Social games, it’s fair to say, have a bad reputation among those who are euphemistically referred to as “core gamers”. This bad reputation isn’t altogether unjustified, of course — social games are, in many cases, derivative, exploitative or just plain boring — but despite the prevalence of Men In Suits (or, probably more accurately, Men In Trendy T-Shirts And/Or Turtleneck Sweaters) who have never played a video game before in their life running the show for the most part, there’s a lot of talent in that particular sector of the industry.
So why the hell doesn’t this part of the industry do more to attract the “core”?
It’s at this point that, if I was talking about this in person with someone directly involved with the industry, that they would point to one of the following facts: 1) Candy Crush Saga having approximately 15 million daily active users; 2) CSR Racing on iOS earning somewhere in the region of $12 million a month when it launched; 3) The Top Grossing chart on iOS being dominated by games that are free to download.
These are all facts, and cannot be ignored. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re good things. As I’ve said many times in the past, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Candy Crush Saga has 15 million daily active users because it nags them via notifications to come back and play; CSR Racing earned $12 million a month by forcing people to pay up for “gas” for their cars if they didn’t want to wait; and don’t even get me started on what I think of the Top Grossing chart on iOS and the awful crap therein.
Aside from these matters, the fact that the social and mobile games sectors aren’t courting the “core” more aggressively is just baffling to me. While those who identify as “core” gamers — i.e. those who will happily sit down in front of a computer or console for several hours at a time to use it as their primary means of entertainment rather than an idle timewaster — do not exist in as vast a number as those who have a Facebook account and who have tried Candy Crush Saga at least once, there are some important things to bear in mind.
Most crucially, of those 15 million daily active users that Candy Crush Saga has, only a tiny fraction of them actually pay anything. Some of them might pay a lot — these people are rather revoltingly referred to as “whales” by people in the industry — but an awful lot of them will either refuse to pay out of principle or just not enjoy the game enough to want to spend money on it.
Here’s the thing: “core” gamers spend a lot of money. “Core” gamers will happily spent £40 on a brand new game without having read a review. “Core” gamers will pay a premium to get pointless cool stuff that they can show off. “Core” gamers are a lucrative source of income, in other words. Much as it pains me to break it down that way — I’d much rather games be seen as creative works than business products — it is, in fact, true.
So, then, I have to question why more of an effort isn’t being made to make “core” gamers take social and mobile games seriously. Because it’s not. “Core” gamers see the majority of social and mobile games as a massive joke — a festering boil on the arse of the industry; a source of interactive entertainment that doesn’t create “proper games” and instead puts out the very worst sort of shovelware.
They’re right, to an extent. So here’s a few things the social and mobile sectors could do to be taken a bit more seriously by potentially one of the most lucrative markets out there.
Stop ripping the same things off all the time.
Seriously. Cut it out. We’ve all played Puzzle Bobble. We’ve all played Bejeweled. Stop trying to make out your puzzle game is new and innovative when, in fact, it is simply either Puzzle Bobble or Bejeweled (or, in a few cases, Jawbreaker).
If you must draw inspiration from past titles, that’s fine; just stop drawing inspiration from such a small pool. Just in the puzzle game genre there are hundreds of great games begging for a social adaptation — Columns, Klax, Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo, Puzzle League, Dr Mario, Baku Baku Animal… I could go on — so why are we constantly subjected to the same “match-3” bollocks over and over?
This isn’t just an issue in the puzzle genre — social RPGs all rip off Mafia Wars; farming sims all rip off FarmVille; citybuilders all rip off CityVille, and none of them were actually that good in the first place.
Stop ripping yourself off.
If you already have a match-3 puzzle game in your portfolio, you don’t need another one. King, currently the biggest social game company in the world thanks to the aforementioned Candy Crush Saga, is terrible for this. Now that Candy Crush Saga is the top performing game on Facebook, they’ve put out another game. What kind of game do you think that is? That’s right; a game where you swap coloured things around to make groups of 3 in horizontal or vertical lines. Only this time they’re fruit and vegetables!
Or how about Kabam, who have now released the exact same game with slightly different graphics and a different name four times (Kingdoms of Camelot, Kingdoms of Camelot: Battle for the North, Arcane Empires, The Hobbit: Kingdoms of Middle-Earth) and no-one (except me) has called them on it.
The fact that people buy into this is just depressing.
Hire some fucking writers.
Quite a few social games these days are very well presented, with quality graphics and decent sound and music. In many cases, they actually create quite an impressive atmosphere… until the player is asked to read anything and it becomes very apparent that the “plot” of the game, such as it is, was written by a dyslexic Russian 10-year old who had just played Magic: The Gathering for the first time.
Good writing is just as important as the more immediate parts of your game’s presentation. Don’t skimp on it. And even if you’re not going for an epic plot in your game — incidentally, puzzle games do not need plots, so just stop trying to cram one in — at least get someone to proofread the in-game text, fix any typos and glaring grammatical errors… and make sure if you’re releasing it in English-speaking territories that all of the game’s text is actually in fucking English.
