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Brands finally succeed in social games on Facebook

Facebook gamers are finally embracing well-known brands in their social games. That’s one of the conclusions from a panel on social games at the f8 conference for Facebook developers yesterday.

Sean Ryan (pictured left), director of game partnerships, pointed out that Facebook as a gaming platform has evolved from a place where original game ideas initially prospered. Now that there are 800 million users on the social network, it’s only natural for brands to take over, he said. Gamers can gravitate to them because they can pick up a game already knowing the narrative behind it, making the game much easier to learn.

For a time, Facebook was resistant to brands. Friends shared games that they found to be fun, and in the early days, Zynga dominated the market. That turned into a huge advantage for Zynga, and its distribution power now allows it to launch original titles that can succeed in part because they can be cross-promoted to so many of Zynga’s existing users. The same is true with the iPhone, where original titles such as Koi Pond drew a lot of attention at first but where plenty of brands such as Bejeweled, Plants vs. Zombies, and Uno in the top charts.

What was unusual about Facebook is that non-branded games held onto the top rankings on the popularity charts for a longer time than usual, largely because of the power of friend recommendations on the platform. Many game companies tried to launch branded games on Facebook and it was like hitting their heads against brick walls.

But this year, that is beginning to change. The biggest proof is The Sims Social, a Facebook game from Electronic Arts that taps the Sims franchise, which has sold more than 100 million units on the PCs and consoles. The Sims Social is now the No. 2 game on Facebook, with 53 million monthly active users, second only to Zynga’s Cityville. In turn, the Sims Social is helping other branded EA games catch on.

“Brands are an important part of the business,” said Barry Cottle (pictured left), head of EA Interactive, the social, mobile and online division of EA. “Early on, in traditional gaming markets, original intellectual property caught on. At the core, you always have to have a great game. That’s a core ingredient. But brands give the ability to be recognized, to tap into loyalty.”

Within six weeks, the Sims Social hit 10 million users without much advertising at all, mainly because it has been known for a decade, Cottle said.

“People coalesce around things they recognize,” Cottle said

Zynga has mostly stayed away from brands. But the company took advantage of a chance to get a license with Lucasfilm for its Adventure World game, Owen Van Natta (pictured right), chief business officer at Zynga, said. By October, the film character Indiana Jones will be integrated into the game. That deal came after the game launched, but it could help the game get wider awareness over time.

“Indiana Jones was an opportunistic thing,” Van Natta said. “I’m amazed at how we were able to create brands quickly on Facebook.” Zynga also has run promotions with a variety of movies and with the singer Lady Gaga in its FarmVille game.

We ran our own feature story recently on startup Iconicfuture, which has created a marketplace so that brands can license their properties in a matchmaking service with game companies that want to license them.

Kabam also jumped into the branded-game business by acquiring the rights to the Godfather for Facebook. But he said the game evolved when the company decided to create a crime game, said Kevin Chou (pictured left), chief executive of Kabam, a maker of mostly original hardcore social games on Facebook.

Kabam figured out the core fun mechanics in the title, and then looked around for a narrative that could become the overarching back story for the game. The Godfather made a lot of sense, and Kabam was already talking to Paramount Pictures about a license.

“You have to start with the core game,” Chou said.

Disney tested the power of a brand with a title called Gnome Town, launched two months ago, said John Pleasants (pictured right), head of Disney Interactive and Playdom. That title did OK at first, getting 500,000 daily active users, but then Disney renamed it Disney Gnome Town. The result was that the cost of acquisition, such as advertising a game, dropped by a third as the game took off more on its own. Users were also more likely to spend money in the game, since they trusted the Disney name.

Disney also launched a couple of ESPN-branded games, where it was able to advertise the games on TV using remnant (unsold ads). The result was that the users who came in from the TV commercial had a much higher “lifetime value,” or spending on the game over the course of the game’s life. That was because those users were much more loyal to the ESPN brand. During 2012, Pleasants said Disney will come out with two to four major Disney brands as social game properties.

“We think it’s an advantage, if you put game play first,” Pleasants said.


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