As the ways that games are made, distributed and monetised transform some parts of the industry, change may finally have reached the bastion of the retail industry, the console gamer. New data on gamers’ playing and purchasing behaviour claims that many console gamers are spending time and money on social games. Is this data credible and what does it mean for console games studios, their route to market and platform choices?
The data from Kabam and ISG’s recent survey appears pretty stark. 82% of US ‘hardcore’ social gamers surveyed said they are console/handheld gamers with 360 the most popular platform closely followed by Wii. Of these, 78% said their spending on console was static or in decline and 88% said their console gaming time would stay flat or diminish, as a direct result of social gaming. In contrast, nearly 60% of the ‘hardcore’ sample said their spending on freemium social games would increase and nearly half expected to play more on social.
Two other recent surveys reinforce the findings. The (largely hard-core) gamers’ community Raptr measured top games’ share of playing time for its 10m players and found that the 4th largest franchise, after Call of Duty, World of Warcraft and Halo, was Zynga’s ~Ville titles, more than all the remaining core games franchises combined. Another survey, by RockYou and Interpret, found that 50% of 2,000 social gamers polled own consoles. While 2/3 of these companies have considerable vested interest in showing to investors how they are stealing market share from consoles, and some of the data needs a pinch of salt, one cannot avoid the emerging picture of changing consumer behaviour across multiple platforms.
Some of Kabam/ISG’s survey’s conclusions are a little too black and white. Despite August’s sizeable 34% fall in US software sales year on year, it’s becoming apparent that Nintendo in particular and sales in certain genres like music have taken much of the hit. Retail sales data for 360 and PS3, while not immune to falling sales and prices, appears considerably more buoyant and, while it would be a minor miracle if 2011 retail games sales hit 2010 levels, it seems highly unlikely that social is killing console, as some have interpreted, because it’s clearly not a zero sum game. In this peak sales season, it’s quite possible hardcore gamers’ expenditure on both retail and social gaming could grow at the same time. Some publishers are even trying to target them twice with the same franchise e.g. Dragon Age 2/Dragon Age Legends.
The hardcore social gamers profiled in Kabam/ISG’s survey are mid-core gamers on other platforms, or perhaps hardcore on Wii. Their demographics are not those of classic hardcore console gamers because they’re too female and Wii is too prominent. But these surveys do provide detailed evidence of a new promiscuity in many console gamers’ behaviour. Platform-usage stats in the ISG/Kabam data reveal a mid-core console gamer playing heavily on PC (79%), Wii (55%), 360 (54%), Smartphone (42%), PS3 (39%), handheld (36%) and tablet (15%) in the last 12 months. This demographic has started to use Facebook as a serious games platform, playing for many hours at a time and spending hundreds of dollars. Freemium content such as power-ups, extra resources and time-savers are popular and expenditure is on the rise.
Although some hardcore social games companies are spending millions per month on Facebook advertising, many are not, and overall players are clearly responding to new marketing techniques. Multiple hours on social networks every day exposes these mid-core players to marketing from social games companies sent to them by their own friends. These messages intrinsically link the social value of their friends with the value of free items redeemed on response. It’s the difference between a publisher’s marketer telling you ‘Go out and buy this game because it’s great’ and a friend saying ‘Play this game with me now for free and get this cool stuff’. They might look like a wall of spam, but friends’ recommendations within the context of specific games can be intrinsically valuable and highly effective marketing vehicles.
With social maligned, muzzled or at the very least misunderstood by the console platforms, none have mounted a clear defence against this changing customer behaviour. Nintendo in particular, its plate already brimming with market fears, appears to have grounds to be worried by the promiscuity of its players. Perhaps it’s time for Nintendo to reconsider its ‘anti-social’ position and grasp the opportunity?