What Core Games Bring to Social Games

It’s no secret social games suffer a “they’re not a game” stigma. Just one year ago, the audience at the 2010 Game Developers Choice Awards show booed FarmVille General Manager Bill Mooney when he accepted the first-ever GDC award for Best New Social/Online Game. What prompted the boos was the part of his acceptance speech where he invited independent game developers to apply at Zynga. Somebody in the audience actually shouted, “You don’t make games!”

Three months later, Zynga launched FrontierVille and the stigma started to fade slightly among my core games peers throughout the rest of summer in 2010. Part of it had to do with the quality of the game; it was more engaging than FarmVille had been and graphically more attractive. Part of it also had to do with the fact that FarmVille wasn’t going away no matter how critical the core games industry was of it and of Zynga (after two years and millions of lost monthly active users, the game is still at number two in our top 25 Facebook game rankings provided via AppData). Another part of it had to do with the growing acceptance that there’s a lot of money in social games. Inside Virtual Goods: The Future of Social Gaming 2011 estimates that the social games market will hit $1.25 billion this year. Although the market is starting to mature, it’s still a big opportunity. Today developers often spend just a few hundred thousand dollars to develop a social game over a few months, while a console game for only one platform can easily cost $10 million over a period of one to three years in development.

But the thing that reduced social games’ stigma enough for many in the core games world to review FrontierVille on equal footing with core games was the fact that it was developed by core game veteran Brian Reynolds. Reynolds came to Zynga after having worked on Sid Meier’s award-winning Civilization series and after developing his own strategy game series, Rise of Nations, at core game publisher Big Huge Games. His background piqued the curiosity of editors and lent FrontierVille enough ‘“street cred” in their eyes that a couple of my old colleagues at GamePro actually joined the game with me for a week or so while I reviewed it.

Reynolds isn’t the only core game developer to make the jump to social games. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen new social game ventures from Raph Koster, Richard Garriot, Brenda Brathwaite, John Romero, and Sid Meier. Even video game academic Ian Bogost got sucked into developing a social game on Facebook as he tried to make Cow Clicker into a social game satire. Where these big names went, bigger companies followed. EA bought Playfish in 2009 and Disney acquired Playdom less than a year later. Today, even core game franchises like Red Dead Redemption and Dragon Age 2 are migrating to Facebook in the form of social games.

So, really, what is there to miss about the move to social games?

The core games industry’s perception of social games might be changing, but as more core game developers migrate, it’s social games that will see the most significant changes. For better or for worse, the games will get more complex. Our early look at Dragon Age 2 Facebook tie-in game, Dragon Age Legends, reveals the tendency for core game developers to layer in robust gameplay systems instead of trying to keep everything bare-bones “click this” simple. The games will also get prettier as what Brenda Brathwaite called an “art quality arms race” forms between developers with enough money to spend on hiring art directors. We may also see some new approaches to monetization as games with a core games product attached to it can leverage an external physical product to incentivize gameplay. We’re seeing the beginnings of this strategy is Dragon Age Legends where playing the social game unlocks in-game content in the console game, Dragon Age 2.

Core games have historically had well established game genres, which helps a game appeal to existing fans — “Come play me; I’m a farming sim just like that other game you like!” Social games still have a way to go before new games will appeal to fans of existing social games in that genre.

On the monetization side, clearly defined genres can help a game monetize by connecting it with a loyal audience. Research in Inside Virtual Goods: The Future of Social Gaming 2011 suggests that a loyal, highly engaged audience is more likely to spend money within a game, even if the average revenue per user comes out to be lower than large games with a larger audience. I think a game would have an easier time attracting this niche audience if it used its niche as an advertisement.

The divide between core games and social games will probably never fully go away. However, no matter how different the two industries seem, one thing remains consistent: fun. The people who make core games and the people who make social games want to make games that people want to play. So while social game developers can’t necessarily count on a warm reception at the 2012 Game Developers Conference — I hear they’ve banished the Best New Social/Online Game award to GDC Online in Austin, Texas — we can probably count on a library of great games to play between now and then.