with their own customers, lowering their profits and upsetting their biggest fans.

There’s a disconnect between game designers and people who enjoy sweet, gentle games like Pet Society. These games are great for moms to play with their kids, for people with disabilities, and for older folks. They’re good for anyone looking for something to help you relax, instead of a fast paced, action packed, violent game. You could say these gentle pet games are video games, for people who don’t like video games. Most game companies don’t seem to understand this kind of customer, and it's hard to find game designers and companies that are willing to buy into something they don't understand, or just don't care about.

Of course companies make games to make money. Pet Society was still profitable, but it wasn’t profitable enough for EA. These huge corporations don’t care about customers or employees, they only care about lining the pockets of people at the top. This parody video called EA in a Nutshell is over the top, but not entirely inaccurate.

As someone who loves virtual pets and has played various games over the years, what I really want is a game company that will take a new direction, and move towards what the customers want, instead of fighting them. I know there's still an untapped audience out there, people who don't even know they'd love a game like Pet Society.

Danine contemplated the idea of a client based pet game, like a MMORPG, in the June 16 blog post A New Gaming Model: in Star Wars? In my next post in this series, I’d like to expand on that idea, talk about where virtual pet games have been, and where they are going.

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