The biggest trend in video gaming the past year has been social games. Despite the industry offering more and more complex games and over the top realistic graphics, the current video game crown goes to an inferior farm simulator. To the traditional gamer market and the video game industry, FarmVille is barely considered a video game, let a lone a worthy heir to the thrown. Most of the big name studios still follow the ‘hardcore’ blueprint: improved graphics, more complex storylines and more mature themes. This path of least resistance resonates well with the traditional gamer market and the industry press, but the problem is that they are ignoring the new video game reality. Staying the course will probably leave the traditional video game enthusiasts as a small niche market.
From a video gamer’s point of view, FarmVille is doing almost everything wrong. The graphics are unimpressive, stuck in a isometric model that was outdated 10 years ago. The game has no story to drive the gameplay forward, is almost devoid of competitive elements, and the theme of the game is as far from mature as you can get. Despite all these obvious ‘flaws,’ the game is played by about 60 million people every month. FarmVille has had an even greater cultural impact than Wii Sports, yet the game is largely ignored by the video game industry. They seem content to leave large markets of gamers behind and focus on making small incremental improvements to their ‘real games’.
This highlights a curious mindset of the video game community. It is not uncommon for gamers to be highly interested in the sales of their preferred games. Games released on several games systems have their weekly sales scrutinized to see what version of the game performs the best. Any shift in sales of the title or the systems they are released on is celebrated as a proof of the superiority of the platform that happens to come out ahead. However, games like FarmVille that do extremely well are dismissed as ‘casual’ games and their achievements discarded. Often with a comment along the lines of how FarmVille is for children/old people/house wifes/casuals. The traditional video gamer audience is doing everything they can to keep their market segment exclusive and mainly an activity for teenage to mid 20 year old boys.
This kind of mainstream rejection is not unique to video games, it is in fact common in most sub cultures. The interesting difference is that for video games this mindset is shared by most of the leading actors in the industry. There is a massive amount of evidence that the video game market is shifting towards the so called ‘casual’ market, yet most video game producers still sink the majority of their resources into traditional games while their attempts at hitting the ‘casual’ market are almost always of poor quality and created by second or third string teams.
If the industry continues to treat the massive untapped market of new gamers as stepchildren, other companies will step up to fill the demand. Zynga has done just this by their string of social games on Facebook. If the success of FarmVille is not enough to open some eyes around the video game community, a look at the list of most used applications on Facebook should. Behind FarmVille Zynga has built an army of hyper successful games, most of whom reach more users than any traditional video games on the market.
Of the major players in the video game market, some are already anticipating the huge shift in the audience that is coming. Electronic Arts has had great success with their pogo website that delivers web based casual games. Still, the company that has been quickest to realize the potential of the expanded market is Nintendo. Their strategy behind the Wii has been to reach out to new market segments while still trying to retain their foothold with the traditional gamer market. They have met with some success, but predictably the traditional video game audience is starting to turn their back to the company. After all, how ‘hardcore’ can you feel if you play a game that can also be played by your grandmother.
The rise of FarmVille is perhaps of most concern for Nintendo. The success of the game puts the relative failure of their own game Animal Crossing into some perspective. At the core, Animal Crossing should appeal to the same market that has elevated FarmVille. The game centers around collecting and buying items that lets you redecorate your home. While digging for fossils and picking apples for profit you socialize with a number of characters in your town or friends around the world. In FarmVille you collect and buy items to redecorate your farm while interacting with other players. At the surface the games are very similar and Nintendo has to feel that their game should have capitalize on this market better.
FarmVille has a couple of advantages that Nintendo could not have offset. First of all, playing Animal Crossing requires people buy a Wii. While many people have chosen to buy a Wii, a lot more people have access to a PC. With a PC in the house FarmVille is available free of charge. Still, with their impressive install base of Wiis, Nintendo should expect better results from Animal Crossing. This is where FarmVille can teach traditional game companies a valuable lesson.
The main reason why FarmVille has become so popular and managed to maintain an enormous user base is the very aggressive push of new game elements and items. The game architecture allows Zynga to add items and even new game mechanics over a year after the game was released. In Animal Crossing these kinds of updates are limited to introducing new items. The core experience stays the same. If Animal Crossing could introduce new types of shops for example, the appeal of the game would be much higher. Also, the ability to run your own business would be great for players tired of lining the pockets of Tom Nook.
Another stumbling block for Animal Crossing is the unrewarding experience of visiting neighbors. It is too cumbersome and requires that your friends be online at the same time as you. Visiting friends and using the wii speak microphone is actually great fun, the problem is that the ‘casual’ market doesn’t play Animal Crossing for very long stretches at a time (they are probably busy playing FarmVille). As a result, finding people online is sporadic and you quickly feel alone in your Animal Crossing world. A system where you could visit your offline friends and even better, local multi player capabilities would make Animal Crossing a lot more interesting.
Finally, FarmVille is free. Zynga makes money from selling virtual currency and some dubious ‘incentive offers’. Nintendo already has their own virtual currency in the form of Nintendo points, in the future they might find that a better model for a game like Animal Crossing would be if it was free, or very inexpensive, then offer players in game advantages and special items in exchange for Nintendo points.
Despite how the established video game community feel about the emergence of casual and social games, it is a trend they can not ignore. Companies refusing to adapt to the new video game landscape will disappear or be relegated to niche status. As Zynga is more than willing to demonstrate, there are plenty of companies willing to cater to the expanded video game audience.