Why and how gambling could infest all social games like a plague

Online Gambling
Online Gambling

If the recent string of casino game acquisitions, announcements and rumors weren't enough hints: Gambling is poised to become a big deal in social games. And if not in 2012, then 2013 or 2014--it doesn't matter. It's not the "when" that matters, but the "why" and "how". Thanks to similar play hooks between slot machines and social games (on top of how easy real-money gambling would be to implement), the fate of the social games world might be all but determined. And billions of dollars are at stake, but at the expense of what? Fun?

Are Social Gamers Gamblers, Too?

A recent opinion on Gamasutra aims to point out that the same people most attracted to social games could be the same people most attracted to slot machines at your local casino: middle-aged women. But more importantly, the piece attempts to get to the bottom of why social games might attract the same crowd, and points to the author's belief that games on Facebook and elsewhere use gambling mechanics to keep players hooked. The author of the piece, Tyler York, uses FarmVille as an example. Considering Zynga's pride and joy looks absolutely nothing like the flashy depression of a casino, that's important.

It's Dangerously Easy

York is a marketing fellow at a company called Betable, which legally applies gambling mechanics to existing video games. If the fact that companies like this exist isn't enough to freak you out, then consider this: In that same post on the Betable blog, York draws a striking comparison between how slot machines work and the basic play hook in FarmVille. Most crops in the iconic Facebook game cost coins, while some cost premium currency. But what if every single crop cost a tiny amount of premium currency, but was tied with the possibility of real returns rather than coins? In theory, it's a simple programming change.

Zynga Poker Player
Zynga Poker Player

What if the 3 Percent Became 100 Percent?

And by that, we mean the generally assumed percentage of players that pay for virtual goods in social games. Let's say every crop in FarmVille had a small price--like $.05 for strawberries, $.50 for potatoes and so on--but each harvest had the chance to return between 10 percent and 300 percent of the original cost. If everything went according to plan, which is admittedly a big "if", then 3 percent paying players would instantly become 100 percent. If you think social gaming's $2 billion market is impressive, then wrap your head around this: Slot machines make $1 billion nationwide every day.

Slot Machine Players
Slot Machine Players

Sweet! But What's the Catch?

Well, here's where things get hairy, and not just "the staunch (but eroding) legalities of online gambling" hairy. This is more like "the fate of innovation in the social games industry as we know it" hairy. In another article on the Betable blog, York points out that not a single innovation has been brought to the world of slot machines in 17 years. And yet, slots make billions upon billions of dollars a year.

That said, what would the motivation be to innovate in social games if real online gambling mechanics were successfully introduced to even existing games? To get players to pay today, designers need to create (even remotely) compelling experiences. But if real-money gambling made its way into social games, simply the promise of the chance to make lots of money in return could inspire players to whip out the credit cards. To bring real-money online gambling to social games would be to turn social game companies into the house. And, in the end, the house always wins.

[Image Credits: GambleDiary, Fast Company, CasinoGuide]

Do you agree that bringing real-money gambling to social games could kill innovation? What do you think are the possibilities of this happening? Sound off in the comments. Add Comment.

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