Sometimes we invent categories that don't actually exist. We call some groups of games "hardcore" not because they share qualities with other things given that distinction (e.g. Marines, pornography, punk rock, drug abuse) but because we want to create an aura of specialness around them. By calling a game hardcore, we privilege it, adding a seriousness and meaning without having to further tax our brains about what is really so serious and meaningful about, say, StarCraft or Counter-Strike.
We can also use categories to diminish other games, fencing them off from any possible seriousness because they are "social" or "casual." (Can anyone think of hardcore games like StarCraft and Counter-Strike as not social?) Over the last several years new and untrustworthy titans have emerged from these instantly dismissible categories: FarmVille, CityVille, Cow Clicker, Angry Birds, Bejeweled Blitz, Fruit Ninja -- anything that can run on Facebook or attract tens of millions of players without the use of an assault rifle or pylon is not to be trusted by "hardcore gamers."
Is that over? Whether fans stuck in the mud of their own rhetoric like it or not, the industry is churning forward, and the barriers between these seemingly contradictory categories are being broken apart.
Where fans see stereotype, a growing number of developers see a distribution platform with an increasingly powerful set of development tools, capable of reaching a wide audience with the least number of obstacles in the way.
Companies like Kabam, Kixeye, and Free Range are all making serious games for browsers and social networks. Likewise, big publishers like EA, Ubisoft, and 2K are beginning to experiment with offshoots of their biggest franchises. These companies are changing the industry. Here's how.
This is Not a Future State, This is Happening Today
"Gamers judge games, they don't judge platforms," Will Harbin, CEO of Kixeye, told Gamasutra. "I definitely consider myself an avid gamer. I have an Xbox 360, a PlayStation 3, a Wii, and a souped-up PC. I've been playing games since the early '80s. My favorite genres are real-time strategy games, role playing games, and MMOs, and there was nothing like that on Facebook at the time. So we thought there was an opportunity to do something a little more core on Facebook. We saw it as a wide-open space."
Kixeye, formerly Casual Collective, tried its hand at updates of Desktop Tower Defense and Minions, and spent three years trying to build itself into a quick and accessible game hub. Then, in early 2010, after realizing the market was flooded, the company decided to refocus on traditional, highly-competitive games for Facebook and other Flash platforms.
Backyard Monsters was the company's first game after the relaunch -- a social twist on real-time strategy games where players fortify their own backyards while others amass armies to attack them. "It was a little bit softer, because it was our first go-round," Harbin said. "It had cute monsters, but there was lots of blood, and we had real strategic elements in the game that really weren't on Facebook before that."
"After the success of [Backyard Monsters] we thought the idea that gamers on Facebook don't want real games was more about developers -- who were spending more time copying one another with variations of farming games or text-based RPGs like Mafia Wars. We saw it as a wide-open space."
A year and half ago, Kixeye had three employees. Following the success of Backyard Monsters and another RTS hit, Battle Pirates, the company has grown to 60 people. Kabam, one of its biggest competitors, is another company that has enjoyed success creating traditional competitive games for social networks and browser play. Its staff has grown over to over 450 employees.
"Research data reveals a high degree of overlap already exists" between social gamers and console players, Ted Simon, vice president of brand marketing for Kabam, said. "Seven out of 10 social game players are also playing games on a console, and that number rises to 82 percent among what we call 'Hardcore Social Gamers.' 55 percent of Kabam players report that they have decreased their amount of playing time on other platforms as a result of their social game playing."
Kabam formed in 2006 -- then called Watercooler Inc. -- with the goal of producing social games. In 2009 its strategy game Kingdoms of Camelot become one of the first Facebook games to attract a dedicated following and earn genuine praise from critics typically dismissive of social games. Consequently, the company dedicated itself to making traditional games for social and mobile platforms, with follow-ups like Dragons of Atlantis, Global Warfare, and Glory of Rome.
The total number of players for these traditional game experiences is still small compared with Zynga's games, including FarmVille, CityVille, and Mafia Wars, which cumulatively attracted over 260 million players in July. Kixeye has between 5 and 6 million monthly players for its two titles, and Kabam's titles drew 9 million players in July.
Yet even with smaller numbers, traditional games have several powerful qualities that make them an easy fit on social networks and browsers. And their player numbers are more than competitive with the number of players paying for serious games on consoles.
Facebook for Men: It's Serious This Time
One of the assumptions about the word "hardcore" is that it describes only a kind of game and the serious-minded players who appreciate them. Peeking behind the demographic curtain reveals a more precise truth: hardcore games are ones young men are most likely to consider serious. The player metrics from this new brand of hardcore social games confirm this idea overwhelmingly. The very idea of seriousness is something that appeals most strongly to men -- overwhelmingly so.
