Trends of 2012: Social Gaming

Will this be the year social gaming crosses over to the hardcore?

Over the next 12 months, social games will continue be successful. That much isn't particularly hard to predict - the phenomenal numbers of players that the likes of Zynga and Playfish can boast show few signs of dropping off, and if anything they'll swell even further throughout 2012. The real story of social gaming over the next year could be something much more compelling, though. This could well be the year that an area often scorned by traditional gamers finally crosses over to the core.

For many, social gaming is still all about Zynga. For millions ensnared by late-night games of Zynga Poker and many more tending to their virtual lots in FarmVille or CityVille, Zynga is gaming.

Those that consider themselves gamers rest their view of social gaming on a sceptical stance on Zynga's output - these are games with the pleasures of play ripped out of them, replaced with slick and cynical economies. They're Sisyphean slogs in which Sisyphus must drag his friends along for the ride and then spam them with reports on every step of his fruitless trundle.

It's a perception that's long tarnished social gaming, and one that even veterans of this fledgling scene have empathy with. "The very early games on Facebook weren't really games," says Playfish's VP of global studios, Jami Laes, "they were more like these viral vehicles."

Henrique Olifiers, a former studio director at Playfish and now head of fellow London outfit Bossa Studios, goes further. "[Social games] have been in a development cycle for the last three years, and nothing particularly special's come out of it just yet," he tells us. "There have been a lot of copycat games, a lot of games with the same mechanics and the same graphical style, without enough gameplay mechanics or depth of storyline or characters.

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Triple Town showed that Facebook can host deep and compelling games - expect more examples in the next 12 months.

"The first generation of social games hit well with a new kind of player, which was typically a 40-year-old woman - the kind who'd never played games before. And that became a self-fulfilling prophecy - since there was money to be made from that segment, everyone started making games for that segment. So that's really the main reason that hardcore gamers don't have any interest. So I see why they don't like these games - I don't blame them at all."

But times are changing, and they're changing rapidly. The past 12 months has seen a sharp upturn in quality and a fresh diversity, from Spry Fox's smart strategy/puzzle hybrid Triple Town to the successful arrival of established gaming brands that have finally managed to etch their own place in social gaming, whether that's with Civ World or, most fruitfully, Playfish's The Sims Social.

"The Sims Social has been successful," confirms Jami Laes, "it's overreached all the targets that we had for the game in terms of audience size and revenue. We were kind of caught off guard in its initial success." It's tailed off somewhat - no real surprise when most social games peak around three months into their lives - but the numbers are still there, and it's showing no sign of disappearing any time soon.

"It's been a big effort from a lot of people," says Laes, admitting that the transposition's been eased as the Sims series comes with a design ethos that already sits comfortably with the unique demands of social gaming.

"It made sense with the brand - it was very suitable to social gaming, and very suitable to Facebook gaming. And when you play the game, I'm sure you'll see that it's one of the only real social games out there, in many ways. Because the relationships really matter in a social context in a more meaningful way than any generic farming or restaurant game or anything like that."

It's not the first of EA's brands to make it across to Facebook, but to date it's been the most successful - and it's paving the way for a fresh wave of games that move further away from the click-farming of old and towards a more traditional gameplay experience. Risk: Factions - a spin on the classic strategic board game that's also made an appearance on console - has already set a strong foundation for EA and Playfish's attack on social gaming in 2012.

"Risk, that we launched a couple of weeks ago, has opened the floodgates," says Laes. "That's a very social game, as it was originally a board game, and board games are social by their very nature. Those games that people traditionally play together lend themselves very well to social gaming. I think Risk is a good example of better execution on social through Playfish and EA on EA's brands, on their core game brands. It's a more hardcore game than The Sims Social is."

Being more hardcore than The Sims is, of course, no real feat, but Risk: Factions is one more step along a path that social gaming looks set to stick to over the next 12 months, and it's one that promises to cross the divide between social gaming and core gaming.

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The Sims Social is an example of an existing franchise successfully making the jump to Facebook - can other, more hardcore brands make the jump as well?

It's a divide that's been diminishing for a while already - just as mainstream games have begun to adopt the tropes and themes of social networks - witness, for example, Need for Speed's Autolog, Call of Duty Elite or Forza's Rivals mode - so too are social games beginning to look towards more traditional games for inspiration.

