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Spectacular growth in online social gaming is prompting companies such as Google to enter the market and developers to rethink how they design video games.
The trend is seeing the social network Facebook emerge as the world’s biggest gaming platform. It is closing on 200m active members and its most popular application installed by users is a game - Texas Hold ’em poker - played by 11m people.
Pet Society, where players create pets and their homes and exercise and care for them with friends, is even more popular on a daily basis. It has 9m players, with more than 60 per cent of them returning every day to look after their creatures.
The leading publishers on Facebook are San Francisco’s Zynga and London-based Playfish, which developed Pet Society and has grown the audience for its games stable from zero to 60m players over the past 18 months.
Kristian Segerstråle, chief executive of Playfish, says social gaming is more like the social interactions around kicking a ball in a park than the experience of a traditional console video game.
”The emotional driver for you to play is not the kind of fight or flight emotions which tend to happen between you and the screen on consoles, but the much more powerful emotions of you and your real-world friends,” Mr Segerstråle says.
”It can be competition, cooperation, expression, communication, just like in real-world games.”
Social gaming was a hot topic at the recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
”The biggest shift is that, in the past, most of the social gaming has been with people that you don’t know, with Facebook that’s completely changed,” said Brian Fargo, a game developer.
He described a bowling game on Facebook where he can see all of his friends and their high scores.
”I want to play now because I want to beat them. The social dynamic of knowing the people out there really changes things for me,” he said.
”So you’re saying that we’ve found a way to monetise peer pressure,” responded Will Wright, creator of The Sims and Spore.
Online gaming on services such as Microsoft’s Xbox Live, which has 17m members worldwide, or PC casual gaming destinations such as Pogo or Big Fish, generally takes place between strangers.
”Social gaming is the new casual,” says Michael Cai, video game analyst at the Interpret research firm, referring to the previous hot trend.
”If the casual gaming portals don ’t pay attention and take action as their audience migrates to some of these social gaming platforms then they are going to lose their business for sure.”
Some casual gaming services are developing their own social networking features to try to compete, but they are also suffering as their developers realise they can make games more cheaply and reach bigger audiences on Facebook.
While Apple takes a 30 per cent cut of sales of games on its iPhone, Facebook is not charging developers anything for the 5,000 games that appear on the social network, mainly because the games are initially free and the service is focused on expanding its user base.
”Down the line, when you look at 200m, 500m, 1bn users, the opportunities available there for users and developers on Facebook are just astronomical, so we’re really building towards that future,” says Gareth Davis, Facebook platform manager for games.
The service does make some money from ads placed alongside the games, but the publishers can also make money from ads, sponsorship and sales of virtual goods, such as clothes and furniture for pets. Playfish offers premium versions of games such as Who Has The Biggest Brain? and has ported a version over to the iPhone.
Using Facebook Connect technology, which enables social gaming to be extended across different devices, players can use their social networking identities in the iPhone game and play with Facebook friends there as well.
Playfish will also launch its brain game on Google’ s iGoogle service shortly. Google is following Facebook’s lead but is using the OpenSocial standard, which allows users to play against each other across different social networks such as Bebo and MySpace.
Mr Segerstråle says the challenge for developers is to understand how users have different expectations across different social networks. They must also design games in new ways.
”It’s not the story that we want to tell as game developers that’s important anymore, it’s being able to design an environment in which players can interact and express themselves and tell their own story,” he says.