Don't miss
  • 1,985
  • 5,500
  • 5,756
  • 116

Why core gamers hate social games: because their selfish exploitation of casual gamers is coming to an end

By on March 28, 2011

In the games industry, there are two opposing business models.

  • Core games cost around $40. 90% of players never finish them. Some buy them on the strength of marketing or peer pressure, and find after an hour or so they don’t like them. Some people even buy them and *never* play them. A core audience for each game loves it and dedicates hours to it.
  • Social games are free to play. 90% of players never pay for them. A small proportion of gamers choose to spend money on progress, on instant gratification, on aesthetic improvements or on showing off. A core audience for each game loves it and dedicates money for it.

Being hit in the pocket hurts

Some dollars, yesterday

In the core games market, the casual or non-dedicated player subsidises the gaming enjoyment of the core gamer.

In the social games market, the core gamer (i.e. the players who love the game) subsidises the enjoyment of the casual player.

So what we are seeing in the social games market is that the players who love the game are actually paying for the amount of enjoyment they are getting; in the core market, the people who getting lots of enjoyment are doing so at the expense of others.

So all this hatred from core gamers about social games: are they just aware that their years of freeloading on the backs of casual gamers is coming to an end?

Thanks to @notch, @robfahey and @perrinashcroft for the Twitter threads that kickstarted this post. Particularly Rob.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • http://rustb.lt The Rust Belt

    Tell me this post is a joke, please :-/

  • http://www.citystate.co.uk/ Robin

    What hatred?

    What’s coming to an end?

    Aren’t the ‘core’ (ugh) gamers the ones in that market who typically pay full whack for things? Don’t dedicated social gamers spend hours playing? Aren’t social games in their current incarnation completely designed around exploiting the virality of a large, non-paying casual base?

  • http://twitter.com/Ian_Wilson_ Ian Wilson

    Smart and Insightful, but exploitation is probably too strong (link bait?) a word for core games and not strong enough for casual.

  • http://twitter.com/kallisti_x Adam Smithee

    For a minute I accidentally confused this for some sort of news site and not just some wank blogging about how “core gamers” don’t treat him well.

    I’m a casual gamer, and I’d like to say you’re making the rest of us look bad; please stop.

  • http://twitter.com/Whisky_Biscuit Whisky Biscuit

    Quite intense article. I get what your saying, and I probably agree, too many times I have forked out big money (in comparison to freemium/iOS prices) for a game that has turned out to be fairly poor and I play for a limited amount of time that is fixed in time ( few patches for major bugs but not else ) with the new style games coming in I pay less, take less risk and generally it is continually improved and updated.

    I do play “core games” sometimes but now it is no longer the default.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    It’s not a joke. When 90% of players don’t finish a game, and yet developers/publishers have to charge $60 for a game given the enormous expense of asset and engine creation, *somebody* is subsidising someone else’s enjoyment.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    Hatred like this: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/SladeVillena/20100910/5949/Criticism__Elitism_Culture__Metrics_Gamers__All_Grown_Up.php

    What is coming to an end is the dominance of $60 console titles as the primary definition of “gaming”.

    I disagree that social games are completely designed around expoliting the virality, especially since Facebook shut down some of the most effective viral channels. My point is that in one model, the people who play less subsidise those who more. In the other, it’s the other way round.

    I think this may be a good thing.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    I admit I was trying to get a reaction, but I genuinely want to explore the idea that a game where people pay according to their level of engagement, rather than all people being charged equal (high) prices is a *fairer* way of charging.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    This is not a news site. It’s an analysis and opinion site.

    There is nothing personal in the observation in my post. I play social games on Facebook, free to play MMOs and “core” games on PC and PS3. I just want to explore the criticism of the pricing model of freemium games that I hear often.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    Thanks for the comment. That transition – to core games no longer being the default – is exactly the threat that I see to the traditional industry. Complacency, driven by control of scarce shelf space, is no longer a viable strategy.

  • http://www.citystate.co.uk/ Robin

    >Hatred like this…

    Ah, you mean people disagreeing with you.

    >What is coming to an end is the dominance of $60 console titles as the primary definition of “gaming”.

    Aside from in pure commercial terms in the last decade, I don’t think console games have ever had an exclusive lock on the primary definition of “gaming”. There have always been computer, handheld, online and (going back a bit) arcade games dividing up the pie.

