This Article, written by Seth A. Metsch, first appeared in Aspen Publishers’ journal “The Computer & Internet Lawyer” in May 2012. Footnotes have been replaced with hyperlinks to the sources.
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Developing and publishing social games is a tough business. Games must be engaging and well marketed to break through the clutter. Once a game is a success, it requires ongoing creative development, maintenance, and technical support. New game publishers face strong competition from established social game developers that have the ability to promote new games virally within their popular games. Additional competition comes from established media and entertainment companies looking to leverage their already popular brands. If that is not enough dissuasion, this article examines some of the key issues to think about if your client decides to develop and publish a social game. This is not an exhaustive analysis of all issues, but a good place to start for the aspiring social game publisher. The details in this article focus on the Facebook platform, since it is currently the most popular distribution channel for US-based social game developers.
The draw of social games is that they are often easy for players to learn. These games are designed for players to come back often to complete tasks or challenges, competing against the contacts in his or her social graph. Most social games on Facebook involve asynchronous game play with a user’s Facebook friends. This means that friends do not have to be playing at the same time. The social aspect includes interactions like competing against friends for ranking and levels, giving gifts to friends and taking other actions for the benefit (or detriment) of friends.
There are many parties involved in the development and distribution of a social game. As used in this article, “publisher” means the party that decides to create and distribute the social game. The publisher is often the holder of original intellectual property (IP), such as a television network with an existing show, and in that capacity is also referred to as the IP holder. The term “developer” refers to the party that actually builds the game for the publisher/IP holder, whose services may include game design, programming, support, and operations.