Recently, we’ve all seen a lot of invectives lobbed back and forth between hardcore gaming shops and social gaming insiders. Both have claimed the death knell will soon be rung for the opposite side. For the record, I think that both sides are completely off the mark. Social games and hardcore games will all continue to do quite well in their respective realms of the gaming world. Here’s why:
Back in the day when I had a bowl-cut and rocked my Michael Jordan #45 jersey to school, my science teacher introduced me to two life-altering concepts: the test-tube meniscus and the Venn diagram. I just knew that one day they would both come in handy like MacGruber and his handy Swiss-Army knife. Well, I’m still figuring out how the meniscus will change my life (I’m convinced it will one day), but at least the Venn diagram is useful for the issue at hand. The fact is, social gaming doesn’t “steal” hardcore users away from traditional console games; instead, it is attracting an entirely new set of gamers that would never have touched titles like Call of Duty, Diablo or GTA. Conversely, most hardcore gamers I know have no interest in social games either. Yes, there is some overlap in the shaded center of the diagram, but the current battle is not a zero-sum affair. Social gaming is attracting an entirely new set of users to games that otherwise would never have picked up a controller and thus will not simply go away, as some have argued.
I can actually back this up with a science experiment that we can all try at home. I’ve been able to consistently replicate the outcome in a variety of environments, so you should be able to as well. Next time you see one of your gamer friends throwing an SFIV sonic boom on your PS3, mention the latest social game that you discovered on Facebook or your mobile device (preferably our newest game, Monsterz’ Revenge). Tell them all about how awesome it is and list out on the five fingers of your right hand the reasons why they should try it. At this point, they’ll undoubtedly decline your offer to try said social game and continue to fight Chun-Li. After they decline, pause their round and ask them to tell you just one reason why they won’t give it a shot. Without fail, they will give you that one reason, and they’ll inevitably illustrate that single reason with the longest finger on their hand pointed up towards the big, blue sky. For real hardcore gamers, I’ve even been able to receive two reasons, illustrated by each of their two hands.
On the flip side, have a conversation with the next Cityville player you know (don’t act like you don’t know any either – your Facebook inbox will attest otherwise). Ask said Cityville player to join your next Call of Duty frag-fest and see how that conversation goes. I think the point that I’m getting at is becoming pretty clear – social gaming is attracting new users to digital entertainment and is growing the proverbial user pie, not stealing players away from traditional titles. With the two categories generally not competing for the same types of users, we will not see one side “kill off” the other in a Braveheart-like upheaval.
By now, you’ve probably googled “test-tube meniscus” and have asked “Why now?” “Why haven’t these “new” gamers picked up control pads before?” The answer is quite simple actually: technology-enabled distribution. We’re undergoing a revolution in game distribution unlike anything we’ve seen in the history of the industry. The social games we see today are everywhere. If you have a smartphone, Facebook account, PC, Mac, tablet, or netbook, then you have quick and easy access to social games. The same cannot be said about traditional titles that have, for decades, enthralled traditional gamers like us. The new users that have embraced these games didn’t just wake up one morning with a desire to feed digital fish – they’ve been brought to the table via previously unavailable technology. Once exposed to social games, they’re enjoying the quick, entertaining experience that social games have come to represent. More importantly, based on the growth and retention numbers that have been reported, it seems that they’re here to stay.
The last point I want to make is that what we’re seeing in gaming is actually not a novel concept. To illustrate this point, take a look at another content-driven entertainment industry: film. Examine the successful movies of the past year. On that list, you’ll find everything from mind-numbing, action-packed summer blockbusters to esoteric art films that you probably need a PhD in Art History to fully appreciate. To put it simply, in the same way that Fast and Furious can have as many fans and generate as much revenue as Black Swan, social games will thrive and co-exist with their hardcore/traditional counterparts. As a social gaming company, we’re comfortable with being the Vin Diesel to the hardcore gamers’ Natalie Portman, as long as the consumer enjoys the product.
When we left our jobs to build Astro Ape, a purely mobile social gaming company, we saw the rise of smartphones as a real opportunity to introduce gaming to an entirely new group of people. With social games’ inherent virility, low barrier of entry for users and convenient play sessions, we’re beginning to see immense growth in a previously untapped demographic. Will some overfunded social studios crash and burn in the coming years? Yes, but that’s not any different from the scores of traditional studios that seared through millions without even bringing their titles to market. Will social gaming see its share of ups and downs? Yes, but this genre and its hundreds of millions of new-breed users aren’t going anywhere until a demographic-specific replacement comes along. By that time, I may have figured out this meniscus thing.
Chieh Huang is the CEO of Astro Ape Studios, an NYC-based social mobile gaming company. Originally established in a co-founder’s New Jersey basement, Astro Ape quickly found success in the app store with Office Heroes and Dessert Heroes. Following an investment from Japanese gaming giant DeNA, Astro Ape expanded into Manhattan and now has more than 20 employees. Their latest hit Monsterz Revenge was featured by Apple and is available now. Follow @AstroChieh and @AstroApeStudios on twitter. For more information visit www.astroapestudios.com.