Do Facebook games belong at E3?

(Credit: EA)

For a trade show all about video games and interactive entertainment, it’s surprising to me that some of the most popular games are hardly represented at all. Amid the halls filled with life-size statues of space marines and zombies, you’ll see little of the Facebook and social games that remain popular, if uncool.

There’s a definite hierarchy to the games and gamers at E3. The PC game types look down at the console types, and they both look down at the social/casual types. Which is, on one hand, not surprising, as much of the audience at E3 is made up of industry enthusiasts who blur the line between fan and impartial observer, and they clearly prefer Halo to CityVille.

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On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore a huge genre of games that measure users in terms of tens of millions of monthly players (referred to as monthly average users, or MAU).

And yet, ignored these games are. At E3 2012, you’ll find Disney and subsidiary Playdom, with Facebook games such as Armies of Magic. EA promotes games such as the brand-new Sim City Social or The Sims Social, both Facebook versions of classic PC games, but I’ve seen little of the popular games (Bejeweled, Zuma,) from PopCap, a recent EA acquisition.

Also hard to find are major players such as the recently public Zynga, which is a regular at more narrowcast video game trade events, such as the Game Developers Conference (Zynga does have a small E3 meeting room here, but not a public booth).

The strengths and weaknesses of the social game approach are an interesting contrast to more traditional video games. Social games have lower development costs and timelines, can be successfully distributed under a freemium model (which means they are free to play, but offer paid upgrades), and they require no major hardware investment for players, such as a standalone game console or a high-end gaming PC.

In each of the past few years, I’ve looked for these games, with their broad appeal and Facebook-powered distribution system, to make significant inroads into E3, but aside from a few rule-proving exceptions, it hasn’t happened.

Still, a few trends make it more likely for next year, or at least the near future. Traditional boxed retail game sales are down month-over-month so far in 2012. Asking the public to shell out $60 for the third, forth, or eighth retread of the same thing might have something to do with that.

The current generation of living room consoles is getting older, which is not so much a problem of hardware — people still seem satisfied with the technology level of games — but that the big consoles are being repositioned as general interest living room streaming entertainment boxes.

And lastly, you have the Apple-fication of gaming — which applies to more than just iOS products — and has indoctrinated a whole generation of gamers to expect interactive entertainment experiences that are shorter, easier to pick up and play, available via a browser or download, and most importantly, priced for spontaneous, instant gratification purchases.

All things to think about next time someone tells you the Facebook game you’re playing “isn’t a real game.”

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