Sunday, 20 February 2011

Is there a market for Twitter social gaming?

There isn't much doubt about the impact of Facebook on social gaming. With the social gaming market estimated to grow to $4 billion annually by 2015, up from $1.5 billion currently, and games such as Zynga's 'Cityville' garnering 20.7 million daily active users (96.7 million monthly active users), growth for casual & social gaming isn't in question. New Facebook features such as an increasingly unified payment option, the push to HTML 5 for greater mobile compatibility, enhanced gaming experiences and cherished gaming properties entering (Civilization, Oregon Trail) moving onto the platform mean that Facebook does and will continue to drive social gaming.

I have just two words for you....virtual goats....

While no one denies that Facebook is squarely at the center of the casual/social gaming movement, I wonder if there is any reason why another social network (such as Twitter), couldn't do the same in a relatively proportioned scale. At first glance, the answer seems to be unlikely as Twitter lacks the rich 'in network' platform for gaming that Facebook possesses (limiting graphics to text or external gaming), segregation of gaming content from main avenues of communication (seen on Facebook with the minimization of game updates away from the main news feed) and arguably an audience more amenable to gaming through the platform. While these factors initially seem to indicate that Twitter isn't suitable as a game platform, by digging a bit deeper there may be opportunities for minor development relative to Facebook. Looking at each of the previous factors separately:

If you don't believe gaming can be text only, a load of people from 1988-1995 and a man named Zork would like to speak with you..

-Twitter lacks the rich 'in network' platform for gaming Facebook possesses
The short answer to this statement is yes, it does. However we only need to look back 15 years (shorter than the average Twitter user has been an adult) to see that gaming didn't always require 'I-framed Flash' or very nice HTML5 development. Text based RPGs like the Zork series, MUDs (multi-user dungeons) and BBS (bulletin board system) games were the pre-cursors to the social gaming movement of today. Games such as Oregon Trail & the revered Lucas Arts/Sierra RPGs of the 90's (Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones, King's Quest, etc.) utilized increasingly developed graphics, but were still driven by text based user interaction (and the occasional clicking later on).  Trivia, question & answer and knowledge games don't usually even require graphics, opening up possibilities to make text only in network gaming possible.

The technical supplies provided by Twitter are admittedly sparser than those of Facebook for the games developer, but this boils down to the way user's interact. Twitter has always been more organic in its feature development with functions such as re-tweets first coming from user convention before receiving formalized buttons/functionality.Where organic development is a boon for community and conversation, it does hamper formalizing development capabilities in gaming.

However, looking at the Twitter network, two main versions of gaming (both found through Facebook) are possible. External gaming (using Sign in with Twitter or Facebook connect) to tie accounts to user data away from the social network, is relatively a uniform experience. As games utilizing this feature are external to the Twitter network, they can still leverage any existing graphical technology available to the normal developer. Network functionality is used to limit the amount of additional registration needed to play, store game data and perhaps most importantly syndicate achievements/notifications items back to the user's social network, spreading the game's reach.

Twitter 'in network' gaming, diverges hugely from Facebook. Any game utilizing tweets has the option of allowing players to interact on either the website, a 3rd party client or on a website which features 'twitter anywhere'. These text based inputs are then taken by a server program/script and generate either a response from the computer (on either a game's twitter page as an '@' reply or on a game website) or another player (if the server is matchmaking entries).

Quiz games, text based challenges and knowledge based competitions exclusively favour the text interface, while external games using 'sign in with Twitter' are possibly doing so just to increase reach, not as a game mechanic. While Facebook overwhelmingly holds the strength in this area, text based gaming may represent the only exclusive opportunity for Twitter.

-Twitter lacks segregation of gaming content from main avenues of communication
 One interesting risk from the growth of social gaming on Facebook was gaming spam. Social syndication of content (as it could nicely be called) is the bread and butter of social gaming. The ability to drag more of your social network into whatever farm,city,cafe,hospital, gambling den, creature island, kingdom, sports team, treasure island, mob, mafia, street gang or accountancy group you've set up progresses your character and helps the game grow organically. The downside to this cult recruitment model is that most others won't want to join every organization/game provided to them, a problem multiplied exponentially when you look at Facebook's scale. Facebook dealt with this risk by shunting game updates into their own area, limiting exposure of non-playing users to game content in general areas, while still allowing users to invite others and share via personal walls (which almost puts the onus of annoyance back on the gaming user).

