As anyone who was at GDC last week could tell, “social gaming” was certainly one of the major themes that people were interested in talking about this year – much moreso than last year, when there was barely even a panel on it if I remember correctly. As social games continue to become more and more mainstream in the west, a lot of people are getting attracted to what appears to be the first mass market opportunity of this scale in a long time. Nevertheless, there also continue to be skeptics who see social games based on virtual goods as just a Flash in the pan. “They’re not even real games,” many people say. Is this kind of casual social gaming really here to stay?
Let’s step back and take an anecdotal look at human behavior in general. Have most people over the years (generally speaking) preferred to spend their time playing games with people they know or people they’ve just met? Although there are some important exceptions, most anecdotal evidence suggests that many more people would rather play games with friends and family than people they meet in a lobby, even if the “games” they’re playing are pretty basic, like cards or checkers.
On average days, most people who play games want to play with people they know – whether it be in the back yard growing up, in the nearby field with friends, or during game night at the house. These experiences are fun, not just because of the content of the game itself, but because of the context for social interaction with friends that they allow. Having a fun experience with friends is generally more important than in-game achievement.
So now, as what we today call “social games” proliferate across online social platforms, it should come as no surprise that millions of people are starting to play the types of games that allow casual, asynchronous interaction with friends that never played other types of online games with strangers. There are already 16 games on Facebook with more than 10 million monthly players, one (FarmVille) with over 80 million (I repeat, 80 million) monthly players – most of whom don’t identify as online gamers – and we’re still in the very early days.
Of course, there are some important exceptions to note. Some of these include:
- In skill-based games, particularly in team or clan games, players who reach a certain level of proficiency generally want to find other players of a similar skill level, no matter if they are friends are not. We see this both in the physical world in sports leagues like soccer/football, and online in examples like Counter-Strike leagues. However, in general, people who continue to play skill games often tend to be the more skilled players, i.e. are generally viewed as “hardcore,” and not representative of the average person.
- In MMORPGs, players often form strong ties with a particular group, and endeavor either individually or collectively as a guild to perform tasks that intrinsically lead to frequent interactions with strangers. (This is what the commenter “Brass Monkey” is referring to on Raph Koster’s blog post regarding this comment I made at GDC.) It’s certainly true that this is a fundamental dynamic of most MMOs, and many “social games” on Facebook at least partially share these characteristics. For example, you can interact with friends or strangers in games like YoVille.
- In gambling games, people often like to play with strangers more than friends because of the intrinsic and potentially relationship-damaging conflict that can arise from taking your friends’ money. Just as many people gamble in casinos instead of with friends when playing for high stakes, most people also even play poker games on Facebook with strangers. (Poker games are also happen to be synchronous, making it harder to find friends who are online at the same time to play with, but I think that doesn’t affect this core social dynamic.)
As gaming technology has advanced over the last 20 years, social infrastructure has lagged behind. As a result, gaming culture has become branded in many traditional senses as “anti-social” (i.e. images of a teenager in a bedroom with a headset on at a computer or a child in front of a TV are common). Now that high-fidelity online social graphs exist (Facebook being the largest and primary case), online gaming is about to become much more socialized and “normal” as these games blend entertainment and authentic, asynchronous communication with “real-life” (i.e. not just in-game) friends.
Facebook is the best platform for this blending of entertainment and communication to happen on because it is built on trusted identity and meaningful real-life connections (at least for a very large portion of its users). That’s something that gaming portals just don’t have. Over time, Facebook and other social platforms will gradually take over more and more of the “casual” gaming market, though there will of course be opportunities for carve-outs in particular game genres just as there are carve-out opportunities in particular cultures and geographies in general. But on the whole, most people want to play games with their friends most of the time, just as much now as they always have.
[ image credit ]