How did entertainment software go from being a market venture that capitalists avoided at all costs, to one where a single company was able to raise a billion dollars in investments in just two years? The astonishing success of Zynga rests in part, of course, upon the vast network of potential players available on the new social media services such as Facebook.
But it is not enough to have a ready-made market – you also need a product or service that appeals to that pre-existing community. When it comes to Zynga’s games, the secret hasn’t been imaginative thinking, but precisely the opposite.
The success of social gaming rests not only on the opportunity to leverage the huge networks of players provided by social media channels, but also on a careful restraint in terms of the kind of makebelieve being offered.
In studies conducted between 2002 and 2004, I identified that one of the key differences between people who were spending a lot of time and money playing videogames and those that were merely dabbling with them was a greater capacity for imagination.
This can be understood by a theory from philosophy of art, which suggests that the way we interact with creative works such as paintings, novels or movies is through a game of make-believe, very similar in many respects to the kind of imaginative games that occur when children play with toys. It transpires that people have differing degrees of imagination – and this has significant consequences for the commercial aspects of the videogame industry.
The success of social games companies such as Zynga, as well as console products such as Modern Warfare 2, which has sold 20 million units, is in part due to creating games that require less imagination than their competitors. While creativity is important to the games industry as a whole, in order to reach the mass market for games it is necessary to offer content that is more familiar, and less imaginative in nature.
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