Females, older players drive casual fare

Disney’s $563 million purchase earlier this month of Playdom had its skeptics, but a new survey showing the reach of the social game market could silence the deal’s critics.

The NPD Group, which tracks the sales of video games, reports that 20 percent of the U.S. population has played a game on Facebook or some other social network in the past three months. That works out to 56.8 million people tending virtual farms or collecting virtual bugs.

The games are bringing in a new type of player as well. According to the report, 35 percent of those who play social network games have never tried any other form of electronic gaming. The majority of this category are older people and women.

The statistics do not show whether playing on social networks acts as a gateway for people to explore other forms of gaming. If so, that could raise hopes among traditional publishers who are aiming to increase their appeal to the casual audience this holiday season.

Both Microsoft and Sony are introducing motion control devices supported by a bevy of games that are meant to snag players away from Nintendo.

“Although 35 percent of social network gamers are new to gaming, it’s clear that a lot of existing gamers have been drawn into the social network gaming arena as well,” said Anita Frazier, industry analyst at the NPD Group. “This impacts both the time they spend with other types of gaming, as well as the amount of money they’re spending on gaming. As more players are drawn into these games, the entire games industry is going to feel, and have to adjust to, the impact.”

While it’s troubling enough for traditional game publishers to hear that some of their audience is being wooed by social games, another finding by the survey could raise new fears. Gamers who do play on social sites say they’ve spent 20 percent less on gaming overall since they started playing these types of games.

Social games are almost all free to play, which helps their appeal, although they make money through micro-transactions — small purchases for in-game upgrades or items. The NPD study found that 10 percent of players spend real money on these micro-transactions. Another 11 percent say they’re likely to in the future.

While the general perception of the social gamer has been skewed towards women, the demographic breakdown shows that it’s a pretty even mix. Forty-seven percent of the players are male, according to NPD.

Regardless of gender, though, they’re very demanding and fickle players — and that represents one of the sector’s biggest hurdles.

“While social network gaming has caught on with a mass market audience, it’s not without its

challenges,” said Frazier. “Players are frustrated by slow loading and performance issues and report getting bored by the games easily. Clearly, these types of games will have to continue to evolve if they hope to hold their audiences and incentivize them to spend money playing.”

That’s not stopping other companies from getting into the game. In late 2009, Electronic Arts bought Playfish for $325 million. And Take-Two Interactive Software is working on a Facebook version of the hit “Civilization” franchise.

But Google has gotten much of the attention. The search giant recently gone on a buying spree in the social space. In July, it invested between $100 million and $200 million in Zynga, the largest developer of social games.

And earlier this month, it paid $182 million for Slide, maker of “Super Poke Pets” and other titles, and an unknown amount (though whispered to be about $75 million) for Jambool, which runs a monetization platform that developers can integrate into their games to get paid.

The company is expected to launch its own social network site later this year or in early 2011 – giving developers another substantial base of customers. And that could make the social gaming category an even bigger threat to traditional publishers.

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