    I don’t think social games have changed or will change the public consciousness’s definition of gaming any more than camcorders changed their definition of movies.

    >I disagree that social games are completely designed around expoliting the virality, especially since Facebook shut down some of the most effective viral channels.

    True, but games following the Zynga model treat inherent value as a game as an afterthought compared to maximising the efficiency of network propagation.

  • Patrick

    I think there is a big difference between AAA core games like GTA/Bioshock/Call of Duty (where I would imagine a fairly large percentage of purchasers feel like they received value for money) and other core games (for which the market seems to be rapidly vanishing). I’m not sure I agree that for true AAA games, the casual subsidise the hard core (check out the figures for CoD multiplayer – CoD 4 had over 15 million online players – where are the ‘casual’ here?!) My view is that the core gaming industry is heading towards a smaller number of huge AAA releases, some indie hits and not much in the middle between the two.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    It’s not just about people disagreeing with me :-)

    Maybe I should point to the original article that started that thread (not the big about Zynga’s practices – that merits an exposé – but the application of epithets like “cretinous” everytime a Zynga game is mentioned: http://www.sfweekly.com/2010-09-08/news/farmvillains/2/

    Or http://www.vg247.com/2011/02/16/braid-creator-social-games-are-evil-treat-people-as-things/

    Or the issues that this fabulous post addresses http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RyanCreighton/20110323/7292/Zynga_Rich_You_Jelly.php

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    I agree entirely. What would be best is if those premium games were enjoyed (in very different ways) by the majority of people who play them. And with fewer of them being produced, I think that this is going to be true.

  • http://twitter.com/mode7games Mode 7 Games

    I agree with a lot of this, but I also think it’s problematic to equate time spent playing a game with the amount of enjoyment derived from it.

  • http://twitter.com/fbindie Facebook Indie Games

    There was a bit in Gameswipe where Dara O’Brien makes this point (about buy-to-play games)… that they are the only popular entertainment form that refuses to give you some of the content YOU HAVE PAID FOR unless it considers you deserving of it. It is a kind of stealing, especially in the days before you could hop online and find cheat codes and walk throughs for everything.

    However this might be an ageing view from the days when games were all about sitting on your own trying to complete every level. More recent games seem to allow even the weakest players to experience every part of it by adjusting the difficulty or whatever.

  • http://twitter.com/NicolasG_B Nicolas GB

    How about, core gamers hate social games simply because (1) they don’t enjoy the current offer for social games and (2) social games are growing at the expense of core games ? It seems like a much simpler explanation to me.
    Also, I can’t understand why you would equal core games to 40$ boxed games and social games to free games. That is simply not true.

  • http://thelastweblog.com Mark Wallace

    Your math is wrong. It’s not that casual players of $40 games subsidize hardcore players. It’s that good (i.e., strong-selling) $40 games subsidize bad ones — just as blockbuster movies subsidize the raft of films that don’t earn back their production budgets, let alone whatever was spent on marketing. When you’re talking unit sales, the amount of time spent engaged with the product is largely irrelevant — except insofar as it correlates to add’l sales.

  • Allan

    Maybe core gamers don’t like casual games because they aren’t the target market for casual games, and that’s why they hate them?

    As for “selfish exploitation”, what by the gamers and not the publishers/developers? Eh?

    Build core games (e.g. Battlefield4 Play4Free) on a free to play model and I’m pretty sure you’ll see adoption.

    The gamer isn’t responsible for the business model. You’re confusing target markets with business models.

  • http://ivan.vucica.net/ Ivan Vučica

    I’m also afraid I see a portion of this article as a joke. Well, not exactly a joke, but not really far.

    While I agree with the theory about subsidizing, I don’t agree that this is why core gamers hate social/casual games. Many social/casual gamers wouldn’t play games such as Quake anyway.

    Why core gamers dislike social games? Here’s my POV. They dislike them because they feel games are an art form, with relatively specific skill-set and intelligence required to successfully play the game. Social games are trading required skill-set and intelligence for … persistence and a big wallet.

    If you can buy your way to fame and glory, it takes away a lot of pride. Not to mention that fame and glory are non-existent. Can anyone, even Zynga, organize a “FarmVille tournament”? Can you tell me who is the best player of FarmVille today?

    It’s all, ironically, a social thing. Core gamers have developed a folklore around skills. They don’t appreciate the utter, senseless repetitiveness of social games. (Let’s ignore classic MMOs for a while.) How would you like it if suddenly your entire skill-set was not required in the modern world — if the entire concept of economics turned upside down and anyone could suddenly be a consultant?

