Zynga, Other Social Game Developers, Using More Advanced Game-Play Tech

Zynga’s FrontierVille has started asking users permission to cache in-game assets directly to hard drives, apparently a feature in testing that may be rolled out to a wider audience at some later date. It’s just the latest example of a social game developer trying to provide a better game-play experience by going beyond the basics of what browsers offer.

While we haven’t seen other developers cache data like Zynga at this point, we are seeing an uptick in social games that require plugins for services like Microsoft Silverlight or are built with the Unity 3D game engine, which prompts users to install a plugin in order to play the game on Facebook. Unity appeared on Facebook with Paradise Paintball (now called UberStrike) in 2009, and other 3D games have followed suit. Earlier this week, we reviewed Unity-run 3D first person shooter N.O.V.A. Elite, which has minimum system requirements of a 1.8 GHz dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM, a 256MB graphics card and 1GB of free hard drive space; an uncommon concept for a Facebook game.

Raising the tech bar for social games has some clear benefits for developers looking to improve user experience. In the case of FrontierVille’s data storage, the install resulted in shorter load times for the game, down from about 20 seconds to 7 seconds. All the items on our homestead appeared immediately instead of “drawing in” as the game continued to load the art assets. Beyond user experience, developers can also widen their hiring pools by building games in Unity. This is of particular interest for developers looking to hire engineers out of the console video game industry as most of these engineers would probably have an easier time adjusting to Unity than Flash because Unity is written in C++, the language in which most console video games are coded.

A challenge with these tactics, however, is possibly cutting out the Facebook gamer audience that most accesses their games on computers that don’t belong to them, or with computers that can’t meet the minimum system requirements specific games. Assuming a typical FrontierVille gamer accesses their homestead from a work or school computer on which they lack administrator access, that player may not be able to allow the game to install data on the hard drive. Moreover, installing a plugin takes time, and a user with a limited amount of play time per day (say, on an hour long lunch break), might navigate away from a game that prompts them to install a plugin before playing toward a game that’s less demanding of their time.

Of course, a N.O.V.A. player using a computer that meets the minimum system requirements to play the game probably already has FPS games available to them on that machine. A Facebook user that’s been playing social games for years without ever being prompted to install a plugin probably doesn’t see the need for it when they’ve been enjoying plenty of games without it. If social games are getting more complex only for the sake of attempting to mimic the types of game available on consoles, they might fail to connect to the existing Facebook audience even if they are able to attract some new audience of “hardcore” gamers.