Training Social Gamers to Become Hardcore Gamers

Much has been made of Facebook’s success in bringing millions of new users into the gaming industry. But how many of those new players are willing to go deeper than, say, FarmVille? Is it possible for forward-minded developers on Facebook to literally train a new generation of hardcore gamers?

A panel at last week’s Social Gaming Summit covered this issue, featuring Andrew Busey of Challenge Games, Susan Wu of Ohai, Andrew Sheppard from Watercooler and Jim Greer of Kongregate. All of them have attempted to create more in-depth social gaming experiences, with varying levels of success.

The answer: Yes, social gamers can become hardcore gamers, and they may even want to — even if they don’t know it. The problem is that the hardcore gaming market is naturally limited to a smaller number of people, those with time and a natural gaming inclination. There are already a few million of these people on Facebook, but individual developers can find it difficult to attract enough.

But the training toward hardcore gaming is coming not from indie developers with a big idea, but from the more shallow social games that started the whole trend. “These games are training gamers in hardcore activities like harvesting over and over,” said Wu. “How do you combine art with the kind of behavior your average social gamer is performing today? To me that’s the future of all gaming.”

Ohai’s first game is City of Eternals, which during the panel Wu said was drawing in the same largely female group that Facebook tapped. The problem is changing the way they look at the activity. “I think there’s a cognitive barrier. They don’t see themselves as gamers, they just think they’re socializing with friends,” she said.

But most City of Eternals players do end up migrating from Facebook to the game’s web site, which often turns five minute sessions into 30 minutes, as well as increasing the likelihood of interactions with strangers and group activities, something all the panelists pointed to.

At the end of the day, Facebook probably won’t be the destination site for more intensive gaming, because of the social network’s intended experience. “When you go to Facebook, you log in and there are 60 friend requests, then you want to look at pictures of your niece — it’s kind of schizophrenic,” said Sheppard.

But once social gamers have been lured over to more in-depth experiences, they logically also tend to spend more money, too. Greer said that Kongregate has games with mechanics that are actively hostile to the players, which means fewer people get involved — but that the average revenue per user (ARPU) was huge, with people routinely spending over $100. Busey’s game Warstorm also monetizes several times better than the average social game, he said.

One challenge for the future will be making the graphical experience better. “The problem is the coming religious war between Apple and Adobe,” said Busey, which will hinder developers from effectively using Flash. Unlike the video market, HTML5 is no replacement for web gaming.

When Unity3D came up, most of the panelists expressed admiration for the development tool, which can put a high-end graphical experience on the browser. None seemed convinced that Unity would gain traction, though. “You’ll see social elements moving into console games faster than the opposite, is my guess,” said Greer.