"The demographic is pretty much 95 or 96 percent male," Harbin said. "I'd say probably 40 percent of our users are North American males between the ages 20 to 40, and the rest are spread out through Western Europe, Australia, a little bit in Asia. We pretty much just target the male gamer demographic on an international basis."
Likewise, Kabam recently completed a survey to measure its player base against the rest of the social games category, and found that hardcore games are significantly more appealing to men. "Casual social gamers have a pronounced female skew with women making up 61 percent of players, 62 percent of whom were over the age of 40," Simon said.
"Kabam players skew heavily male. 72 percent are men and the majority, about 55 percent, are under 40 years old. So, we're looking at a very different audience than the mass of casual social games."
Of Kixeye's 5 to 6 million monthly players, "somewhere around" 10 percent are actually spending money. Kabam declined to share specific financial data, but reported that, even with a significantly smaller player base than other social games, traditionally male-centric games can be lucrative.
"Hardcore social gamers play more games and spend more time playing those games," Andrew Sheppard, chief product officer of Kabam, said. "They report a much higher incidence of purchasing in-game content, and spend more on their purchases. The challenge is in creating a game that will appeal, attract, retain and motivate these players as purchasers. That's no easy task."
While traditional male players tend to buy in equivalent, or slightly higher, percentages than other social games, their purchases are often motivated by different needs. "Our user base buys functional items," Harbin said. "We tested decorative items that have no bearing on score or performance. We thought it would go gangbusters, but it was really like crickets chirping. Nobody really cared about putting bonsai trees, flags, or tiki torches around their yard."
"People in our games express themselves through how well they play the game. For Battle Pirates, it's really all about your score, and ability to loot other people's islands. People are spending a whole lot of money on their offensive capabilities, and a whole lot of money on their defensive capabilities -- so things like weapons, armor, ship hulls, and things like that. Some choose to speed up their ship repairs so they can get right back out there and battle."
Console players have rankled at the idea of microtransactions. Hardcore players tend to love prizes connected to performance, adorning themselves in the plumage of victory. The idea that someone could simply buy their way into the same competitive circle touches a nerve for many players, a central risk for anyone making a competitive game built around microtransactions.
"Balance is a key element," Harbin said. "We want to make sure that any user, if they play well enough, can compete and succeed with people who are paying money. There are no special or super exclusive items that can only be bought. Everything can be earned. That's really important to us as gamers, as we're still trying to prove the idea of virtual goods to this audience."
While there is no standard model, Kixeye has had success so far by separating players by level. Choosing to spend lots of money on performance boosting items bumps you up into a higher level, where the play is more competitive. Lower-level players are, likewise, protected from attack by players outside of a certain range of their own level, which ensures a rough kind of fairness.
To Hold You in Time
Social networks present a new problem for traditional video game design rarely experienced on consoles, where everything built up around a single point of purchase. Games for social networks and browsers must build a long-term relationship with players, ensuring that they'll be interested enough to return again and again, and hopefully spend a small bit of money each time they do. Hardcore social developers must be relationship experts, not just expert developers.
"With so many options available to players today, it's a major challenge to both capture a player's attention and keep them engaged," Sheppard said. "We devote considerable resources to understanding what our players want and need. We have made a significant investment in [business intelligence] and analytics tools and staff, as well as building a large Player Experience team to ensure we are listening to our players concerns and maintaining on-going communication with them."
Another great benefit of putting a game on Facebook is the associated backbone of pre-existing infrastructure that you might otherwise have to build from scratch. "You can easily leverage what Facebook is great at, like chatting, sending messages, and seeing who is online, to help in matchmaking, better leaderboards, user registration, and asynchronous challenges, among other things," Chris Scholz, president of Free Range Games, said.
Free Range is a new company hoping to continue the trend of making traditional, competitive games for social networks and browsers. Its first game, FreeFall Arcade, is a third person arena shooter where teams of up to four players cooperate in holding back waves of alien enemies. While the game only has five levels and a relatively small number of guns and enemies at this point, it's a considerable step toward narrowing the gap between the intense, reflex-dependent action experiences on consoles.
Like Kabam and Kixeye, it's been easier for Freefall to stand out on Facebook. "A lot of games on Facebook look and play the same, with cutesy big-eyed characters, and the intolerable on-ramp intro with pop up graphics telling you what button to click," Scholz said. "The potential is there for Facebook, but I feel that we are still waiting for the breakout hit that will make core gamers recognize Facebook's value."
Hardcore games have been susceptible to the same copycatting and replication that has made less competitive games like FarmVille into boilerplates. "There still haven't been a lot of really good developers coming to Facebook and we're starting to see the same sort of thing happen, where people say they're just going to developing a real-time strategy game," Harbin said. "There are no good sports games, no good RPGs, no good action games, no good tournament arena-style games."