"That borrowing goes both ways," Laes says of the existing relationship between social gaming and console gaming. "Social gaming and Facebook will adopt more of their mechanics from core games, and the core games will adapt some of the themes, mechanics and gameplay from social games."

If a game does emerge in 2012 that successfully caters to the hardcore, it may have to do something more radical than simply weld together two existing templates. "The social mechanic that most social games offer has nothing for the hardcore player," says Olifiers, "it's a lot about using your friends as resources, while more core players are interested in competition and co-operation in a meaningful way. If social games can start doing that - if they start offering stuff like PVP - the game can be a little more casual but could have a large appeal."

Bossa has already started to move towards this, with last year's Monster Mind introducing real-time multiplayer as well as strategic elements that will be familiar to more seasoned games players.

"It's not a departure from social games, but it's a step in the right direction. One of the things that we want to do is comparative real-time multiplayer - we love co-op gaming. We think it's stronger than PVP, and that's something that we don't see on Facebook."

How exactly Bossa Studios delivers on this remains a mystery, but already it's become a source of some excitement. When Yoshifusa Hayama, a veteran developer with one of the industry's most colourful CVs - having worked at Sega's arcade division in the nineties, he went on to work on Shenmue where he's credited with the invention of the QTE, before most recently working at a producer level on The Last Guardian - joined and stated that he wanted to create Facebook's first masterpiece, it sent ripples out among the hardcore.

He's not the first high-profile developer with a more traditional gaming background to make the jump to social; amongst Zynga's many acquisitions there has been the hiring of several notable execs such as Barry Cottle and Stephen Chiang. In 2012, we should start to see this cross-pollination bear fruit.

And it's highly likely that the results will bear little resemblance to the current generation of social games as the technology behind them begins to escalate. "Technology's taking us to 3D," says Olifiers, "and we're starting to look at games that look like their counterparts on console. The final aim is to have something that in terms of gameplay mechanics and depth, and storyline and character and engagement with the player is also on a par; this is something that we want to do this year.

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Dusty Welch, a man credited with building the Call of Duty brand, is aiming to replicate his success in the world of social gaming.

"Social games are evolving right now - the production values will evolve very fast and close the gap between social games and consoles - and that will start happening this year."

There are already social games in the pipeline that promise to do this, the most notable at present being the as-yet-unnamed shooter project under development at U4iA, a team founded by Dusty Welch - a man who helped build the Call of Duty brand into the behemoth that it is today.

"The team and the talent and the tech hasn't existed yet today to provide a AAA quality experience, for example in Facebook. Flash really can't take advantage until Flash 3D comes out, but Unity can," Welch said late last year, and he's optimistic that his new game can replicate some of his past successes.

"I kind of liken it to when I created Call Of Duty to dethrone the established leaders back in the early 2000s, and you bet my goal at U4iA is to repeat that success again. And so providing a AAA, first-person shooter experience in a browser is really what the end game is for us. And I think that's going to help lead the new dynamic and a transition of gamers into the social."

And U4iA's game isn't going to be alone in 2012. "I actually know there's a couple of games coming in the next 12 months that are going to attract the core gamers," Laes says somewhat cryptically. "But unfortunately I can't speak to what those are right now."

As and when these games start to appear, social gaming's perception amongst the core may still prove an issue. "The problem with that is to convince hardcore gamers that such a thing could happen on Facebook, so they could give it a try," warns Olifiers; "if we create something like that right now I'm pretty sure it will die, because the players won't believe it's something that can happen."

The incoming swell of new games and new game types to the world of social should hopefully wash any such worries away. "It doesn't really need more than a couple of great games that are going to show the potential, that are going to justify those core gamers making that leap of faith and trying Facebook games," says Laes. "Maybe it's a known brand, maybe it's a generic game that they loved, in the same way that the Sims Social has done that on Facebook but with a more hardcore game from the past."

It all adds up to a potentially transformative 12 months in social. "Creativity and differentiation of social games will be key," Laes says of the year ahead. "Until fairly recently, social games stuck to a strict format; 2012 will be the year that we'll see different variations of this and more creative gameplay. Now that studios are waking up to the opportunities that social gaming brings, the race is on to attract loyal social gamers with games that are increasingly sophisticated and really pushing the boundaries of what is expected of them.

"By the end of 2012 we'll have games that are more interesting, and the companies making these games will be making more hardcore games," Olifiers concludes. "It's going to be very interesting, and it's not going to be an easy ride."

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