A shout-out to 5th Planet Games here, who actually make an effort with this sort of thing, even if the gameplay of the games sometimes isn’t up to much; Legacy of a Thousand Suns may be a Mafia Wars ripoff in terms of gameplay, but at least it has some consistently well-written story text throughout, unlike Mafia Wars, which didn’t even try in this regard.
Stop using outdated tech.
Adobe is winding down Flash support, so it’s time for Web-based games to do the same. Relying on Flash means that you limit yourself to those using a computer that supports Flash, and excludes those on tablets and mobile phones. There are a ton of cross-platform solutions available now that allow you to deploy an app on the Web, mobile platforms and as a standalone PC, Mac or Linux executable, so there’s really very little excuse for not using one.
Not only that, but your average computer these days is more than capable of dealing with some simple 3D graphics — in fact, most are more than capable of handling decent-quality 3D graphics. Unity is a solid option that makes porting between platforms a snap; use it.
Stop using stupid, inappropriate aesthetics.
This is what the artwork for the CSI Miami Facebook game looks like:
I don’t think I really need to say anything else on that note.
If it doesn’t belong in the game, don’t put it in the game.
You want to keep your players coming back day after day? Don’t shoehorn in a stupid roulette game that makes absolutely no thematic sense whatsoever; instead, simply make a good game that people will want to keep playing.
Stop assuming I’m an idiot.
“Core” gamers have played games before. They don’t need your tutorial to unfold over the course of the first 20 levels of your puzzle game. Make it brief, and make it skippable.
Along the same lines, it’s okay to tell someone to do something and then not put a gigantic flashing arrow over the top of it and simultaneously darken the rest of the screen, just in case they missed the gigantic flashing arrow. Allow the player to experiment and discover things for themselves rather than pointing every single thing out to them. At the same time, provide a detailed Help file and/or tooltip system so that they can look things up if they aren’t clear.
On a slightly different but related note, it’s okay for games to be complex. Again, “core” gamers have played games before and are okay with complex mechanics. Important note: “complex” is not the same as “boring”. Kabam and anyone else making “midcore strategy games”, please learn this.
Make it so fun I want to pay, not so inconvenient I have to pay.
This is the biggie. Monetisation is the biggest challenge in free-to-play gaming in general, and particularly in mobile and social games, which often attract huge audiences but relatively tiny proportions of paying customers.
“Core” gamers do not like feeling nickel and dimed. Look at the negative response to stuff like Dead Space 3, or Real Racing 3 — both of which, not coincidentally, are by EA.
“Core” gamers also do not like having their time wasted. This does not mean that they will pay to bypass wait timers in your game; it means they will simply stop playing.
Provide “core” gamers with stuff they can buy that improves their experience, but which doesn’t break the game. Throw out that stupid energy system — a “core” gamer will stop playing when they’re good and ready, not when you tell them to stop. Throw out that “it takes three hours of real time to harvest your crops” bullshit — if you explicitly send them away, they won’t come back. Instead provide them with cool stuff that they want to show off — new outfits for their character, new paint jobs for their car, new background music or even whole new levels or areas to explore. If you want a good example of how to do it right, look at stuff like DC Universe Online and Perfect World’s free-to-play MMOs — all are satisfying to play for free, but all offer a ton of non-game-breaking benefits to those willing to pony up and buy some premium currency.
Talking of which…
Quit the “pay to win” crap.
“Core” gamers complain. A lot. Particularly when they believe that a game isn’t being fair. They’ll whinge about mages being nerfed, shotguns being OP’d and generally anything else that breaks the game balance. “Core” gamers play a lot of games and are thus very good at spotting when a game is unbalanced to an unfair degree. Do not make your game so that a crap player can buy their way to dominance over a skilled player; make it so the crap player wants to get better at the game. Reward the skilled player with cool stuff and allow the crap player to see all the awesome stuff they could earn if they were just a bit better; but don’t allow them to buy their way to success.
Along the same lines, quit the “Get More Coins” nonsense. Part of the satisfaction of experiences like role-playing games and business sims for “core” gamers is feeling like they’ve struggled against all odds to earn their rewards. The second you allow them to simply purchase all the money in the game world for $50, you devalue those rewards and make them meaningless. You also, again, break the game balance. Instead, pace your game in such a way that the rewards are earned at a good, satisfying rate, and save the paid stuff for purely cosmetic items. If you must use a virtual currency for premium items, make it a completely separate currency that it’s clear can only be acquired through spending money. Keep the “Cash Shop” stuff separate from the normal shop. And for heaven’s sake stop plastering the screen with special offers and other sparkling icons — nothing breaks the atmosphere of your otherwise well-rendered fantasy world quicker than a large flashing icon bellowing about “20% Off Gems!”
I accept that many of these things are more difficult to implement than what is being done by many mobile and social games now. But they, among other things that I’ve undoubtedly forgotten — feel free to chime in in the comments — are why “core” gamers do not take mobile and social games seriously.
Court the “core” and you’ll make a lot of money. Continue to alienate them, however, and you’ll always be a big joke to a significant proportion of people who are willing to spend a lot of money on their favourite hobby.