Social games widen Asian audience

Online games with easier gameplay and lower hardware requirements open Asia's games market to new demographics, say industry watchers.
Written by Kevin Kwang, Contributor

Asia's games industry has now reached the phase of "mass market appeal", where non-conventional gaming demographics such as women and the elderly are engaging in online games, according to an analyst.

Debbie Swee, market analyst for emerging technologies research at IDC Asia-Pacific, said in an interview with ZDNet Asia that she sees the emergence of social games such as FarmVille and Mafia Wars found on Facebook, and on independent social game sites such as Viwawa, as "symptomatic" of how the games industry is moving mainstream.

"The profile for gamers has changed very much over the years," noted Swee. "Games used to only appeal to a predominantly male demographic but these days, women, young children, working adults and the elderly, are also playing online games."

IDC's preliminary figures for the online games market appear to support this development. In 2009 alone, revenue from the industry is expected to hit US$5.5 billion in Asia, which include markets China, Hong Kong, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, India and Vietnam.

The popularity of online social games, in particular, is burgeoning.

Singapore's Media Development Authority (MDA) said social games, with their simple gameplay and lower hardware requirements, were appealing to a much wider demographic than the traditional market of hardcore gamers.

"This can be seen in the popularity of games like Popcap's Bejeweled, which to date has been downloaded over 150 million times and with 25 million copies sold, compared to a traditional hardcore blockbuster like Halo 3, which 8.1 million units sold made it one of the most successful console games in recent times," said Michelle Lui, MDA's deputy director of interactive media and games, in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia.

With this emerging trend, aspiring social game developers and startups now have the impetus and potential to bring their products to the market more easily, said Lui. "The new revenue models created by these digital platforms have proved lucrative for smaller developers, especially given that development of a social game is well within their means. A typical [social] game takes about six months to develop, with costs ranging between US$75,000 and US$300,000… as opposed to the usual USS$5 million to US$20 million cost of [developing] a console or hardcore PC title."

The Singapore government has ambitions for the country to become the region's testbed for global game developers and distributors, with the MDA committing millions of dollars to drive this market.

The country's startups are already tapping these favorable conditions. For instance, Lui said, Tyler Projects, a social games developer that introduced Battle Stations--a massively multi player online role playing game (MMORPG) played on Facebook and Friendster--is reportedly earning US$40,000 a month with 70,000 monthly Facebook users.

Established game developers are also joining the social games bandwagon. Electronic Arts (EA) announced on Nov. 9 plans to buy social games company Playfish, which introduced titles such as Word Challenge. Ubisoft also announced the launch of its portal Ubifriends, in July this year, which allows people to play games on Facebook.

However, some game developers describe social games as a "trend that will pass with time" and a sector that is not worth entering.

Robin Tan, managing director of Singapore-based Envisage Reality, a PC game developer company, said social gamers enjoy games "based on popularity and not so much on quality".

"As game developers, I believe that what we develop is like art, just as what [painters] Picasso or Michelangelo did during the Renaissance period. Social game is a very different kind of art," said Tan.

Gamers such as student Melcolm Lek, however, think social games still have a place in the industry. He said social games are becoming the current trend in today's games industry and able to cater to a wider market audience at a much cheaper cost.

In an e-mail interview, Lek acknowledged that social games "will never satisfy the needs of a pro gamer", which prefer "AAA games". AAA games are commonly known in the gamer community as high quality titles that have been developed and tested extensively before release.

According to IDC's Swee, the increasing smartphone use in the region is also propelling social games into the mainstream. She said the mobile platform has "potential" for social games to thrive on, as can be seen by the popularity of Apple's iPhone and the game applications found in its iTunes apps store.

Lui added that Singapore developers such as Personae Studio and Mikoishi, are some companies utilizing the mobile platform to distribute their games.

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