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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.
"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.