Social Games: The industry's new wild west

Social gaming is taking advantage of the Internet's unique ability to accumulate social connections in order to encourage greater investment in what have been, to this point, very casual games. (Courtesy of Playdom Inc.)

It all began the moment I joined Facebook. I was bitten by a vampire. And a zombie. Then I was invited to play "Scrabble." Now it's all " Mafia Wars" and "Farm Town." And it's not just Facebook. Sites like MySpace and even Twitter are fueling a burgeoning game industry. Social gaming is taking advantage of the Internet's unique ability to accumulate social connections in order to encourage greater investment in what have been, to this point, very casual games.

For a few years now, the social gaming sphere has been drawing talent from the "traditional" videogame industry. Last June, EA's former Chief Operating Officer John Pleasants became CEO of Playdom, a social/casual gaming studio that had already claimed gaming legend Steve Meretzky. Similarly, EA's founder Bing Gordon is a board member for industry leader Zynga, the company that recently opened an East Coast office headed by strategy-game guru Brian Reynolds. So what does the future hold for a game space dominated by clones, micropayment-dominated progress-bar games, and shallow game design?

Brian Reynolds, the designer of deep strategy classics like "Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri" and "Rise of Nations," may seem an odd fit with the much lighter fare on Facebook, but he admits to getting hooked on the social games the site offers.

"It's the current entertainment I am addicted to. They are games I enjoy playing, though I wasn't sure why at first. There was no real deep design here. Part of it was instant gratification, but also the voodoo of social networking."

A simple game of "Scrabble," for example, may start as a way to interact with an old friend you have not spoken to in years. That interaction may become a deeper social engagement -- you exchange news, rediscover old similarities or rivalries, and are soon regularly competing for high scores or a won/lost record.

But if invitations don't follow, the game may be a failure. And, given the Internet's viral nature, something new will always come along.

"We have to keeping making games (at Zynga)," says Reynolds, "Because they rise and fall. We continue to build a game even after it goes live. You have to keep adding to them. You cannot slow down game development."

It's this constant pace of developing, upgrading, and launching that separates social gaming from the traditional game industry. Where EA or Blizzard can spend millions of dollars on a team of hundreds, more than two years before a game hits shelves, social gaming companies can spend only weeks on a game, launch multiple betas to test new features, and adapt the game on the fly. The immense player base of these games keeps the pace viable, because there are so many avenues for monetization.

Brandon Barber, Zynga's vice president of marketing and another refugee from EA, explains that the size of the audience -- often in the millions -- means that traditional "eyeball" metrics and Internet advertising can be as important to the bottom line as the in-game sale of items. The business model has been so successful that he expects the big interactive media players to soon break into the social gaming market.

"EA, Activision, Disney -- they would just raise the profile of this space," says Barber. "And we would welcome all of them."

PopCap, America's most famous casual-game developer, is one of the big players trying to adapt what has worked for it to a new arena. Garth Chouteau, PopCap's PR director, sees great challenges and opportunities for expansion into the Facebook arena.

"Facebook gives us a relatively straightforward way to put a 'social wrapper' on some of our game experiences -- and frankly, that's missing from most versions of most of our games today. We know that, given the chance, people will socialize around our games, but to date that social activity has been almost entirely limited to gathering around a single computer to take turns making moves or taking shots and so on."

Blending a social experience with game design is neither obvious nor easy, he cautions. "What aspects of a given game beyond high score do people want to communicate to their personal networks of contacts? Great shots, moves and replays; hardest-fought matches with particular mutual contacts; most achievements accomplished; prizes won? These and other aspects of our social-game offerings are still to be determined."

Everyone I spoke to emphasized that the social part of social gaming is the most important part of the equation. The games only exist to build or expand social capital.

"Even offline people assign values to interactions," explains Barber. "It's the difference between waving to somebody and lending them money. Online it's the difference between 'poking' someone on Facebook and writing them a recommendation. In social games, it's about optimizing those connections."

Where the Facebook model is about using the connections you've already made -- your friends list -- OMGPOP is using social gaming as a connection-builder. OMGPOP targets a younger audience, 18 to 22, instead of Facebook's everybody, and relies on that demographic's openness to new friendships and free online play with strangers. Gamers go to the site and then play with or against their peers in clones of more familiar light games -- "Tetris," "Bejeweled," "Pictionary," etc.

Charles Forman, a game designer at OMGPOP, has no illusions about how original or durable his company's games are. "You come to the site because you have five minutes to waste. It's not about the content; it's about interaction with other people."

"On Facebook," he explains, "You are only playing with your friends. We're a different environment. We have high retention and regular players, but we're more like a bar or an arcade. It's about meeting people."

This model has proven very successful, Forman says, with a lot of the money coming from gamers buying power-ups or cute accessories. "But they mostly buy them for other people," he notes with pleasure. "A lot of the micropayment purchases are birthday gifts or a bunch of guys trying to impress a girl." OMGPOP's games are head-to-head, not asynchronous like Playdom's or Zynga's role-playing games, or high-score-oriented like PopCap games. This means there is greater interaction between the players in real time, creating what Forman believes is a true social experience.