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 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.