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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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Ian Fisch
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The crux of your argument is the comparison of facebook to hardware like the Wii. This is where I take issue.

The Wii was ill-equipped to support traditional hardcore experiences (Halo, Mass Effect, etc). Why play the Wii version if the Xbox 360 version was always going to be better?

Facebook, on the other hand, runs on PC - a platform capable of playing the best version of any hardcore game released. Whether these developers take advantage of this is another question.

Ian Fisch
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You seem very confident that the technical problems of running a game that integrates with facebook in some way, are insurmountable.

Have you ever thought that maybe facebook's technology might improve?

Emppu Nurminen
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Yet none pointed out one thing; Facebook is all about procrastinating, while platforms and websites for games only are granting the time used for playing games. What you get when you dump dozens of core games there with hours of free time to play them? Lots of disappointed people finding out how they wasted their time bumping into that rather celebrating new, nice games.
That's the reason why so simple and time-limited casual games are actual really great for Facebook platform because they wake people up before too much time is wasted in there.

Carlo Delallana
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Are hardcore gamers natural whales? I guess i'm still not sure about that assessment. One is a description of gaming tastes and play behavior while the other is a description of monetization potential. They're not necessarily mutually exclusive traits.

Gil Salvado
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You're absolutely right about that, but the chances are higher for hardcore gamers to be or become a whale. The overall of social/casual gamers tend to spend more often but lesser amounts than hardcore gamers.

John Teymoorian
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I am the perfect example of a cheap hardcore gamer. Not all hardcore gamers are whales. They'll only become whales when they see inherent value in the product offering outside of what they have to purchase. The items they're purchasing are just icing on the already great game cake.

Rasmus Gunnarsson
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I don't think hardcore gamers are natural whales at all. I'd bet they'd be less willing to spend money on a facebook game when they gotta buy the real games.

Gil Salvado
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Totally agreed, I would spend my money on Mechwarrior Online for example. Even right now while it's still in Beta. Buy a nice Hero Mech. Get some nice camo. Because I already like this game and the developer.

But(!) I'd never spend any money on the game I just developed, because I hate the combat mechanic and I know it's a money sink.

Carlo Delallana
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Maybe it's the game designer in me but when I can clearly see an up-sell moment before I've had a chance to settle into the game and see if I like it is an immediate turn off. I assume core gamers are sensitive to this but not so if you are a whale-type personality.

Joe Zachery
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The The Wii was ill-equipped to support "current" hardcore experiences! The Wii had hardcore experience it just didn't have most of the current popular titles.

How this effects Facebook is another question. It seems to me that Facebook, and mobile devices already have games that can be consider hardcore games. The problem most of them are knockoffs of mainstream titles. Hardcore games want Zelda, and not Zynga bootleg version of it. For Facebook to target the hardcore they are going to have to pay to get mainstream AAA titles on it. Complete full versions that offer everything you can get on a console. At the same time give them something extra that will make it worth it for gamers to leave their consoles.

If we are to believe that casuals gamers just want simple cheap games. The hardcore gamers want full fledged AAA titles from the major players. I'm not sure Facebook wants to spend that money to get the new Call of Duty. Before it releases on the next Xbox or other home consoles. That's the type of move it's going to take.

Ardney Carter
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I get the comparison you're attempting to draw as it relates to the Wii but I actually find your lumping the DS in there to be a far more dubious claim.

You're telling me that the myriad strategy games, RPGs, platformers, and etc. that were released on the DS weren't 'core' games? You're trying to say that the handheld with the biggest install base of all time that moved massive amounts of software somehow didn't also make money for developers?

Are you defining 'core' to mean 'first-person shooter'? Because the problems with that should be self-evident but it seems to be the only way your reference to the DS makes any sense.

Additionally, the comparison is weak because, regardless of perceptions RE: their 'hardcoreness', both the Wii and DS were designed to be game platforms first and foremost. Facebook is not designed to have games as it's primary purpose for existence. Games are an afterthought to the Facebook platform and that is where the challenge begins. It also renders comparisons to dedicated games platforms largely ineffective.

Robert Lever
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Core clearly is starting to refer to themes more so than the gameplay experience.

I'm sure you all have Facebook. Wouldn't you prefer to have more options like Marvel Avengers Alliance and Battle Nations?

It's easy to assume that an increased proliferation of "core" games on the platform will eventually lead to an audience influx. A NEW audience. If the audience grows or stick around, this will allow "core" developers an alternative option for selling their products (rather than existing solely on iOS). Sounds good to me...

As we've seen lately in the mobile space, increased levels of developer/publisher participation allows designers more of an opportunity to build, improve and evolve the monetization and virality mechanics of the platform.

