Analysis: The rise and rise of social gaming

Graham Harvey, CEO of social software and technology company Huzutech discusses social gaming and the role it plays in the communications mix.

Social gaming is a bubble. It’s an anomaly, an exception and an affront to the proper, real games market. It’ll never last. The tens of millions of people now playing Famville, sending chicken welfare requests, or asking for embassy jobs in Empires & Allies will all grow up, realise they’re wasting their time and go and do... something else.

Probably.

The problem is that the growth in social networking, the huge evolution in the activities which now fall under the social banner and the new opportunities, communities and business opportunities is all quite unprecedented. Basing speculation on the dot com bubble, or the cyclical nature of the games industry doesn’t capture the fundamental changes that social networking has wrought on Internet users.

Social networking has changed the way people use the Internet. Typing in a URL and visiting a web page is so... 2008. Having information pushed to your personalised wall, feed or circle - from trusted contacts - means that people are using their social channels as the hub of their online lives.

Similarly, the convenience, access and requests from friends, family and contacts to a wide variety of games, makes it faster, simpler and far more likely that people who would never, ever pick up a joypad or buy an Xbox will, at some point, try one of these games and once you’re in, it can be hard to quit.

The huge boom in gaming, the recent acquisition of casual game heroes Popcap by the traditional games publisher Electronic Arts (EA) or the valuation of Farmville/Cityvill developer Zynga at over $1Bn may indeed be some kind of transitory effect, or youthful high spirits of an industry sector on the up, but the growth in social networking and the growing access to games are not going to vanish any time soon.

Looking at the most popular apps on Facebook or downloaded from the Apple or Android Apps stores and you’ll see that games are far and away the most popular type of service. More and more people are discovering that gaming, far from being a complicated, expensive and time consuming process, can now be fitted into a spare five minutes, involve friends and not, necessarily involve space marines.

Regardless of the specific platform, social networking is here to stay. Facebook numbers may be hotly debated, discussed and pored over, but like Bebo and MySpace in the recent past, there will always be a new challenger on the horizon. Google’s recent success with Plus (18m users at the time of writing, in a little over two weeks).

Consumer expectations for social networks have now been raised beyond the status updates/photo sharing and groups common to most and many users now expect games, apps and additional interactive elements as a standard part of their experience.

Games are now firmly a part of this experience. They’re fun. They let people compete, collaborate and play. Unless mankind changes in a fairly fundamental way at some point soon, social gaming isn’t going anywhere.

Which is not to say there won’t be big changes in the near future. This is a very young, volatile and emerging market.

Titles like Famville, Bejewelled Blitz and Mafia Wars may have attracted huge numbers of users, but the game mechanics, business models and links into the social network are in many cases a little simplistic or even crude.

Free-to-play, freemium, subscriptions, downloadable content, advertising funded and a variety of other business models are now all being used by several social games. Integration into the social networks and community elements are also being explored, tried, trialled and tested by different developers and in different combinations. From simple high score tables and direct competition, through to in-game collaboration, community and requests - the entire nature of social gaming is changing, evolving and maturing.

The actual games and ‘experiences’ are undergoing a similar sea change. It’s only a matter of months since the cutting edge of social gaming was ‘buying’ your friends profiles on Facebook, or receiving a message telling you your vampire had been attacked. The advances and far more sophisticated experiences most games now offer, are only an indication of what’s possible and shows the sheer variety of titles which are likely to emerge in the near future. From simple, two minute cartoony, casual fun, through to massively multiplayer, persistent online universes and all points in between, social networks (yes, plural) are going to be the most popular, ubiquitous and diverse games platforms of the 21st century.

All of the old definitions and boundaries are blurring and disappearing. Console games, mobile games and casual games are all likely to become simply aspects of larger ‘meta’ gaming experiences, which different players (and different types of player) can take part in entirely different types of ‘game’, differently on different platforms. It promises to be... different.

Similarly, the roles of developers, publishers, intellectual property and brand owners and even players are all becoming far less rigid and well defined. Users are starting to build their own levels and content. Brand owners are starting to create their own experiences and developers and publishers are now so interchangeable we probably need a new word (Develisher?)

All of which makes talk of a ‘bubble’ increasingly ludicrous. If Facebook disappears tomorrow, social gaming will continue. If Google+ takes every last user from Twitter, social gaming will grow and prosper. If MySpace makes a deathbed recovery and starts pulling in users like a viral video featuring kittens, then it’s all good news for the social gaming side of things.

It’s clear that within the next five years that social gaming will be an enormous global phenomenon. How we get there, well, that promises to be the interesting and unusual part.

In the meantime, join the new network, play the games and enjoy...

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