    As a developer, I can also add that no matter how much you dumb down a “casual” game (and I include social games in this slot), there will be someone having trouble with it not because it’s dumbed down, but because it is difficult. Social games are web-based MMO (that’s how I called it before the Facebook boom), but mostly with very little tactics.

    Finally, ask a random gamer if they are just jealous that their supply of freeloading is coming to an end. Since you had to explain it in more than one sentence, I can probably tell you they will tell you “what are you talking about”, and then, “of course not”. Because they are not aware that non-players are subsidizing their fun.

  • http://ivan.vucica.net/ Ivan Vučica

    I’m also afraid I see a portion of this article as a joke. Well, not exactly a joke, but not really far.

    While I agree with the theory about subsidizing, I don’t agree that this is why core gamers hate social/casual games. Many social/casual gamers wouldn’t play games such as Quake anyway.

    Why core gamers dislike social games? Here’s my POV. They dislike them because they feel games are an art form, with relatively specific skill-set and intelligence required to successfully play the game. Social games are trading required skill-set and intelligence for … persistence and a big wallet.

    If you can buy your way to fame and glory, it takes away a lot of pride. Not to mention that fame and glory are non-existent. Can anyone, even Zynga, organize a “FarmVille tournament”? Can you tell me who is the best player of FarmVille today?

    It’s all, ironically, a social thing. Core gamers have developed a folklore around skills. They don’t appreciate the utter, senseless repetitiveness of social games. (Let’s ignore classic MMOs for a while.) How would you like it if suddenly your entire skill-set was not required in the modern world — if the entire concept of economics turned upside down and anyone could suddenly be a consultant?

    As a developer, I can also add that no matter how much you dumb down a “casual” game (and I include social games in this slot), there will be someone having trouble with it not because it’s dumbed down, but because it is difficult. Social games are web-based MMO (that’s how I called it before the Facebook boom), but mostly with very little tactics.

    Finally, ask a random gamer if they are just jealous that their supply of freeloading is coming to an end. Since you had to explain it in more than one sentence, I can probably tell you they will tell you “what are you talking about”, and then, “of course not”. Because they are not aware that non-players are subsidizing their fun.

  • http://blog.tomjubert.com Tom Jubert

    I think if you strip out the inflammatory language in this post you’ve got a pretty fair appraisal of the situation. As someone who knows and loves games it can be easy to feel a bit of animosity towards the guy who puts Deathslayer 10 on the top seller’s list just because it’s got a pretty cover; but it’s important to remember he’s also the guy who makes huge, expensive worlds like Mass Effect profitable.

  • http://blog.tomjubert.com Tom Jubert

    I think if you strip out the inflammatory language in this post you’ve got a pretty fair appraisal of the situation. As someone who knows and loves games it can be easy to feel a bit of animosity towards the guy who puts Deathslayer 10 on the top seller’s list just because it’s got a pretty cover; but it’s important to remember he’s also the guy who makes huge, expensive worlds like Mass Effect profitable.

  • http://blog.tomjubert.com Tom Jubert

    I think if you strip out the inflammatory language in this post you’ve got a pretty fair appraisal of the situation. As someone who knows and loves games it can be easy to feel a bit of animosity towards the guy who puts Deathslayer 10 on the top seller’s list just because it’s got a pretty cover; but it’s important to remember he’s also the guy who makes huge, expensive worlds like Mass Effect profitable.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    Hello Ivan,

    I agree that most gamers (perhaps all) couldn’t express it in the way that I have written it. That’s not to say that isn’t part of the issue – the end of the cross-subsidy.

    But I also agree with your comment about games as art form. A recent post in GamaSutra bemoaned COD Blops winning game of the year on the grounds it was repetitive, derivative and didn’t move the industry forward at all. It won people’s choice.

    So there is an element of beating down on the “mass market”, not just social games.

    Which is where I think we agree.

  • http://twitter.com/UnSubject UnknownSubject

    I agree with the sentiment of this article, but agree that the tone was probably a bit too full on.

    Putting semantics aside (because both buy-to-play and free-to-play games have their heavy and light users i.e. core and casual) I believe the amount of choice that is available today along side the increasing budgets for AAA titles sees that buy-to-play market potentially collapsing.

