On Auto-Tweets, Facebook Games, and Other Potential Pollution

I love games. While I did wear a letterman jacket through most of high school, I surreptitiously played Dungeons and Dragons every week with my brother’s gaming group. I’ve played a wide variety of games on every computer I’ve ever owned. I like board games like Settlers of Catan, and (god help me) I even futzed around with Magic: The Gathering.

Like a lot of software folks, I have a secret wish to punt everything, run into the hills, and make GAMES.

So it’s exciting to see this gaming renaissance. Casual games, social games– whatever you want to call them– there are new ways to make money making games and it’s no longer the big budget hit-driven madness that we’ve grown accustomed to.

But boom times like this can be messy and noisy, and this one is no exception. One of the key elements of this new gaming revolution is the potential to be VIRAL. As a developer, it’s fairly trivial to have your game automagically announce itself to a player’s Twitter followers, Facebook friends, whatever. “[friendname] just found a +11 Sword of Evisceration, but he needs your help to consecrate it in the blood of the Celestial Dragon – click here to join [gamename]“. Or, on Twitter, “I’m now the Mayor of Baskin Robbins. Bask in my benevolence! [insert bitly link here].”

The cost of shooting out these messages periodically as a user plays is trivial and there’s only upside, right? If 1,000 users play to that point and they each have 100 followers on Twitter, well– you just got 100,000 free ads for you game, packed with the kind of social proof that advertisers can only dream of.

But, at the end of the day, it’s SPAM. As a developer, they shouldn’t be asking themselves whether the cost/benefit analysis works. Heck, it costs me a billionth of a penny to send an unsolicited email and I’m sure I could craft an email that would convert more than a billionth of the time. WIN! Instead, they should be asking themselves the following questions:

  • Does the player WANT to tweet about this? If they do, encourage them but let them opt-in every time and do it in their own words.
  • How many of the players followers gives a rat’s ass? If a game auto-tweets on my account, 99.9% of the people are going to get no value. 99.9% aren’t going to find it interesting. I’m looking at you, Foursquare.
  • What percentage of the players would, once they realized that they just blasted their friends with this promotional tweet would say, “Ooooh, I didn’t know it’d do that! That’s GREAT that I just told all 1500 of my followers that I’m the Mayor of Hooters!”

Yes, social game makers, your spammer math WORKS. 99.9% of my followers will consider it noise– if they read the tweet, they’ll want their 10 seconds back. But you’ll get your 0.1% clicking the link, and those clickers will convert (some of them). And THEY’LL make noise too and you’ll have your virus.

But because this works so well, we’re going to have more and more of it. If you’d told the first guy that sent an email that 95% of the world’s email would be spam in 2007, I think he’d be pretty horrified. While I tend to like federated models like Email more than walled gardens like Facebook and Twitter, in this case I’m glad there are some sensible folks at the helm who can shut this stuff down (or at least give users the tools to turn the noise down).

For what it’s worth, if I wasn’t in the weird and wonderful world of time management software, I’d be doing social games. Hell, maybe I’d suck at it because I took the high road. But I think I’d just focus on making really fun games, making it MORE fun if people invited friends, and giving them the tools to tell the world should they want to.

  • mattmaroon

    If only the world were so black and white. There are a few problems.

    1. One man's spam is another man's ham. The line isn't as clearly-drawn as you indicate. I hate the Farm Town gift requests as much as anyone, but my wife loves them, and they've driven the median request acceptance rate up from ~20% to ~60% on the platform. The fact that these tactics work (and it's way higher than 1% response rate) indicates that a sizable number of people like them.

    2. The platforms (especially Facebook) are designed in such a way that if you don't spam, you get choked off and die. Seriously. You cannot make a popular game on FB without gifts anymore. The platform is fundamentally broken in that respect. I'm not sure if you can make a popular social game on Twitter at all, but if you can, you probably have to cross that line.

    3. Most of the popular web services we know and love were built through such spamminess. Facebook got big by asking you for your email login and password and then inviting everyone. Is that not spam? Sure you agreed to send those (just as you agreed to send the pigs on farm town) but the receiver never asked to get that stuff.

    “I think I’d just focus on making really fun games, making it MORE fun if people invited friends, and giving them the tools to tell the world should they want to.”

    You'll still be accused of spamming. The person annoyed at receiving 20 Farm Town gift requests per day doesn't really care how much the sender liked the game.

    The problem is not that game developers want to spam, it's that the system is designed in such a way that we have to do it (in which case we can make a fortune) or we fail (in which case we lose one). If you want to fix the problem, fix the platform, which would be easier if any of the platforms had any real developer outreach. Unless you're Zynga it's nearly impossible to just get anyone with any clout to respond to an email.

    If you insist on “taking the high road” then I'm glad you're in time management.

  • tomfakes

    For some of these games, the problem goes a bit deeper. Facebook provides some tools to filter out posts from apps I don't like. This doesn't work for user status updates. Any update that comes from Twitter comes in as a Facebook status update, so Twitter games come through to Facebook more directly.