"We've got a lot more work ahead of us. We've got a couple more strategy games on the way, and we're starting to lay the groundwork on an RPG engine and a tournament arena battle engine and a few other things we've got up our sleeve."
One of the long-term advantages of Facebook is its portability, which further benefits both players and developers. "The gameplay experience is portable and does not rely on any single device," Sheppard said. "I can actively manage my empire in Kingdoms of Camelot from work, home or even on the go -- as long as I can connect to the internet, I can play."
Facebook is the biggest social network in the world today, with more than 700 million users, and yet it has been open to everyone for just five years. It's hard to imagine, but there may yet come a day when Facebook begins to wane, or else is subsumed by an even more encompassing technology.
"It's never good business practice to rely on one distribution vehicle," Harbin said. "That's not just in the back of my mind, that's right in the forefront -- that's something we're actively working on."
"I want to make it clear, we're not about moving off Facebook at all. They're a great partner, and we like working with them a lot, but we are working on figuring out what other platforms we can move onto. Backyard Monsters is on 12 other networks outside of Facebook. People will be able to play our games on the Kixeye site much sooner than five years from now."
The Future is Everything, In Its Rightful Place
The sudden and often confusing rise of broad market gaming content -- empowered by mobile phones, the emergence of the Wii, the iOS upsurge, and the tidal wave of Facebook users willing to prune gardens and unscramble jewels -- has made it easy to fear for the future of traditional, competitively-oriented games.
The underlying truth is that the industry has simply been rebalancing itself, making "hardcore" game experiences simply one small category in a newly flourishing spectrum of interactive culture. Meanwhile, the burden of the biggest publishers in the industry will be to keep pace with this expansion, across all ends of the spectrum if they're to maintain their stature. 2K Games' recent release of a Civilization variant on Facebook is one example of this foundling process.
"Bringing [CivWorld] to Facebook is consistent with our strategy of delivering triple-A entertainment experiences on the platforms where gamers want to play," Sarah Anderson, vice president of marketing for 2K Games, said. "Facebook has grown to a point where we can deliver a compelling game experience to a vast audience. We felt it was a compelling game to offer the audience rather than a timed market opportunity."
EA has approached the new markets primarily through acquisitions of other companies with proven business model, but has recently begun experimenting with more directly with its headline IP. Dragon Age has its own Facebook game and its developer was recently renamed BioWare San Francisco, suggesting an even greater focus on IP crossovers.
2K and Firaxis had an even more natural transition with Civilization -- not just because it's one of the biggest franchises in PC history, but because a turn-based strategy game is tantalizingly adaptable to browser play.
"Our game has a beginning and an end, including nations and players that win -- as well as those that don't. We impose daily spending limits to ensure that victories can't be bought and that the game stays fair and balanced. It's a fundamentally different game that both core and non-core fans can enjoy," said Anderson.
These big publishers are, of course, only catching up with the many stand-alone free-to-play games like Maple Story, Combat Arms, and League of Legends, which have quietly but persistently found a way to flourish even without a social network to help promote them. Building on the examples of these competitors, Kixeye found that it was best to minimize the degree of social network virality in its games and instead trust in highly targeted marketing.
"We do very focused marketing for the users that we know will like the game," Harbin said. "We never want to be beholden to any external policy that affects what we can and can't do from a viral perspective. We do get a lot of unexpected virality, and we'll take it, but that's not really our core model. We can afford to spend a lot of money on marketing and make sure that we acquire the right users."
What convergence will be between "hardcore" and "social" in the fullest, most bedazzling sense remains distant. "The freely available browser plug-ins, like Flash -- which is available everywhere -- give you roughly the same horsepower as a PC or console gave you maybe 12 years ago or so," Harbin said.
"With the new version of Flash coming out supporting OpenGL that gives us even more. There's a lot that you can do with technology that translates into real gameplay."
The days of playing Killzone 3 or Portal 2 on Facebook are not here, but it is proving to be a fertile ground to keep alive some genres that seemed have been lost in the shift to console play over the last decade. RTSs, arena tournament games, turn-based RPGs, strategy games, and team-based shooters, don't have to attract the hundreds of millions of players that other social games do to be massively profitable.
"To us it's not really about massively expanding our user base," Harbin said. "If we had the user mechanics of Battle Pirates and had a user base of around 15 to 20 million users, that's a multi-billion dollar business. We're not talking about gigantic numbers; we're not talking about hundreds of millions of people."
"You can do a lot with much smaller numbers. It's really about finding highly-engaged, super-targeted pockets of gamers out there and developing games for them."
It may sting some serious-minded players, but the best chance for hardcore games surviving is becoming more and more closely connected to the social platforms they once derided. You could call it ironic. Or you could let go of the labeling pretenses and simply love what you love, letting that draw you through places you'd never seriously thought about going.