Why Social Games Are Eating The Industry's Lunch

By David Radd

Some months ago I wrote about the necessity of the more established part of the gaming industry getting involved with social, online and mobile games. All indicators are that those parts of the industry are on the rise, while the traditional console sector, while not floundering, still struggles to expand. Going where your customers are is one of the basic tenets of business and it’s a no-brainer, considering the initial investment is typically far less than an average AAA title.

When I originally wrote the article, I was coming from the perspective that most of the games from those emerging sectors were different from the established home/portable console business. They’re certainly not exactly the same – most of these sorts of games are reliant upon micro-transactions, meaning that the structure of gameplay holds some differences from a traditional retail product, where you buy the whole thing upfront. Many online and F2P titles also have some persistent character/town/kingdom that must be leveled/upgraded/kept-up to avoid getting beaten/razed/plundered while you’re away – practically no console titles work that way.

The more I examined social/browser based gaming, however, the more similarities I saw between the established gaming industry and these emerging fields. Strategy, simulation, RPG and beat-’em-up games have some very prominent examples throughout the decades from the PC and console gaming spheres and underneath the banner ads, the Flash-based graphics, the Facebook integration and everything else, that’s pretty much what most online and social games are based on.

Take FarmVille, for instance. It’s one of the most preeminent social gaming franchises out there and the first example many people think of when social games are brought up. Raising crops and livestock, doing chores, gathering materials and attending special events doesn’t sound like something a “core” game would do… until you consider Harvest MoonRune Factory and Animal Crossing. These are prime examples of more traditional games that are thematically similar, if not identical in the way they are played.

Browser based online games have also seen plenty of more action oriented, beat-’em-up titles too. Games like Grand ChaseDungeon Fighter Online and Three Kingdoms Brawlerall use sprites in a “2.5” set up where players take on hordes of enemies, sometimes with the help of other players. These games are pretty much directly aping games like River City Ransom, Double Dragon, Final Fight and almost countless others from the ’90s that used some implementation of this formula (albeit not online).

Let’s take another Zynga game as an example, CityVille; it includes many of the elements of FarmVille, along with rent collecting, construction and the ability to build up your city and gain “levels.” It’s also impossible to look at the game and not think of SimCity, between the way buildings are constructed, roads are placed and resources are collected – that game’s DNA in unmistakably a part of CityVille. For reasons that totally escape me, SimCity isn’t on Facebook with a social incarnation of its own.

Then there’s the online strategic games that for lack of a better term I’m simply going to call Evony-clones. If you haven’t played any of these games, you’ve almost certainly seen banner ads for them around the web. Typically, they let you build up a fortress or city, train an army and engage in mostly static combat, often starting out for a locked period of time in “safe mode” where other players can’t attack you before you small empire becomes vulnerable. Even Zynga, who has released games where combat was at most passive/aggressive, has gotten in on the act with Empires & Allies. What struck me was there was no Romance of the Three Kingdoms game online or on Facebook attempting to capitalise on this trend. There is an MMORPG game for the franchise in Asia, but it has more in common with World of Warcraft than the long running strategy series.

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. Now, I know some more established gaming publishers have actually leveraged their older franchises for upcoming social/F2P titles recently, like Microsoft with Age of Empires Online, 2K Games with civilisation World and EA with The Sims Social. I’d imagine if these games are successful there will be more of their kind, but frankly I think success goes beyond the use of tropes that have worked in the F2P space.

Going back to the ’80s and ’90s there are plenty of console and arcade properties that could be used in some sort of F2P context with a little modification. Capcom gave a great example with their free-to-download arcade app, with micro-transactions for extra features like more credits. Another thing that could be done with, say, older RPG titles is give the game for free but offer things like quicker levelling for those that want to get back to the story quicker.

I think there’s a lot of untapped potential out there and if some of the very smart people in the industry put their minds to it, could find a wide variety of ways to leverage mobile, social, online and F2P with established gaming IP in a way that makes sense. I have complete trust that the industry can make better looking and better games than most social and online developers (many of which have their roots as web companies and not game designers) currently focused on the F2P market these days. All it would take is a little initiative, and I think both core gamers and F2P players could be given games they can agree are great.

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