Jason Lee
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As a lot of people have been pointing out, core feels kind of an empty word here. Remove the Buzzwordiness and there's no mention of mechanics or interaction, but graphics quality and moving existing (and failing) genres onto this platform that possibly can't even support it well. The move doesn't feel very well thought out, nor does the terminology of "console-quality" or anything else being bandied out. I think this is a knee-jerk reaction to how "core" games from Clash of Clans to League of Legends have a more specific niche of highly engaged monetizing players. Social Game Companies want that "holy grail" of users that they felt they lacked, but I think a big question that's being asked in this article is are these users ever going to go to Facebook for this kind of gaming, with the PlanetSide 2's, League of Legends, and other "real" core games out there? Why would they ever get on this platform if they already have their XBox or PC?

Another way to put it: Facebook! Your words are as empty as your soul. Mankind ill needs a savior such as you!

Kenn White
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Jay's got it. The use of the word core doesn't invalidate the argument. Jay suggests "violent competitive". I suggest "enthusiast" (as opposed to "hobbyist", which is what I'd equate to "casual").

The problem with the article here is that it relies nearly wholly on the idea that Facebook Games = Zynga/King. Anyone falling into that trap is missing the point.

Lewis Wakeford
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Seriously what is the benefit of developing "core" games for "core" gamers on facebook? "Core" gamers will play your game if it is any good regardless, because "core" gamers don't need facebook to find games for them.

Luis Guimaraes
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For hardcore gamers it is. For casual gamers it's not.

Bob Johnson
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The benefit is the more you use Facebook the more money they are likely to make. :)

Emppu Nurminen
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I think when people speaking about "console-quality", they are more often referring to graphics that depict realism either 3D or 2D and meaning for such games that rely so heavily on visual impression of realism in sake of being able to immerse themselves with the game. In other words, yay, in year 2013 we are still bickering about should we think again the violence aspect in realistic games, when some idiots can't immerse in the game, if it doesn't have realistic graphics in it.
Facebook and mobile platforms did good job to cater games that had options for playing the way core games are played. And I'm not speaking directly about casual games per se, mid-core too, it can be as simple as some element of the game that doesn't make it that immersive, that demanding, that long or that alienating because of the graphics.
Yet I think neither platforms themselves aren't the best for the core games simply because both of them - mobile and Facebook - aren't strictly designed only for gaming but also for so many other things to do. There are constant stimulus about other things in those environments and it really break the immersion of the core games.

Bob Johnson
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Core games are mostly the ~$50 games that aren't shovelware that the mainstream can buy in a b&m store roughly speaking.

I think AAA game and core game are fairly synonymous. But there is also the Minecrafts and Torchlights out now that might qualify as core games that maybe aren't AAA productions.

Obviously a lot of independent games are "core games," but when folks talk about "core games" I don't think they include those games and it probably is because they lack more mainstream awareness and AAA production values.

Core games are the types of games that non-gamers generally aren't playing because there is a barrier to entry in terms of gameplay knowledge and controller skill that they just don't have.

But some games can straddle categories. Some Nintendo 1st party games might be examples.

Robert Swift
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Well, I can see how 'core games' could benefit from a large network. Match making, location specific leagues, game broadcasting/spectating, ... would all benefit from a solid networking/server infrastructure and big audience.

It would also be interesting to know how much Steam or Origin users actually use the 'social' functionality of those services, like notifications when their friends start to play sth... . Personally I disable all that stuff immediately but I am also not on facebook.

Nooh Ha
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This is a very odd article. Seems to ignore the commercial success of companies like Kixeye and Kabam who have proved that the adult male audience (which has some degree of cross-over with what most regard as the "core gamer") can not only be reached via Facebook but can be monetised at rates far above other demographics.
Also the "core audience cannot be monetised on casual platforms" argument is filled with holes, the largest of which is that there has existed a massive (hard/mid-)core web games market (mostly outside of the US and mainly in Europe) for well over a decade. Germany's games development sector seems to be almost entirely devoted to this market with companies like Bigpoint and Gameforge both of whom have attracted 100m+ registered users.

Carlos Rocha
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I consider myself a hardcore gamer, and I don't even know the games the the writer mentions. I do, however, would be willing to try a hardcore game on facebook. I really enjoyed NOVA, that multiplayer copy of Halo on Facebook, whereas on Mobile I find it completely counter-intuitive and boring to play (touch interface first person shooter? seriously?).

The "console like" experience I do "get", and have REALLY wanted to enjoy that on facebook. I think an rpg-pokemon style game I would really enjoy, or, as I read on a Gameinformer article a few weeks ago, "why hasn't anyone developed a game like The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, a 20 (ish) year old game for facebook".

I may be on the minority however, since NOVA was taken out of the facebook space (I must admit I never paid a dime) and work just on mobile devices, so I don't know what generates the most money. I generally dismiss the games on my iPhone or S3 as time wasters, which I enjoy from time to time, but that's it. However, I may be, again, on the minority.