Multiplayer or bust?
Multiplayer gameplay is a clear winner when designing a game for hardcore gamers. Current successful freemium games targeted at the core are all built around very solid multiplayer modes. However, it is interesting to note that most of them emphasize team-versus-team gameplay. That makes sense. Multiplayer game modes that are focused on deathmatch and individual gameplay are too hardcore for most players.
As a consequence, the design of those games fosters teamwork. In League of Legends, each team is made of few players that have to lay down a strategy before each game and carefully plan how they'll position their champions in order to optimize the defense of their base while attacking their opponent's. In World of Tanks, each tank type is especially suited for certain actions and must be used accordingly. Even Combat Arms, a game initially built around a team deathmatch mode, added an assault mode where a team of players has to advance as far as possible in a map filled with enemy bots.
Now, is it conceivable that a freemium hardcore game has no multiplayer, or at least, is designed as a one-player game with limited multiplayer features? I think so.
Many successful social freemium titles are construction or management games. CityVille is essentially a one-player experience. Its "multiplayer" dimension is a mere support for virality, not gameplay. So, I would not be surprised to witness the publishing of a freemium construction or management game suitable to hardcore or mainstream gamers.
Key differences with freemium social games
Freemium has established its foothold in our industry through social games. Their developers have been very innovative, bringing new concepts and game mechanics. They managed to skyrocket the number of gamers to unprecedented heights -- they literally broaden the user base of our industry. Does that mean that the design of core-targeted games has to slavishly follow their design paradigm? Of course not. Here are three design issues that must not be inspired by social game design.
Tutorials. Social games target casual gamers, or even people that have never played a video game before. Therefore they have to include powerful tutoring features that literally take the player by the hand; they are closely intertwined in the early gameplay. The player, no matter what he does, will never have to ask himself what to do and, even more important, will never face failure. Furthermore, all features are not available in early stages of the game and are progressively unlocked. As a result, early game phases tend to offer poor gameplay.
A game targeted at experienced players does not need such heavy-handed tutorials. Actually, they are a sure way to turn core players off; they are utterly boring, tend to remove all challenges from the game, and some players would probably feel insulted to be treated in such condescending ways. Some form of tutorial is needed, but it should not prevent the player from jumping directly into the full-featured game.
Social features. All casual-focused freemium games make social features an important part of their gameplay. They are indispensable to their success, since only a very small portion of players will make any purchases. You need to have a lot of them playing your game in order to generate a profit. Those games are filled up with opportunities to advertise the game to your friends so they'll become players themselves. Furthermore, casual gamers prefer to play with their own friends rather than strangers. The problem with those features is that they are often intrusive and tend to bend the gameplay in the "wrong way."
A core-targeted freemium game does not need to rest so heavily on social features. It is actually quite interesting to notice that most successful core-targeted freemium games do not use any of these tricks. They do offer internal forums, in-game instant messaging, and clan features, but they don't force the player to socialize if he does not wish to. Word-of-mouth is how core-targeted freemium games recruit new players. It actually works quite well, because hardcore gamers tend to communicate a lot with their friends.
Platforms. Freemium social games have expanded on all platforms, but they are especially prevalent on Facebook. Given their content, it is a great platform. Should hardcore freemium games do the same? There are already a few core-targeted freemium games on Facebook -- Kabam specializes in them -- but most are not present on that platform. They are either stand-alone PC applications (League of Legends, World of Tanks) or they can be accessed through a PC game portal like Gameforge or they are browser-based (eRepublik, The Settlers).
So far, the best practice seems to stay away from Facebook. Core-targeted titles aim at offering the audience the same type of game experience they are used to. Therefore, they are way too heavy to upload to the player's device every time he wants to play, which is part of the Facebook experience. Furthermore, games on that platform have developed a casual-only image that could make it more difficult to market a hardcore game.
However, things might change in the future. We are all on Facebook and there is no reason hardcore games should stay away from it. It's also clear that some developers are targeting the platform; if any break through, things could change rapidly. The real challenge is to design a game experience that will meet both the expectations of core gamers and the technical limitations of that social platform. Zynga, among others, is probably working hard to do just that.
A last few words...
In this feature, I covered the key design issues that any game designer will face when working on a freemium title targeted at hardcore gamers but if you are looking for a simple introduction to the design of freemium games, I encourage you to read my previous feature: The Design of Free-To-Play Games.