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GAMES

Top game designers going social

by Brian Ashcraft

They’re some of the biggest names in Japanese gaming. And they’ve developed some of the country’s biggest games. Guys like Keiji Inafune of “Mega Man” fame, Yuji Naka (“Sonic the Hedgehog”) and Goichi Suda (“No More Heroes”). But last week in Shibuya, Tokyo, they talked about how they’re planning to work on smaller social games — games they hope will go big.

The developers were participating in Mobage’s “Super Creators” event. Mobage is a popular social-gaming network with more users than Facebook in Japan. The potential here is tremendous, with social-game maker DeNA predicting that in a few years, social gaming will be a ¥300 billion business.

The rise of social gaming is an offshoot of social-networking sites such as Facebook and mixi. But it comes with the evolution of smartphones. iPhone/iPad and Android apps provide gaming experiences for just a couple of bucks. Some games are even free to play, but offer players the chance to purchase add-ons or new features. Compare this to the four or five thousand yen that Nintendo 3DS games cost, and it’s easy to see why social-network gaming is exploding.

Social games are often casual titles that have network integration and typically in-game currency that can be purchased with real money. Social games usually don’t end: They just keep going and going as long as the player continues to invest time and energy. The enormously popular “FarmVille,” which can be played on Facebook or as a smartphone app, is a classic example. That game, along with a slew of other social titles, has made its developer, Zynga, billions of dollars.

“FarmVille” isn’t the first successful farm simulator. “Harvest Moon,” first released in Japan in 1996 for Nintendo’s Super Famicom console, allowed players to take care of animals and grow vegetables. However, it came out long before social gaming. “FarmVille” seems to have taken the best of “Harvest Moon,” put it on Facebook and made its fortune.

As the Japanese industry continues to grapple with home-console games, social games offer a low-cost alternative. Making home-console games now costs many millions of dollars. Complex software is necessary to create the titles, forcing studios to either license expensive game-creation software from other studios or develop their own. Things can get expensive real fast.

Social games don’t have realistic graphics or in-game physics like home-console titles. They’re often cute and fun, and usually have a retro look to them. For game developers, making them is like doing pushups compared with the heavy lifting necessary for home-console games. While social-game graphics aren’t nearly as demanding as PS3 or Xbox 360 graphics, the games must be designed with complex player psychology in mind to compel the player to continue playing — and often to continue spending real money.

This isn’t to say that all the big Japanese game designers are attracted to social games because they cannot make big-budget home-console games anymore. Suda continues to release console games, and recently revealed that he’s working on “Lollipop Chainsaw,” a big-budget title in which a cheerleader kills zombies. At the recent social-gaming event in Shibuya, Suda said he had ideas for 100 social games and is planning to make the social-game version of the edgy “No More Heroes” the bloodiest social game ever.

Earlier this year, Inafune, who designed AAA games such as “Dead Rising” and “Lost Planet,” told me that he was interested in making both big and small titles, adding that he felt he could learn from making smaller titles. He has announced two upcoming social-gaming titles: “The Island of Dr. Momo” and “J.J. Rockets.”

The social-gaming space in Japan is buzzing, with console titles such as role-playing game “Persona” and smash-hit puzzler “Professor Layton” bound for social versions. Last fall, gamers were surprised to hear that the classic adventure series “Shenmue” would be revived after a 10-year absence — and even more surprised that the new entry would be a social game, called “Shenmue Town.”

With all these developers jumping on the social-gaming gravytrain, it’s in danger of turning into a bubble. Social games aren’t going to go away anytime soon, but not everyone can create the next “FarmVille.” Still, these aren’t any old game creators: They’re super creators with super resumes and, if their previous successes are any indication, super social games in store.