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.
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."