If "All Games Will Be Social", How Far Along are Console Games?

-nintendo logo-At GDC this year, Gareth Davis, program manager for games at Facebook, went on record as saying that “pretty soon all games will be social”, and explained that Facebook, with 100 million players per month, is “the biggest game platform in the world”. Well if all games are trending towards becoming social, I thought it’d be interesting to analyze just how social console games already are.

Home Consoles

XBox has XBox Live and the PS3 has the Playstation Network. The Wii has the Wii Shop Channel and Mii avatars. All the consoles have online services and allow players to play against one another, compare scores on leaderboards, chat, add friends and more. XBox Live boasts 20 million users of the service members, the Playstation Network has approximately 25,000,000 users and Nintendo is remaining private about this information. That’s a lot of gamers engaging in all the most common elements of social games: chat, competition, challenging and gaining achievements to show off to one another. Users message and friend one another daily, recommend games and have real voice chat using headsets. Perhaps the console world is already social.

One of Facebook’s greatest strengths is the sheer number of players on their site, and that’s why Gareth announced they have 200,000,000 gamers and are the biggest gaming platform. That said, the consoles echo that strength. Nintendo alone has sold 130,000,000 Nintendo DS’ and 60,000,000 Wiis worldwide. One look at the graph below shows that if having a large audience is a pre-requisite for social gaming, the console world has met the requirement.

Console Sales Courtesy of VGChartz.com
Console Sales Courtesy of VGChartz.com
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So the services have plenty of users and provide a great social framework, but what about the games? There are several social and casual games available for download on all three consoles, and most have components of online play. XBox Live, for instance, has a great selection of quick, online games, from real-time multiplayer beat ’em ups like Castle Crashers to thoughtful puzzle games like Puzzle Quest. The Playstation 3 has great titles like Little Big Planet, where users create levels to challenge one another to play.

So are the consoles social? Well, if Microsoft were to turn on a switch to allow me to import all my Facebook contacts as friends into my XBox Live account, I’d have an incredible social gaming network almost immediately. I already have a social graph on XBox, it’s just that its comprised of mostly hardcore game players. In fact, Microsoft may be planning that as they released Facebook Connect on the XBox a short time ago, and had over 2 million users sign up in the first week. The Playstation Network is also connected to Facebook.

Thinking about this, it’s almost like the use of the term “social games” really has a lot to do with the idea of “casual games”. When we talk about Facebook social games, we mean social casual games, rather than social hardcore games. This is a big part of what separates social games from XBox social games, at this point.

Handheld Consoles

Gareth may be telling the truth when he says that they are the largest platform for games. Facebook has 200,000,000 players per month, and if you combine the sales of both leading handheld consoles, you get ~185,000,000 (127,000,000 DS’ and 56,000,000 PSPs). Tangentially, if we were to look at the financials, we could see Facebook being heavily outmatched: each of those handheld consoles costs on average $200 with $40 games, while Facebook Games are mostly free. However, examining the social state of things, perhaps Facebook’s fantastic social elements give it a bigger growth potential, because examination of the PSP and DS reveal a few social elements, but they aren’t overly ‘connected’ systems.

The PSP connects to the same Playstation Network as the PS3, and while it is extremely clunky to navigate, there is a strong selection of games. That said, the number of games with real multiplayer play is extremely few. The system can handle multiplayer well with its built in wi-fi, but it’s mostly the EA Sports games and a few Konami titles that properly leverage multiplayer. On top of that, the nature of consoles has it such that people aren’t exactly checking in every day to play the games like they do on Facebook, and I’ve found it tough to get friends to rally around to play PSP games, especially when most people have Facebook in the other room.

On both the PSP and the DS, accessing the web is extremely difficult as well, and there is no easy way to chat with my buddies from either system if we’re not in the same room. Both consoles rely heavily on utilizing bluetooth for same-room gameplay options, but lose their luster the second we all split up. This is a huge downside when compared to games on Facebook, where I’m connected with every one of my friends (whether I want to be or not!), at any time and at any place.

All in all, the handheld market has a huge uphill battle when it comes to fighting the combination of Facebook Social Games and the elegantly connected iPhone and iPad app store.

Conclusion

While home consoles are already quite social, it seems like the handheld consoles have a way to go. The fact that they are in direct competition with the iPhone and iPad also means that if Gareth is right, and all games will eventually be social, the great social applications available for iPhone may start to eat into the relatively single player offerings of the DS and PSP. I’m sure Nintendo will surprise us with some other revolution before that happens, though, so I’ll be all ears until E3.

You can read more about Gareth’s comments here.