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Opinion: Why Facebook's push to attract the 'core' is a bad idea Exclusive

Opinion: Why Facebook's push to attract the 'core' is a bad idea
February 5, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander

February 5, 2013 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Programming, Design, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Many developers are excited that games are nearly the most popular category on the iOS App Store, and that games can be expected to help lead the adoption of new Android hardware as well -- and it is excicting, from the perspective of creative, cultural and financial opportunity, to know these fashionable new devices rely on our industry so much.

But to an extent new hardware platforms have always leaned heavily on games to drive appeal and adoption. Even when those platforms were specifically intended for games, the design and identity of those games has always been beholden to the specifications and features of the platform designed to "serve" them.

The free-to-play social gaming boom on Facebook, led by Zynga and the viral game mechanics it helped pioneer, helped boost the social network's revenues. But those high-friction mechanics seem best at ratcheting user numbers up quickly, then squeezing them until only a small, devoted (and paying) userbase remains -- a trick that doesn't work forever, and one to which Facebook's users are becoming wise.

Many of my friends who used to play Facebook games know now that tunnel leads to a never-ending loop of notifications, unfulfilled quests and general social anxiety, and steer clear. They're not the only ones: a huge 2012 fall-off in user interest has been a stumbling block for Zynga's much-anticiated IPO, and has already led to Facebook's game revenues declining some 20 percent.

Now Facebook wants to reinvigorate gaming on its platform by 'backing' ten so-called 'hardcore' game launches in the year ahead. I haven't seen any reports clarify what Facebook means by "backing" -- financially, or just cheerleading as it enjoins traditional developers to resuscitate its gaming revenues? But either way, it seems hard to be optimistic.

Take nWay's ChronoBlade, a currently-in-beta multiplayer action RPG Facebook hopes will help lead the charge to bring core gamers to play on its network. It claims "console-quality graphics and explosive skilled-based combat" on a platform not traditionally known for promising or providing either of these things. On one hand, it seems like a decent idea: Close to a billion users on the network, so why not try to capture some revenue from the core set?

Except trying to capitalize on the proliferation of casual platforms has never worked out for the core developer before: Consider the mass software development exodus from Nintendo's Wii and DS when it became evident that it was nearly impossible to sell most core-styled games on either hardware. They were and would remain largely for families and children, and Nintendo's own brands would always sell best of all there. The 'core' just wanted Zelda.

This isn't just a hardware capability issue, it's to do with a platform's focus and who is using it. Investing more resources, offering more mature content or increasing graphical quality rarely meaningfully succeeds in attracting "core" users to platforms they weren't previously using.

And the incredible challenge of providing a "console-quality" multiplayer experience on the Web in any stripe has sent studios fleeing the MMO space in recent years, where again only casual and broadly-friendly titles (Minecraft, Minecraft and Minecraft) have thrived.

Trying to compete in the PC online space with a brand as popular, recognizable and universal as Star Wars concussed even Electronic Arts. It could be a lethal gamble for a new studio.

In fact, it has been before, for ChronoBlade's very developers.

nWay's founded by veteran Dave Jones, whose last studio, Realtime Worlds, was perhaps the most enormous and total recent casualty of the impossibly-high bar set for multiplayer action games on PCs. Now nWay essentially returns to the same arena, except with the additional challenge of monetizing games on Facebook without sacrificing design integrity or user experience -- that's a problem giant Zynga has only ever solved for the short-term, as its current struggles suggest.

Meanwhile, it looks like very little risk for Facebook: They don't exactly need these games to thrive, they just need, say, 12 months of increased user engagement to get a boost in ad revenue. They can probably get that if enough hopeful gamers are interested in the platform's core games and expend some goodwill checking it out.

Expect Facebook to pop up everywhere in the news to make sure everyone remembers that Jones made Grand Theft Auto. Expect a short term interest bump that's sure to lure more developers away from the more malleable mobile space (where Facebook isn't doing so well, games-wise) to help make the social network look good for another year or two.

The trumpeting of the "core" by Facebook in recent days raises a more interesting question about how we define "core" these days, especially now that the degree of time and money players expend doesn't tell us very much about what kind of game they like. Is it theme (ChronoBlade's website drops "Multiverse" and "Chronarch" on us in the introduction)? Is it the degree of quality they expect? Can't be -- there's polish on everything these days.

It's notable we're hearing "console-quality" in this conversation, given that the future of consoles is so anxious. The most serious gamer hobbyists I know would list Sworcery, Tiny Tower, Spaceteam, Spelltower and Hundreds among their favorite mobile games these days. Are those "core games"? Are they "console-quality?" Those descriptors hardly seem to make sense anymore, a relic of an older climate.

When Apple first showed Epic and Chair's Infinity Blade alongside its iPhone, it was as much -- if not more -- an advertisement to developers as it was to serious gamers. This is a real platform, and you can make Real Stuff on it, the demonstration seemed to say. That was an essential show of force to a dev community that thought of "cell phone games" as toss-aways.

But combat-oriented, console-like games are only one of many categories getting genuine depth and polish on the App Store (another set of UK 'core' development veterans lately stole my heart with The Room, an immersive puzzle game). It wasn't intense action combat, inscrutable fantasy themes or synchronous multiplayer that led people who take games seriously to take mobile games seriously.

There is, unfortunately, still little evidence that defines the actual possible scope and potential of games on Facebook, except for the bleak fact that thus far, very little of meaning has stuck. Good on nWay and its contemporaries for pioneering -- of course it'd be lovely to see them succeed.

But a muddy idea of "core" in the modern climate, the historical failure of "core games on casual platforms", an increasing preference toward mobile games, and the fact that the browser-based social network only complicates the existing challenge of free-to-play multiplayer RPGs online makes me skeptical that Facebook's "core push" as presently understood will be good for anyone except for Facebook.

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