If you own a smartphone or frequent Facebook, there's a pretty good chance that you're a gamer. While you might not consider yourself one of the hardcore gamers that spend more than 30 hours a week saving a kingdom or competing online, you probably spend a few minutes a day tending to a virtual farm or playing Words with Friends. The recent gaming explosion is all thanks to free-to-play and social games that have cropped up on Facebook and smartphone.
To better understand the free-to-play phenomenon and social gaming in general, WebProNews talked to Michael Hartman, President and CEO of Frogdice. Frogdice is a game developer based in Lexington, KY that got their start in 1996 with a MUD (multi-user dungeon) called Threshold. MUDs are completely text based and require role play on the part of the players to really bring the world to life. While MMOs have definitely taken the spotlight from their progenitors, Frogdice is still operating Threshold and Hartman says that the game has been played by almost 500,000 people over its life. The developer recently launched Coin 'n Carry, a medieval mini-game/crafting/shop keeper game that's far more engaging and fun that it has any right to be.
To see where social gaming is going, we have to look at its origins. I remember playing little Shockwave powered games in 1996 on my 56k connection, but it turns out that more ambitious fare like Threshold actually required its own separate client. Hartman says that for most of its life, Threshold ran on a separate client. It was only recently that the game was able to be played in browser.
So what changed between the early days of browser-based games and now? Technology has improved drastically allowing players to become fully immersed in a 3D world compared to the simple 2D games that were the norm back in the 90s and early 2000s. That's all thanks to big leaps in Flash, Unity and Unreal that allow full 3D games to be played in browsers. Hartman says that browser-based games have remained popular because they are generally platform agnostic and require little to no install. Players can just jump on and start having fun.
The modern evolution of the browser-based game is the Facebook game. Frogdice didn't put their latest game, Coin 'n Carry, on Facebook though. The developer stuck to the browser when everybody is tripping over themselves to get their game on Facebook. Why is that? Hartman cited a number of reasons with the first reason being that they wanted to develop a deeper game that wasn't possible on Facebook. Coin 'n Carry has many different elements to it (mini-games, crafting, shop keeping) which in turn makes it better suited for browser than Facebook games which usually feature only one element.
Aside from the game itself, he feels that Facebook isn't very conducive to a good player experience. Here's what he had to say on it:
Privacy - why does the world need to know what games you are playing and when? They don't.
Quality - You give up a lot of screen real estate to the Facebook UI when your game is on Facebook. We didn't want to do that.
Cost - Facebook takes about 30% of your gross with their Facebook credits. That's brutal.
User experience - Users don't have to deal with ads, Facebook slowdowns, or any other issues while playing Coin 'n Carry. This improves the user experience significantly.
Just because Coin 'n Carry is not on Facebook doesn't mean that Hartman hates the platform. He says that it's still a great platform for games because it's "where the people are." The ease of development is also great for anybody just starting on the road to making games. He says that the only thing hurting Facebook game development is the poor quality that we see across the board. The blatant cloning doesn't help either.
So with Facebook out of the question, what about a mobile app? Facebook themselves are having a bit of trouble trying to compete with mobile as many game developers are now making native apps on iOS or Android. Hartman says that they talked about the possibility, but never really considered making Coin 'n Carry for mobile. He does, however, say that much of Coin 'n Carry works well on flash-enabled Android tablets and phones despite being built primarily for PC.
You may recall some worrying news that Google+ was losing games and developers. Google remains committed to bringing games to the platform, but is it enough? Hartman says that Google+ shot itself in the foot by being a closed platform. He feels that games would have done much better if people were allowed to link their Facebook/Twitter accounts to Google+ and play cross platform. In a really telling quote that I think sums up Google+ for a lot of people, he says, "In an attempt to take over everything, they've ended up being nothing." That doesn't mean that he hates Google+ as he would love to see it succeed as a games platform in the future.
Beyond the fight between mobile and social, there's another war on the horizon for browser-based game developers - Flash or HTML5? Coin 'n Carry was developed in Flash and Hartman says the reason was because "HTML5 has a lot of problems and flaws that make game programming problematic." That doesn't mean that Flash is the go to platform either as it "drives [him] insane that you cannot use right mouse click commands in Flash." At the moment, they use Flash because "its very robust for game development and has a huge installed base." Interestingly enough, he finds that Unity is superior to both so maybe game developers will no longer worry about Flash vs. HTML5 debates when (and if) Unity takes off.
Beyond all this talk of free-to-play and browsed-based gaming, dedicated game consoles must be brought into the equation. There are people on both sides saying that consoles will or will not die. There's a lot at stake in this argument with people investing their livelihoods into browsers and mobile games because they seem them as the future. Hartman doesn't see consoles going anywhere, however, as he feels that "people still love to play games on their television sitting at their couch." The recent Kickstarter explosion of the Android-based Ouya console only confirms that feeling.
As for the future of free-to-play, there's nothing but sunshine and cotton candy for the platform. Hartman says that free-to-play is important to games as it gives players a chance to try before they buy in the most literal sense. They can get as much as they want out of it and if they really like it, he feels that they will respond by supporting the game with purchases. All of Frogdice's games use the free-to-play model where the most dedicated players spend large amounts of money which helps supports those who may only play it for a few minutes a day.
It seems somewhat insane that a strictly-browser based game could do so well in today's Facebook and mobile environment, but Frogdice is proving that it works with Coin 'n Carry and Threshold. The company will be launching two other free-to-play games in the future with their next game being called Tower of Elements.
If you want to see the future of browser gaming and how far it has come since its humble roots under Shockwave, check out Coin 'n Carry. Frogdice has some exciting things on the horizon, as do many others. It's safe to say that browser-based and social games are not going anywhere.