The Future of Gaming: Social Games

We take a look at the future of gaming in three parts: 3D, Social Gaming, and DLC.

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Where does the future of gaming lie? Will we all be rocking games in 3D? Will all our game purchases be over the Internet? And will social games take over from more "core" titles? In this three-part feature, GameSpot looks at three topics that promise to change the way we play games. Presented over the course of three weeks, The Future of Gaming will look at the rise of 3D titles, the increasing importance of downloadable content, and social gaming's impact on the games industry. Contributing to the feature are some of the biggest names in games development, who all share their thoughts, aspirations, and reservations about the impact of these three topics in the years to come. The last topic presented is The Future of Gaming: Social Gaming.

Read The Future of Gaming: 3D here and The Future of Gaming: DLC here.

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Social gaming can mean different things to different people. Some associate the term with the overnight success of Facebook applications like FarmVille, Mafia Wars, and Restaurant City; others see social gaming as any system or software that allows for, and encourages, social interaction between players. Whichever way you look at it, social gaming is here to stay.

Deus Ex and Epic Mickey creator Warren Spector opened PAX last week with a keynote address calling for gamers to accept the shift happening in the industry towards casual and social games. Spector said that "games are important" and that gamers must be ready to welcome the idea that gaming has become mainstream in order for the medium to move forward.

So how do developers feel about this shift? Do they see it as a threat or an opportunity? Should social games remain outside the gaming industry, or should developers embrace the change and work towards attracting a larger gaming audience? If the Facebook model is anything to go by, the market potential is huge--not only do millions of people get out of bed every morning to plough their virtual farms, but they’re willing to spend money doing it. In their very short lifetime, social game developers like Zynga and Playfish have made millions, leading many industry analysts to predict that the future of gaming lies somewhere between the current games industry model and the one presented by social gaming.

Social games allow users to develop a virtual identity--be it as a farmer, a mafia leader, or a restaurant owner--and expand this identity through other user interaction; this keeps users coming back to interact not just with the game itself but also with other users within it. As more and more users sign up, the phenomenon becomes viral. The question developers are now asking themselves is how will the social gaming boom change the way we play video games? Could shooting bad guys in postapocalyptic wastelands be one day replaced by milking cattle on a farm?

A new gaming audience

A lot of people play social games. A March 2010 report by European investment bank GP Bullhound titled Social Gaming: The Fastest Growing Segment of The Games Market found that the global social gaming sector made $1 billion in revenue in 2009, representing 2 percent of the $50 billion global games market. This number is expected to rise to $3 billion by 2012.

The key players in this rapidly rising industry are social game developers like Zynga, Playfish, Crowdstar, and PopCap, whose games have become viral sensations on Facebook. Titles like FarmVille, Mafia Wars, Cafe World, PetVille, Pet Society, and Restaurant City are consistent record-breakers, reeling in more users each day. Zynga is currently the dominant force in the social games sector, with over 66.4 million active daily users and 42 social games available on Facebook (FarmVille alone boasts more than 30 million daily active users). Trailing Zynga are Playfish/EA, with 10.3 million active daily users and 30 Facebook games, and Crowdstar, with 9.4 million active daily users and 12 Facebook games.

Social game developers make money through the all-too-familiar microtransactions model: a free-to-play business model that relies on users paying small amounts of money for virtual goods and in-game items. The more popular social games can generate between $2,000 and $5,000 in revenue per day--in 2009 alone, Zynga made around $150 million in revenue from its Facebook applications.

The decline of MySpace has led to Facebook becoming the dominant platform for social gaming, with some 400 million active users expected to grow to 800 million in the next few years. According to a recent study by the Information Services Group, the average social gamer is a 43-year-old female--a potential new market to reach for current game developers.

THQ's WWE All Stars creative director Sal DiVita believes that anything with the potential to attract more people to gaming is good for the industry.

