OPINION: Hardcore social games can be lucrative

OPINION: Hardcore social games can be lucrative
Nick Gibson

By Nick Gibson

February 10th 2011 at 11:00AM

Games Investor Consultingâ??s Nick Gibson on Facebookâ??s lost audience

"Social networks were developed and popularised by young people, and they are still their heaviest users.

But, ironically, the booming social network games market is dominated by middle-aged housewives because younger people don’t play there as much there as they do elsewhere.

Why has this come about and is there an opportunity for core games targeting traditional gaming’s heartland audience on social networks?

The demographic mismatch of Facebook gamers to Facebook users overall has long been one of the great incongruities of the Facebook games market.

Whilst Facebook gamers are more concentrated around older users aged 25-to-54 with a clear female weighting, Facebook overall has a noticeably younger user base with 14-to-24-year-olds of both genders the dominant demographic. In absolute terms, the 14-to-24-year-old Facebook market comprises over 200 million users.

When you also consider the younger skewed alternative social networks such as MySpace and Orkut, this combines to represent a truly colossal addressable market of young people, the majority of whom have grown up (and are still) playing games. There are many reasons why 14-to-24-year-olds are so under-represented within the social network games market."

YOUNG BLOOD

"The first and most obvious reason is a lack of supply of suitable games; only a small proportion of higher quality social network games are actually made for younger demographics.

The viral nature of social network gaming results in the proverbial chicken and egg: most higher quality social network games are aimed at the more affluent older audience who are incentivised to recruit their friends who rapidly become the dominant user base.

Even games aimed at a broader audience have often ended up dominated by the older female players. The second reason is that companies are simply and quite sensibly following the money. The biggest group of paying players on Facebook is older females because they have the ability to pay and are most receptive to the sophisticated marketing and conversion techniques of some very savvy and commercially aggressive games companies.

The market is at an early stage where many of these companies are driven by VC funding whose fundamental drive towards an exit means being laser-focused on maximising their most lucrative user base rather than nurturing the next generation of paying players.

Since these younger players are harder to reach and monetise, the older demographic represents something of a path of least resistance.

The third major reason is that, while social network gaming largely improves on older female players’ games experiences elsewhere, it currently represents a step down for younger gamers.

The young male and to a lesser extent young female gamer has several higher quality or more convenient alternatives to social network gaming including a wealth of console and handheld gaming, casual MMOGs and virtual worlds, and games portals and download services.

So, is there a viable market for this younger audience and, more specifically, will hardcore gamers ever take to social network gaming in material volume? We believe that the answer to both is yes, given time.

While Facebook games aimed at male-oriented core gamers do not necessarily result in higher daily to monthly active user ratios (an indicator of engagement), they emphatically do result in higher ARPUs and ARPPUs.

We have looked under the hood of several companies doing Facebook games aimed at a more hardcore audience and they are generally monetising at rates multiple times higher than those aimed at the older female audience albeit with audiences a fraction of the size. EA recently attributed a strong increase in monetisation rates at Playfish specifically to its Madden and FIFA Superstars Facebook games."

ACQUIRED KNOWLEDGE

"Perhaps one of the most interesting indications of the potential of this demographic is found in recent acquisition trends. Until early-mid 2010, most social network games company acquisitions were of companies developing games for older and female players, but in the last six months there has been a clear diversification into more hardcore and male territory with Kabam’s acquisition of Wonderhill, Playdom’s acquisition of Hive7 and Zynga’s purchase of Challenge Games.

Flash is perfectly adequate for attracting a core audience – as proven by the hundreds of millions of players registered with German browser MMOG companies – but the evolution of a younger-oriented social network games market will undoubtedly benefit from a combination of higher production values, better games design and new browser technologies such as Adobe’s Molehill 3D APIs."

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Nick Gibson is a director at Games Investor Consulting, providing research, strategy consulting and corporate finance services to the games, media and finance industries.
www.gamesinvestor.com