    It’s partly a matter of heavy users subsidising light users, but it is also a matter of how much money is being spent on titles that fall flat. A US$25 million game requires something like 1m sales to break even (and that’s before advertising and promotions) which often just isn’t possible in such a crowded market.

  • Patrick

    I think beating down on the ‘mass market’ is a very common thing across all creative industries. I know lots of people who love to slam films like Titanic, shows like X-Factor or books from people like Dan Brown. But the fact remains that they are hugely popular, bring pleasure to lots of people, and are huge commercial successes. I suspect it stems from the knowledge that money follows money and the fear that more arty and cerebral games/films/books are less likely to be made given greater success in other areas. But the success of Big Brother hasn’t stopped TV shows like ‘The Wire’ being made. We’re still seeing some amazing and unusual indie films alongside the mass-market blockbusters. Even if platforms change and we end up playing everything in a browser or in the cloud, I think we’ll still see some brilliant core games alongside successful mass-market social games. I reckon we need to celebrate diversity rather than picking a side.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Nick,

    Didn’t have time today to check the other comments, so I’ll just have to wade in. :) While I have some sympathy for your position, I think it needs some reconsideration.

    “It’s not a joke. When 90% of players don’t finish a game, and yet developers/publishers have to charge $60 for a game given the enormous expense of asset and engine creation, *somebody* is subsidising someone else’s enjoyment.”

    There is definitely a problem in the core market in terms of the escalating cost of development, but I believe you are wrong to lay this at the foot of the core gamer. I poke them with a stick a lot, but your subsidy argument is flawed on a number of accounts – most significantly by equating “completion” with “value”. Yes, the majority of players do not finish blockbuster games. But this does not mean they do not get sufficient value from them. In our studies of game players, we found many cases of players, for instance, who had enormous fun with GTA games, but ignored the missions. They just played in the world. You simply cannot equate completion with value, and your subsidy argument seems to rest on this claim.

    An alternative view of the problem in the blockbuster market, one that I hope to tease out soon, is that it is in the grip of a radical monopoly of programmers and technologists who escalate development costs in an extremely dangerous and probably unsustainable fashion. I haven’t time to draw out this point today, but on this perspective the problem with the price of blockbusters is that it is self-damaging to its own marketplace. British game developers have already felt the pain of this.

    Don’t underestimate just how vehement videogame fans get in defending the kinds of play that they love! :) The hatred of core gamers for the success of the current casual games is rooted (as I think others have commented) in the belief that they demean digital games as an art form. I agree. But I also believe that the majority of blockbuster games demean digital games as an art form, and since these receive even more attention this is scarcely the squeaky wheel we should be trying to grease.

    All the best!

    Chris.

  • http://ivan.vucica.net/ Ivan Vučica

    I agree that it’s about beating down the mass market. And I agree that end of cross-subsidy will only grow to be a problem… if one considers it a problem. I don’t; it may just bring back the mid-segment instead of everyone pushing either mass-market cheapo games, or triple-A titles.

    I just don’t think people will directly notice it either the cause or the effect until the effects become obvious. And then even core gamers may be happier for getting cheaper games. Mid-range core games may have been of lower quality (if that’s definable), but they were created with more love. I like to think that “lowering the bar” might bring that back. And, more love invested in games could perhaps bring better competitive gameplay, making the core players happier as well.

  • MCRayRay

    I can’t imagine any core gamer really thinking in these terms. Sorry.

  • Notdanwilkerson

    Where exactly did you get your statistics? Sen. Jon Kyl?

  • Elirian

    Maybe it’s just that the standout social titles are skinner boxes with pretty pictures. I’m what you would call a core gamer and if you think I don’t play social games because I object to the pricing model, you’ve got a crossed wire somewhere. I don’t play social games because the overwhelming majority suck horribly. There is no actual gameplay. There is no strategy beyond basic arithmetic, no skill, no challenge, neither story nor sandbox, nothing except ‘click this huge stationary green button and it will make magic yellow coins appear, you like money right?’. It’s profitable because it costs pocket change to make a game title that’s missing all the elements that actually define a game, and people can play it at work.Even so, I doubt that anyone in a non-vegetative state would continue to play them after their initial try if it wasn’t for the fact that the entire thing is based around abusing human psychology and conditioning people to keep playing. Essentially they’re giving away addiction, then letting you buy stuff to dress your addiction up so you can be the coolest addict on the block. That’s fine if you’re open about it, but most of the people I’ve met who play these games have no idea at all what an operant conditioning chamber actually is, and can’t connect the dots to realise they’re paying for the privilege of being treated like a lab rat.

