Americans Played Anything but Social Games During the Holidays

The number of people playing games on Facebook tanked last week, as some game makers were unable to capitalize on people’s downtime during the holidays.

The drop-off in players affected almost all developers, but did not hit all titles equally.

For example, Electronic Arts saw 1.2 million fewer monthly users over the past week for its top title The Sims Social; Zynga’s Empire & Allies game lost one million monthly users, and its newest game, CastleVille, lost 900,000, according to AppData, which publishes such information.

On the flip side, many of the games that performed well were old favorites; these logically would have longer-term, more-committed players, who would make a point of returning during the holidays to take advantage of seasonal promotions.

The games that benefited from the holidays include Zynga’s Words With Friends and FarmVille, which gained 1.3 million and 800,000 monthly active users, respectively, according to Inside Social Games. Other gainers rounding out the Top 5 were Tetris Online’s Tetris Battle; Wooga’s kingdom-building game, Magic Land; and Men vs. Women, a role-playing game by Social Point.

Still, the general direction for the week was heading down.

That contrasts with other game platforms, such as consoles, PCs and mobile, which largely benefit from the holidays and from more free time in general.

Console games often skyrocket in popularity as kids and adults unwrap new titles for Nintendo, Xbox or PlayStation on Christmas morning.

PC gaming also typically surges during the season. EA timed the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic ahead of the holidays, in hopes of drawing new players who would be sold on sticking around for months, after spending time on the game during their time off.

But perhaps the biggest competitor came from mobile, which benefited from breaking records for the number of new Android and iOS devices that were gifted during the holidays. Flurry reported that more than one billion apps were downloaded worldwide during the last seven days of 2011, breaking the all-time weekly record. Games are often one of the most-downloaded categories of apps.

So the more important question to ask is, why would Facebook be an exception, if other platforms performed well?

Clearly, all of the platforms are competing for a limited number of minutes in the day, and so are other forms of media, like the Internet, TV and the movies. But when it comes to Facebook, a larger driver may be the environment — after all, it’s no big secret that a lot of social networking and social gaming is done in the workplace.

In a study conducted last summer, advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi found that 47 percent of respondents said they play social games at work during a typical day, and that 28 percent play for at least 30 minutes. Without that dedicated time in front of the computer every day, people may have had the opportunity to be more obsessed with other screens, such as phones or TVs.

Another potential reason that Facebook and social games did not see a lift from the holidays is because they have not yet figured out how to capitalize on the Christmas economy.

For years, console games have been timed with the end of the year, so they could be wrapped up and placed under the tree. More recently, smartphones and gift cards for music and apps have helped mobile prosper. Perhaps there wasn’t enough hype and promotion for social games to compete for people’s dollars.

Regardless of the reasons, the drop may ultimately be a small a blip on the radar screen for most game developers, who also see several spikes in activity during the year.

The bigger impact may be felt at Facebook, which takes a 30 percent cut of all virtual goods sold inside social games, and would feel the cumulative impact across all of the games.

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