What Exactly are Social Games?

When the Facebook platform launched over a year ago, many observers of the new platform quickly realized that gaming was quickly becoming one of the most popular category of applications on the site. What appeared to be revolutionary about this new series of games was the turn-based model that was seamlessly integrated into the Facebook experience.

Once other platforms launched, this “new” genre of games quickly followed. At the time, I think many people were simply amazed at the sheer number of users playing extremely simple games like “Scrabulous” (which was recently shut down). What many began to realize was an explosion of casual gaming through which I believe the awareness of each others’ gaming activities was a catalyst for.

More recently I’ve been wondering about the concept of a “social games” segment as part of the general gaming industry. Prior to sharing my personal thoughts on the matter, I thought it would be best to give a general overview of social games and the companies behind them.

What are Social Games?

Within months of the platform there was an explosion of “social gaming” and soon enough, many people (including myself) were convinced that social games were the next big thing on social networks. So what exactly makes a social game different from other games? I believe that there are a few factors which differentiate social games from the others:

  • Turn-based – A social game is not social unless you are playing with another person. As such, social games enable users to take turns. Turn-based games are nothing new but in the current environment, turn-based takes on a new meaning. Keep in mind that turn-based is not a requirement, just a frequent feature found in “social games”.
  • Awareness of others’ actions in games – I honestly believe this was the catalyst for “social gaming.” When you could see in your news feed that your friend just bit another one of your friends to turn them into a vampire, suddenly there was social context, making you more likely to interact with the game.
  • Casual gaming – “Social gaming” is not really for so called “hardcore gamers”. As it is currently referred to, social gaming is for the average user and not for someone who plans on playing 24 hours a day. Then again, that may be an unexpected side effect.
  • Multiplayer – This is a no brainer. You can’t be social without there being other people so whether it’s two or two hundred users, the game has to be multiplayer for it to be social.
  • Based on Social Platforms – The final component that I believe typifies “social games” is that they are based around social platforms. In the context of social gaming, social platforms provide users with an identity and also can provide the backbone for simple forms of communication (such as notifications, etc).

So for the purpose of this article I’ll go ahead and put forth a definition of social games. As you will see toward the end of this article, there is still room for debate over whether or not such forms of classification are justified. So here is my best definition of social games:

Social games are a structured activity which has contextual rules through which users can engage with one another. Social games must be multiplayer and have one or more of the following features: turn-based, are based on social platforms for providing users with an identity and are casual.

What Are the Leading Companies Creating Social Games?

Since the launch of the Facebook platform a little over one year ago, a new set of companies have emerged to tackle the social gaming market. Each different in their approach, a number of companies have begun developing a wide range of games that target a broad audience of users. Below are a few of the leading companies that are involved in social gaming in one form or another. If I miss any, please feel free to let me know.

Zynga Gaming Network
I’ve written about Zynga a number of times on this blog. The company was started by Mark Pincus (who I previously did a podcast with) and really became a leader thanks to their Texas Hold’em game which now attracts over half a million users daily on Facebook and has close to 1 million total installs on MySpace (where active daily users are not publicly reported).

The company has raised a number of rounds of funding, the most recent one bringing in a whopping $29 million. Zynga is a company to keep you eye on as they have a killer set of investors and advisors and continue to grow at a steady pace.

Social Gaming Network
Social Gaming Network was founded by Shervin Pishevar and was an outgrowth of Webs.com (formerly Freewebs) after having a successful launch of what remains to be one of their cornerstone games: Warbook. Since the launch the company has raised a number of rounds of funding including a recent round from Jeff Bezos.

While the company has been building and acquiring games, making them the 4th largest network on Facebook in terms of installs, none of the games continue have the same sort of blockbuster quality that a number of Zynga’s games have. That’s not to say that this company is out of “the game” (pardon the pun), they are far from it.

This company definitely needs to start launching new games though. While speaking with Shervin Pishevar at last week at f8, it sounded like launching a number of new games on multiple platforms is part of the short-term game plan. With this company’s team of advisors and investors, there is a ton of potential moving forward.

When it comes to social gaming, Kongregate was in this space before it was defined “social gaming”. The company’s largest presence is their destination site but back in May the company made a play for building their presence on social platforms with the launch of the Kongregate Facebook platform. It doesn’t appear that their first attempt was highly successful but the destination site continues to attract a considerable amount of traffic.

Kongregate attracts a network of game developers and helps them promote their games through their site. The company also occasionally develops games of their own. So far their model has been effective at generating a substantial amount of traffic. Whether or not the company can translate that success onto social platforms has yet to be seen but as long as the company keeps innovating it doesn’t matter where they decide to position themselves.

Gaia Online
Gaia is one of the other large social gaming companies that doesn’t have a substantial presence on social networks. The company has developed a site in which users interact via their own custom avatars. Those avatars can then choose to participate in games, watch movies and simply participate in the community.

Playfish is a more recent company on the social platforms but they have a solid team of developers and management. The CEO of the company has a history in mobile gaming and is trying to convert his lessons learned to the social gaming sphere. Right now it looks like the company is doing an amazing job. They only have three games so far but each of them have over 200,000 active daily users and appear to be growing.

The company’s most popular game is Who Has the Biggest Brain? and it has been around for months as it continues to attract the attention of Facebook users. I’d keep your eye on this company as it looks like they have some big plans cooking.

Serious Business
Serious Business is best known for their immensely popular Friends for Sale application, written by Siqi Chen. The application was so popular that it has since been duplicated on the MySpace with great success by other companies that ripped off Siqi’s idea. One of those companies (or individuals) now has the most popular application on Facebook.

The company became serious about social gaming when they raised $4 million from Lightspeed Venture Partners back in April. They have yet to release a second game yet but if the second game is anywhere near as popular as their first one, this company could become a serious force to be reckoned with. They already have the 9th most popular application on Facebook so the company has a lot of opportunity to extend that success to future projects.

Are Social Games Really That Much Different?

One key thing that I’ve been trying to determine over the past couple weeks is if “social games” should really be granted their own category. While there is a new set of companies that have emerged as a direct result of the opening of social platforms, most social games mimic the features that make other multiplayer games successful.

Personally, the launch of the iPhone has transformed my idea of “social games”. There are now a number of games that I can play at dinner with my friends and family such as Connect Four, Tic Tac Toe and a number of others, all of which I would consider “social games”. While the users I’m playing against may be physically present and don’t have an identity tied to an online social network, it’s inherently a social activity.

As such, I believe that the “social gaming” networks will slowly begin to mimic traditional gaming companies and simply become part of the group. Those that don’t adapt quickly will slowly drift into oblivion while those that do adapt will quickly become leaders in the gaming industry, not just in this newly created category of “social games”.

Do you believe that social games deserve their own category? How would you define social games? Is there any important points that I missed?

Recommended articles