Socially Acceptable

There's more to social gaming than Facebook, and developers are seizing the opportunity to mix the old with the new.


World of Warcraft
Dead Space
Dead Space 2

There's no question that traditional console gaming still accounts for the bulk of the video game industry's focus, but with development budgets reaching well into the millions even in the twilight of the current console life cycle, the financial risk of producing a blockbuster game--with a few exceptions--has never been higher. Something has to change or the level of consolidation and closures we've seen among publishers, developers, and other facets of the industry will be far greater than it is now.

But if what various industry luminaries had to say at this year's Design Innovate Communicate and Entertain (DICE) Summit is any indication, that change has already happened, or at the very least, there's a recognized need to embrace a change in philosophy that no longer puts traditional console and PC gaming in an adversarial relationship with social and mobile smartphone gaming. The new philosophy paints the relationship as a symbiotic one where these markets ultimately benefit each other and, in the process, elevate each other's visibility in a crowded market place.

In his presentation at DICE on the myths of mobile games, EA Mobile vice president Travis Boatman specifically pointed to the iOS version of EA's Dead Space, which found success in the same market where games like Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja dominate despite Dead Space's traditional structure. While Boatman says that this is evidence of a healthy hardcore gaming audience in the phone and tablet space, there's actually something much greater at work.

By virtue of its success and word of mouth espousing its quality, Dead Space suddenly became a known property to untold numbers of people previously unfamiliar with its origins. If there's even the slightest possibility that an original, mobile Dead Space game served as an incentive for a consumer to go out and buy Dead Space 2 or its predecessor, then the symbiotic relationship has already proven its value for a franchise that doesn't have the immediate name recognition of a Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty.

On a basic level, this relationship is an advertising gimmick, but it's a good one because of what it's advertising and the massive audience it's reaching. Since the mobile Dead Space game so closely resembles its console counterparts, EA (as well as those familiar with the property) can confidently state, "If you want to experience more Dead Space, then you should really consider purchasing Dead Space 2 or the original Dead Space." If the iOS Dead Space didn't accurately re-create the experiences found in those games, then the built-in description disappears along with an audience that doesn't have the inclination to read about their fundamental differences.

As Boatman further noted in his DICE presentation, console-like experiences can coexist with smaller, "bite-sized" games traditionally found in various app stores. This is an important realization because it encourages smaller developers--overwhelmed by the big budgets of console development--to not only become active participants in the mobile landscape, but also take part in a similar relationship emerging between mobile and console services like Xbox Live Arcade and the PlayStation Network.

The way "social" functions in this new philosophy is simple in some ways. Friends typically help drive sales of games when they recommend them to friends, and people generally prefer playing with people they know as opposed to AI. It gets more complicated when trying to explain where the social experience really begins. What is the seed that causes friends to take notice of various exploits and ultimately make the decision to join in the process, thus growing the social experience?

In her DICE panel called "Creating Blockbuster IP for Generation C," Ubisoft's Jade Raymond used the analogy of playing poker in the Old West, when people would use it as a social activity and also a public demonstration of skill. For modern games, the same holds true. Part of what makes World of Warcraft so successful is that it incorporates the social element while simultaneously giving its players something to show for their time investment. This also applies to games like FarmVille, where people can play with their friends while showing off their plot of land, and competitive multiplayer games like Call of Duty, which spawn their own competitive social groups.

Still, it's the success of FarmVille and Zynga's other Facebook games that has largely defined social gaming over the past few years--due in no small part to establishing the social networking site as a viable gaming platform. But even now, that's changing. Traditional publishers and developers are working to bring versions of their games to Facebook or at least create some kind of gateway game that introduces their intellectual properties to a brand-new audience via your friends and their in-game experiences. It might sound a little devious, but in reality, this is what gaming has always been about.

Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Lifetime Achievement Award winner Bing Gordon summed it up best in his acceptance speech at DICE when he said, "Legendary relationships can be created because the stickiest game mechanic is people."

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