"It's good for gaming in general," DiVita said. "Social gaming is attracting an audience that's never had the means or desire to pick up and play a console game. But they do play social games. And hey, maybe they'll graduate to a console or PC. It's up to us, the game developers, to make better and better games to compete with social games and draw in this new audience. Or make them simple enough for the social gamers to play."

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Company of Heroes Online is embracing the free-to-play microtransactions model of social games.

Company of Heroes Online producer Greg Wilson says Relic is very aware of the importance of the viral community. The downloadable, free-to-play online installment of Relic's highly regarded WWII real-time strategy series will in fact be driven by the microtransactions model, with players allowed to purchase special units and upgrades as an alternative to earning them.

"I think social gaming is a great opportunity for developers," Wilson said. "There's opportunity to learn within that space. I think it's introducing the world of games to new people that aren't gamers. That's a whole new generation of people who are now exposed to the things that we are passionate about. As game developers we're missing a big part of the potential market. It's like McDonald's--everyone likes it, but then you get sick of it eventually and you want a steak. Our games are the steak that people will hopefully trend towards. We're looking at those people that are playing Facebook games and social games and they're going to get more and more interested and see that gaming is something cool and fun, and eventually they'll want to look for a little bit more. When this happens, they'll look towards our games. So I'm super excited about that."

The new Mortal Kombat is also set to dip its toe into the social market. The game's producer, Hector Sanchez, says the social aspect of gaming helps bring back the essence of the arcade days.

"Social gaming is bringing the community back together. With Mortal Kombat, we're going to have a Twitter feed that will broadcast match results, and we're also hoping to have Facebook integration as well as a robust online mode that brings back the essence of the arcade days. That was social gaming in those days--people went to the arcade to play together. That's where it began. We're trying for the same feeling with our online mode. I think we as game developers need to incorporate more and more social aspects into our games."

A tale of two markets

With so much money to be made in social gaming, it's not surprising that more game developers are looking for a way in. The idea is certainly attractive: social games cost significantly less time and money to develop than console or PC games and present a much lower risk to developers who are working on new intellectual property. Where a AAA title can cost anywhere up to $100 million to develop, an average social game costs $100,000 to $200,000 and can be developed in less than six months. If more developers begin to experiment with this model, a consolidation of the current games market and the social games market could occur in the next few years.

Some developers are not receptive to this idea. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier producer Stuart White sees social gaming as a threat to developers and the industry.

"At the end of the day it's about competing for free time from the player. Over the years my free time has become more precious--I have a wife, kids, a house to run, etc. Facebook and other social media eats into this time, meaning there's less and less of it. Some developers see social gaming as an opportunity, but at the end of the day we're all fighting for the free time of our consumers. We as developers have to make sure the game industry still knows how to keep people's attention."

DJ Hero 2 creative director Jamie Jackson disagrees. He believes game developers should embrace social gaming and evolve with it.

"Social gaming is one of the biggest things to happen to the games industry in the past five years. We were all geeks as kids, and now you look up and you see your mum and dad playing social games. It's the social side of this that has brought people to gaming. I don't see it going away. I think it's a huge opportunity, and I think we as game developers have to grab it, and we have to feed people the games that fit that bracket well."

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DJ Hero 2 creative director Jamie Jackson believes the social side of gaming has brought in new audiences.

Mike Fegan from Trickstar Games in Melbourne says he is interested in something else that social gaming can give the games industry at large: female consumers.

"It's a huge opportunity for game creators. The female market is huge, especially in the social networking arena. This means we have the chance to create new IP suited to this market and make a game driven by viral marketing and other users. I think a lot of people underestimate the female market. Trickstar is strongly committed to creating games for this market, particularly through a network like Facebook."

Spec Ops: The Line lead designer Cory Davis sees social gaming becoming part of AAA gaming in the future.

"This needs to happen. Why can't we be more social in the midst of playing a narrative-driven AAA shooter? I think there will definitely be opportunities there when we connect these two spaces together. We as an industry have to evolve, and if people love that sort of thing, and they clearly do, these two things can come together, and I think they will over the next two years." Will social gaming change the future of games? Let us know by leaving your comments below!

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