    No, it’s not the pricing model.

  • Elirian

    Even something as abusive, repetitive and exploitative as World of Warcraft still manages to provide an actual game to play underneath all the action/reward conditioning they’re shoving down the players throat. Farmville? Not so much. It’s something I dislike about most MMO titles, and it’s something I really dislike about most ‘social’ games. I’ll happily jump on facebook and waste half an hour playing tetris, because it’s actually a game. You want to recoup your development costs and turn a profit by selling me prettier tetris blocks, go right ahead. You want to put me in a skinner box so I can shut down my brain functions and stare at poorly drawn flowers growing until it’s time for you to give me my virtual food pellet, don’t expect a whole world of enthusiasm. Cocaine is a market success too.

  • Elirian

    And you know what? If someone wants to run that kind of hard-nosed bottom-line bottom-feeding business (that I DO equate with drug dealing), maybe that’s fine too.

    Just don’t get all teary when people are big meanies to you about it on the internets.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    Increasingly, I think “skinner boxes” are in the eye of the beholder.

    the interesting thing for me is a game like, say, Tiny Tower. Many core gamers say that there is no gameplay here. I find it fun to check it regularly, make progress, have control.

    Horses for courses.

    I think that you underestimate how many people would rather come home in the evening and watch Eastenders rather than go out and see a Chekhov play. The “ease of play” you deride may just be what a vast swathe of previously underserved gamers want.

  • anon

    cant tell if the author is trolling or just stupid.

  • Regeta7

    Gamasutra has some of the most talented, intelligent, and simply amazing writers and thinkers of any website I have ever been to. They delve into intellectual concepts with loads of depth and what feels like a lifetime of actual gaming / developing experience.

    The sole fact you are disagreeing with gamasutra, which responded to your blog, is the final straw which makes me think your articles are awful and honestly just…wrong.

    All the other straws are the simple fact the article just isn’t that good and lacks any real thought or explanation, let alone is a dramatic stereotype full of irrational assumptions without any form of evidence outside of your own speculation limited by what appears to be very little understanding of the reality of gamers and how they think.

  • Regeta7

    You’re right, it’s not just about people disagreeing with you.

    It’s about them having better arguments full of more rational thought and evidence through personal experience.

    In the real world we call that ‘jealousy’.

  • Regeta7

    But you didn’t explore this criticism at all…

    To be honest, you were extremely vague and provided an extraordinarily limited (none) amount of information backing your position or even clear definitions of the terms you used.

  • Regeta7

    I agree. However, that is not so much the message you put across compared to the “I’m scared and hurt by core gamers and dont understand their ways so i hate them!!!11″ which I got from the article.

    There were a thousand other ways to express the idea of pricing, but I honestly got more that you’re “butthurt” (immaturity in that word’s usage aside) than that of fairness.

    I don’t understand the hatred for freemium or free to play + cash shop games, except the simple fact

    1) Their success depends on exploiting a small number of people who lack financial maturity and impulse control.

    2) Many of them are incredibly expensive for what you get in return.

    3) Money matters. Part of participating in video game entertainment is the ability to forget that you lack money, dont have enough to spend frivolously, or simply don’t want to think about money. In freemium games, you often “Pay to Win” which in the competitive aspect of gaming (which ALL player types participate in, to varying degrees, as it is part of the entertainment and satisfaction)  results in the lack of desire/capacity to spend money becoming a hindrance to the purpose (entertainment).

    Typically these types of financial models are hated because you “Pay to Win” and this winning is endless, thus you can invest thousands and still not be on top like was promised you.

    MY biggest problem is the exploitation of people with impulse control, gambling addictions, or just poor money habits. This payment method relies on EXPLOITING people, which is never a good thing.

  • http://www.gamesbrief.com Nicholas Lovell

    Subsequent to this article, Gamasutra commissioned me as a regular columnist.

  • Regeta7

    *shudders*

    Guess they couldn’t stay on top forever :

  • Regeta7

    According to their website, you are just a contributor, not a columnist.

  • Regeta7

    Way to exagerate :P

  • Pingback: Analytics and Metrics in Game Design | Hoppsbusch - Video Game Design & RPG tips, tricks and secrets