I find clicking on the Game Requests tab is quickly becoming the equivalent of a dark trip down your social network's psyche.
As useful as a solution as this was for Facebook, gaming on Twitter faces even a larger challenge. 'In network' Twitter gaming naturally generates a large footprint in another user's newsfeed quickly, considering each message/tweet may only be one in a series of actions to play. While the awareness of the game may spread, especially if multiple users in a network adopt at near the same time, the lack of a way to ignore a rapidly growing block of messages doesn't leave much recourse. This annoyance, coupled with the ease at which a user can 'unfollow', 'block' or 'block and report spam' another user means the main barrier to game adoption isn't ignoring the game, but ignoring all of its players, negating social growth and raising the barriers to engage with another game. Such conditions limit the chance of seeing any manner of text based 'RPG' living inside Twitter, as well as most high rate of interaction games. User experiences from the launch of the game 'Spymaster' back in 2009 show that the backlash to games perceived as spamming can be fast and harsh.

-Twitter's user base is less amiable to games on the network than on Facebook

Disregarding the technical aspects of gaming on Twitter and the large problem of user annoyance, is the Twitter experience so fundamentally different from what social gamers seek it is a possible barrier?

According to a much bandied about Popcap games study from last year, 58% (UK) and 55% (US) of social gamers are women and the average user is a 43 year old woman (the average age is 38 in the UK and 48 in the US). Markets also differ on the amount of older gamers, as 46% of gamers in the US were 50+, versus only 23% in the UK.

Behaviorally, men were more likely to play games online with strangers (41% to 33%), while women were likely to play more often (38% vs 29% play several times a day) and with relatives (46% to 29%) or real world friends (68% to 56%).


Most studies show the average Twitter user being younger than the social gamer average, but not in an extreme fashion. The larger differences may lie in the behavioral implications of Twitter as a network. Twitter's more anonymous nature and casual acquaintanceship structure is counter-intuitive to a shared friend experience model of gaming indicated to be popular with the larger female base. Despite this, a study by Sysomos (2011) has shown that between 2009 and 2010, a significant number of users have begun to add more personal detail to profiles (names, locations, bios, websites), indicating the opportunity for an increasing level of perceived closeness between network users.  However, it seems that Twitter still lacks (and will so for the foreseeable future) the comparable level of intimacy between users found on Facebook; something that makes it great for communication and ideas, but may stall game opportunities.


Currently, growth in Twitter gaming seems possible, with a user base amenable to it and some functional options for development. However, the inability to segregate gaming content from general communication stands as the largest challenge to widespread game adoption. For gaming to truly make an impact on twitter, several things need to happen:

-Twitter needs to give users the ability to filter tweets by platform or keyword
Users have already clamored for this during popular conferences or events (i.e. the ability to avoid tweets about the Oscars or Superbowl), but a filter makes consistent sense for gaming. Tweets from a gaming platform,  can easily be ignored by those users not involved (as is done on Facebook), while being read or even re-tweeted by interested users.  This functionality moves user action to avoid the game from blocking the user, to blocking the game.

-Developers need to feel that the Twitter API is a robust and stable place to create content
Twitter's orientation will always slant towards communication over other users for the network and API. However, recent developments against whitelisting users (raising the amount of requests an account can make to Twitter per hour from 350 to 20,000) caught developers by surprise, rendering programs in development unworkable and stunting future creative growth. Gaming avenues involving data or high volumes of response, as well as general Twitter application development, are forced to look at costly third party options for high volume network access, a solution which is only acceptable to medium to large companies. In addition, API limits on responses to users (i.e. an account can only publish 1,000 tweets a day) are a great step towards stopping spam and spambots, but limit the scalability of any game page to respond to users.

-Twitter applications (including games) need a more prominent repository for users to search
Within Facebook, the games and applications are a core part of the network's search functionality. This allows users to easily discover, enter and play games quickly and without leaving the network. Twitter currently lacks this, as no 'official' application directory exists, leaving users to Google or go through 3rd party directories to find applications and games. If you Google 'Twitter Games', you find a mix of blog posts listing games and 3rd party directories such as Twitdom, which convey useful information but don't effectively extend the reach of Twitter's network.
Having tried the developer experience on Twitter previously, and releasing a 'Rock Paper Scissors' game for the network, I found the biggest challenge was making the page & accompanying website accessible to users, due to the lack of an 'official' directory.

Overall, I think the 'risk/reward' balance for the network to encourage gaming & development is overwhelmingly towards a positive benefit. While Twitter won't ever catch Facebook in terms of gaming scale, incentivizing user groups to return to the network for more than just general communication is a benefit, regardless of adoption within the user base. As game development is a nice indicator of the creative solutions being made for a network, changes towards growing a Twitter gaming market also indirectly grow all 3rd party app development, a key to continued success for Twitter.