By Guest Author Cindy Weng
Social gaming has, over the past year, been on a tremendous incline in the online world. Flash-based games have popped up as both standalone sites and as applications to larger social networks. Any avid Facebook user can tell you about all the game requests they receive, inviting them to play Mob Wars, Tetris Friends, or maybe Lexulous (an application mimicking the board game Scrabble). Some might say that these requests are irritating, but most people have undoubtedly played at least one of these games. Why is it that casual online gaming suddenly has caught up to, if not overtaken, console gaming in its number of users? The simple answer is community: connected networks of millions of people.
When Facebook and MySpace opened up their platforms to third-party developers, game companies gained access to approximately 200 million Internet users all across the world. Most of these people, however, are not serious gamers so a new type of game was developed to suit their needs. Casual gaming is usually depicted as something you play for a short period, with the option of continuing or stopping gameplay at any time you want. For busy people, this is perfect for those 15-minute work breaks. For others, these games are engaging enough to have you hooked for hours. However, the feature that brought about the most success was not necessarily convenience, but rather connectivity. People can play with any of their friends or with strangers in a casual environment. This is the same fundamental theory that made social networking boom in the first place. People want to stay connected and these new games gave them more ways to do so.
Companies such as Zynga (creator of Texas Hold’Em, FarmVille and Scramble) and Playfish (Word Challenge, Who Has The Biggest Brain?) have taken advantage of the social features that Facebook and MySpace offer to market their games. The Facebook applications for these games have built-in automated update systems that post news on players’ Facebook walls and their friends’ newsfeeds, advertising what achievements these users have accomplished and encouraging everyone to try it for themselves. It is this exposure, using a peer-to-peer method, that makes these games viral. It was only a year ago that no one had heard of either of the previously mentioned companies, but now, they are large enough to branch away from Facebook and have successfully established their own websites with a significant number of followers.
Josh Lovison, the gaming practice lead at 1 vs. 100 (a two-hour live game show that features live gameplay between players, multiple rounds, plus a host who comments on the action) has proven to be popular with Xbox Live subscribers. In the fall, Xbox will allow access to Facebook using Facebook Connect, and also to the rapidly expanding Twitter. Lovison predicts that future games will have automated leader board features that track and compare user performance. Even greater connectivity between users will be available, and they will be able to play with or against each other in ways never seen before. Electronic Arts is even shifting their model of gaming to focus on user-generated content. Actions taken within games will show up on Facebook newsfeeds and games thus become almost self-advertising. In addition, multi-player games will be populated using content taken from Facebook, whether it is profile information or a users’ browsing habits.
Furthermore, promoting games is vastly different online from at retailers such as Best Buy and GameStop. Virality is much more of a factor online. If an individual sees a game that he really likes, he is likely to recommend it a friend and link his friend to the site. This process is repeated and the game soon spreads like wildfire. Of course, this means that the game design has to be impeccable and attractive to a majority of the targeted population. Automated posting to profiles and newsfeeds helps this process and is often how games like Mob Wars become some of the most popular applications on Facebook and MySpace. An advertising scheme that engages user curiosity is also a good strategy. Using Facebook content is important in targeted advertising. Profile information such as a user’s interests, hobbies, and activities is converted to tags that are used to match companies’ requests.
The impact of social and viral aspects of gaming is clear in this particular example of sports games. Console players may be used to the ritual of buying, playing, and then discarding each Madden NFL game as new versions come out each year, but with online gaming, the process is very different. Quick Hit is a great product of the new generation of social gaming. The company’s goal is to involve as many football fanatics as possible in a massive online gaming community and to offer them a free alternative to typical sports games. Although Madden NFL and Quick Hit approach the game of football differently, Quick Hit’s CEO, Jeff Anderson, believes that his game offers a new perspective to a much bigger audience than Madden. Madden NFL quit the PC gaming industry a while ago and has left a huge market for other companies. Quick Hit is looking to take advantage of this market through a well-designed game with plenty of social features. It is a multiplayer game that allows players to create their own teams and faceoff against one another. A chat feature gives these users the opportunity to interact with their opponents. Player investment occurs in the form of advancement, where each minute the user spends on Quick Hit contributes to rewards within the game. All these actions can be posted to a user’s Facebook or Twitter profile, so once again, we see the power of peer-to-peer advertising. More targeted advertising occurs in the form of ads that appear on the profiles of users who list “football” as one of their interests.
One thing is clear: the future of gaming is moving towards social networking and the lines between the two are increasingly blurred. To captivate Internet users’ attention, a company has to incorporate a bit of both—gaming for entertainment and networking for connectivity. The next generation is here, and a game that does not incorporate social and viral aspects will be overtaken by one that does.