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Think Big. Move Fast.

One of the take aways of the social gaming summit last week was that even casual MMOGs need to focus on their hardcore players as that is their source of paying players. David Perry of Acclaim noted in one panel that the players of Dance Online monetize far better than the players of “traditional” MMOGs that Acclaim operates:

As for who’s paying, Perry (Acclaim) expected most microtransactions to come from hardcore MMORPG playerskitting out the avatars with fancy armor and such. Instead, it comes from Dance. The game is a simple dancing activity, but because users spend so much time looking at their avatars, the appearance and identity becomes even more important.

Corroborating evidence comes from this great multipage review of Audition on the Escapist. Audition is a free to play dance themed game, published by Nexon in the US.

Audition isn’t a casual game, despite the presence of numerous casual markers: short play times, transparent rules, continuous save-free play, an item-based advertising model. Although the rules can be learned in minutes, mastery requires about a month of semi-serious dedication; “pro”-level skills take significantly longer. And, like a standard fantasy-based MMO, if you drop out of regular play, you’ll return to find that all of your friends are 10 levels ahead of you and worlds ahead in ability. Your reflexes can atrophy as quickly as embouchure for a musical instrument.

When you find the beat, however, the feeling is incredible. Your keyboard becomes an instrument through which you “play” a pounding, intense rock song. When you claim the highest score, you slide into the lead dancer position, supported by the other players worshiping at the altar of your groove. Whether you’re playing backup or lead, Audition reaches deep down into the shared performance experience that has driven homo sapiens to make music and dance since the birth of the species. Beat Up, performed well, closely replicates a creative “flow” state that is almost nirvana – if you release thought and embrace the physical pulse of the music, you’re carried along in a fast and furious musical flow that you share with your fellow performers. The game’s mechanics encourage this mindset with visual cues and flourishes that reward a steady, flawless performance; you achieve “beat up” status by sustaining 100+ perfect “moves.” Once I’d tasted a little Beat Up success, there was no going back.

I am a big fan of causal MMOs branching out beyond the fantasy, FPS and sci fi themes towards genres that have potential for much broader, mass market appeal. As I’ve noted before, there is increasing evidence that women drive viral growth more than men do, so if you want to see viral growth in games, it makes sense to make games that will appeal broadly to “non gamers”. Games like Popomundo, Parking Wars and Friends For Sale all do this well. (Friends for Sale is a Lightspeed portfolio company)

Another important lesson to take away from the review is that real world context can have an impact on gameplay:

When I first started playing, I was convinced these high-level hot stepper kids had something I fundamentally didn’t. This is partially true: They did have something I didn’t, and not just endless patience or time to spare – they knew the songs.

This actually makes a significant difference in your performance. Hardcore Audition players identify desirable songs by their speed and difficulty, but a significant number of the game’s “mainstream” players actively seek music that they already listen to outside the game. (And it works both ways; players have reported purchasing music they first heard in Audition.)

…Once I started playing Audition, however, a new aural landscape opened up before me. Rather than semi-sullenly tuning out environmental music at the mall, I started to recognize bands and individual songs. And because I associated them with the feelings of accomplishment and socialization I absorbed in Audition, I actually enjoyed hearing them. Whereas I had actively disliked – to put it mildly – the repetitive beat and high-pitched vocals in Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend,” after mastering it in Audition I found myself tapping along with it on the radio. Audition is, among other things, an as-yet unmatched music marketing engine.

I think we’ll see more of both of these trends as social gaming continues to evolve. I’d love to hear examples from readers of games that are leading these trends.