    I currently have 1 friend playing Foursquare, and its almost annoying enough with 1 to think about blocking. If I'd done that already, I'd have missed reading about his recent trip to Machu Pichu – and that would have been sad.

  • http://www.rescuetime.com webwright

    Hey Matt– glad you replied– I know you are in the thick of it and I
    figured you'd have more informed points than I do. I know it's not totally
    black and white, but I threw out my back this weekend so I'm grumpy.

    I'd love to see response-rate data… i.e. if they send out a million in a
    day, how many clicks happen? The harder data to get at is “how many people
    are annoyed and how annoyed are they?”. Obviously they work. I wouldn't
    classify them quite as low as viagra spam… A better email analogy might
    be the “newsletters” I get signed up for without my permission. Most of
    them are intelligent and informative– and I Imagine they are useful for
    some of the recipients. I'm sure those perform well, too. I imagine they
    are well-received for other active players– I assume your wife plays Farm
    Town.

    But that's the problem. Spam started that way– well written and
    informative (if unsolicited) email that was trying to be targeted. If it
    keeps working, people are going to keep doing it. It's going to get worse,
    because it's a really effective medium. Response rates will go down and
    aggregate annoyance levels will go up. I don't see this getting better for
    folks like me!

    The system is clearly rigged for this– I totally agree. Obviously, there
    are degrees of high road and I probably wouldn't take the HIGHEST! Some
    people who take the highest roads still kick ass. There are plenty of games
    that have had great success with zero built-in virality. Good ol' fashioned
    word of mouth and marketing (from MUDs to World of Warcraft to World of
    Goo). I think this is a more hit-driven path and if I ever set foot on it,
    I'm sure I'd bomb heroically like most starry-eyed game makers do! I'd do
    it for the love of the game and not necessarily to chase the best path the
    wealth and prosperity.

    Anyhoo, thanks for the great points and congrats on your success with Blue
    Frog!

  • mattmaroon

    Response rates are surprisingly hard to quantify, at least on Facebook, because they don't tell you specifically which requests (some of which were invites, some of which were gifts, etc) were accepted and which were not. They do tell you when someone installs, and you can build some tracking into them, so you can determine acceptance rates accurately. But you have no idea on ignores vs. blocks, and blocks in particular are extremely important to your platform allocations, seemingly more so than even acceptances.

    The median request acceptance rate on Facebook has been hovering between 55-60% lately. That's largely due to gifting. I'd be surprised if anyone gets over 20-30% on normal invites, but with some good multivariate testing and an app that has broad appeal (such as Mafia Wars) that range is achievable.

    If I had to wager it wouldn't be that you'd fail, it's that your perspective would shift a bit. The best thing about Facebook, rather than console or mobile platforms, is that you have the ability to continuously improve over time. It's not hit driven, it's more like web development. It took us a year and a handful of apps (some of which made decent money along the way) to get to where we feel we really got it right. We couldn't do that on the iPhone or Xbox platforms.

    So you'd figure it out over time I'm sure, and your perspective would change. Mine certainly has. Stuff seems a lot less spammy when you realize that people are clicking accept 60% of the time.

    Auto-tweeting is probably wrong, and was a mistake when we did it. We stopped that really fast once we realized that on Twitter, people don't expect it nearly so much as they do on FB. It's probably the right thing to do if you only care about growth, but we are more focused on engagement and keeping the customer happy over a long time, so in the end we felt that even ignoring the moral aspect it was the wrong thing to do.

    I can't really give you much data on Twitter yet. We only started that game as an experiment and we haven't really put as much time into it as we should. Our game on Facebook was growing like gangbusters and we had to scramble to keep up. We're probably going to put some more work into it soon, so I might be able to give you some more insights, though unlike Facebook I'll never get to see how we stack up against the median.

  • http://www.royleban.com Roy Leban

    When I created the Twitter puzzles on Puzzazz, I made the deliberate decision to never tweet on behalf of a user. And, I went further and made it so that people tweet answers beginning with @Puzzazz, which means most of the time, other people don't see them. The result is that my viral uptake is a pretty solid 0%. That sucks.

    If you're a good guy, you don't succeed, but if you're bad, everybody complains even though you're winning. Nice guys finish last?

  • http://www.r4-ds.com.ar/ r4ds

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  • PRAero

    Hey Tony.
    I enjoyed your post about games, and I'd like to extend an invitation for you to visit the Catan Online World. If you like what you see and are interested in blogging about it, I can get you a one-month premium membership just for checking it out. The site currently boasts over 25,000 members who play Settlers of Catan and other games designed by Klaus Teuber. Check us out and send me an email if you'd like that freebie!
    Jim Plane

  • PRAero

    Hey Tony.
    I enjoyed your post about games, and I'd like to extend an invitation for you to visit the Catan Online World. If you like what you see and are interested in blogging about it, I can get you a one-month premium membership just for checking it out. The site currently boasts over 25,000 members who play Settlers of Catan and other games designed by Klaus Teuber. Check us out and send me an email if you'd like that freebie!
    Jim Plane

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