When Farmville first hit it big on Facebook, many companies jumped at the chance to churn out simple social games as fast as they could in order to make a quick buck. And for a while that worked. Now though, the social games market has diversified with a flood of so-called “mid-core” gamers looking at casual games as a way to get their videogame fix. With this influx of mid-core gamers comes a change in player expectations, forcing developers to rethink their approach to creating games for Facebook and similar platforms.
As a result, studios are increasing their production values, but many have maintained the same formula of creating a product as quickly as possible either by re-skinning their own game or making a new version of another company’s popular title.
To create our first social game, Dungeon Rampage, we didn’t rush through development in an effort to focus on quantity over quality. We saw the rising number of mid-core gamers and decided to create a gaming experience that would best attract them. Not only did we invest in high production values and deeper game-play, but we also embraced real-time multiplayer as a way to up the fun-factor and replayability. As a result, our game is easy to get into but remains challenging even for advanced players.
Today’s Mid-core Social Gamer
In September 2009, the most popular game in the world was Farmville. Develop Online reported that Farmville “[had] seen a level of growth unprecedented for any game,” amassing more than 30 million players in two months. The social gaming scene has continued to evolve quickly since that point. And today, while women in their 40s continue to dominate the social gaming scene, 46 percent of today’s social gamers are male, and 67 percent of those who play social games also play console games, meaning they likely fall in the mid-core category.
The recently released list of Facebook’s Top 25 Games shows some of the usual suspects, such as Farmville 2 and Draw Something, but also includes titles more akin to arcade and console games, including Clash of Clans, Marvel: Avengers Alliance and Legend Online. The mid-core social gamer doesn’t want to play simple click games that lack the action and excitement they can get from consoles. Instead, what most mid-core gamers want is to get lost in the game’s world and story, and the only way to create this feeling is to give gamers the robust playing experience they are accustomed to.
When Rebel Entertainment formed in late 2010, we set out with that objective in mind. After compiling a team of top designers from companies including Disney Online and Zynga, we spent more than a year building our first social game. We launched Dungeon Rampage in September 2012 after lengthy closed- and open-beta testing to work out the kinks and incorporate valuable player feedback. By doing so we attracted an enormous player base of more than five million registered users (and growing), with more than two million monthly active users – meaning more than 40 percent of our players spend time in Dungeon Rampage on a regular basis. We retain players by keeping things fresh by generating millions of unique dungeons, millions of other real players to play with, and by providing a deep and challenging RPG level progression. Dungeon Rampage is one of thousands of options for these players, but by meeting the demands of today’s mid-core gamer, we’re able to capture their attention long-term, and even got ourselves onto Facebook’s top 20 list for 2012 along the way.
On average, less than 10 AAA console games launch each month, while the number of social game launches in the same time period can more than triple that. With so much competition on social platforms, it can be difficult to make a game stand out. That’s why it’s important for developers to utilize the tools available to ensure they create the best gaming experience possible for mid-core gamers.
One way social developers can mimic the experience mid-core gamers are accustomed to is by creating a game with a deep narrative, like MTV did with The Hunt, a scripted Facebook social experience. In The Hunt, players had to solve a murder mystery in a storyline that ran parallel to the show “Teen Wolf.” Mashable reported that users spent an average of nine minutes per week in-game, and 81 percent of the registered users played on a weekly basis.
Using mechanics commonly found in console games also sets social games apart from the average “click here to build/grow/take” experience. Zynga’s Empires and Allies offers turn-based conflict, a story line and boss fights, while Marvel: Avenger’s Alliance is a role-playing game complete with characters that gain experience and level up with each fight they win.
To develop Dungeon Rampage, we looked at the technology available and knew we could create something a mid-core gamer would want to play by upping the ante of what was currently available in social games. Not only does Dungeon Rampage offer synchronous multiplayer action – one of the first social games to do so – we went above and beyond most current console offerings by making our multiplayer cross-platform. The game is offered across Facebook, Kongregate.com and DungeonRampage.com, and players can team up with each other no matter which version their friends are playing. We also created a proprietary friend system that allows gamers to unify their created friends list across all of the sites where our game is offered. We then combined these tools with fast-paced action akin to arcade-style games to create a more intense kind of social game.
Translating the Experience to Revenue
The great thing about the freemium business model that’s so prevalent in social gaming is that it allows players to try out a game before committing any money to it, which opens up the game to a wider initial player base. This does lead to the issue of player retention, as a recent Playnomics study showed 85 percent of social gamers do not return to a game after their first day. Because the ultimate goal for a developer or publisher is usually to monetize a game, it’s extremely important to provide an ongoing high-quality experience that maintains user retention and convinces them to invest both time and money.
Rather than making players feel like they have to fork over their cash in order to have a good game experience, constantly buying coins or jewels to maintain “energy levels,” social games need to act like any other game in that they provide solid gameplay apart from the monetization. With Dungeon Rampage, players can play as many levels as they want without paying, but only pay when they want luxury or convenience items. By taking this approach, we’ve attracted a considerable following among the mid-core audience, which spends a vast amount of time in social games. Despite the fact that players can earn nearly 99 percent of the items without paying a dime, we still see thousands of players spending real money on a monthly basis in our game. Significantly, our purchasing players represent a broad audience of young and old, domestic and international, so we feel like our monetization strategy is working with our entire player-base, not just a select group.
We’ve successfully increased Dungeon Rampage’s player-base each month since the game’s launch, with roughly half of our players returning after their first month, which we attribute to creating a robust gaming experience with true social aspects instead of an asynchronous clickfest. By continually enhancing the experience with new characters and in-game offerings that made for deeper arcade-style action, we saw a post-launch increase of the mid-core gamer demographic because these types of gamers are willing to spend money for top-notch gameplay.†
Facebook currently has more than 800 million active users, and obviously gamers make up a huge chunk of the audience. Additionally, social gaming sites Kongregate.com and King.com have more than 14 million and 36 million monthly active users, respectively. Clearly social games are a huge market and many developers are eyeing the space hungrily, if they haven’t already jumped in.
Understanding the importance of the mid-core gamer is as key to being successful in the social games industry, and in order to make the social games that appeal to this audience, developers should study and emulate playing experiences found in console titles. It worked for us.