Social Games: Same Meat Different Gravy?

One of the biggest trends on the Internet over the past 3 years has been the rise of social games. Much of Facebook’s growth came from these games, and some of the biggest and most valuable Internet companies are social game companies. But are social games really something new? And what kind of social games can we expect in the future?

The revolution in gaming is that the most popular online games are now social games. There is a different game play at work that allows you to play not only against your friends but also with your friends, in an environment that is less time consuming than traditional MMO games. Most people don’t realise this, but the concepts of these games are actually not new. The theme and basic game play of many games are very similar to that of games that were popular before the first social game was even invented.

To illustrate this, take a look at the most popular social games and compare these to (former) top downloadable games. Many of these turn out to be very similar. Zynga’s hit title Cityville is almost a copy of The Sims, where you also need to build and manage your own city. The Cafe World genre is based on the popular Diner Dash titles where you run a cafe or restaurant. Farmville games are based on the farm genre that has been around since the mid-1990s. And some of Playdom’s popular titles are just hidden object games, the kind of game that has been very popular with women for almost a decade.

The games itself are not that different, the main change is that they are now much more social. A social layer was put on top of existing games so that you can play with your friends as well, either in a competitive way or by helping them. Going away from competitiveness is important, because it turns out that many women don’t really want to play competitive games. They like to play with their friends, but not always against them. Game play is more about communication than about competition.

Traditionally games have always been social, think about most board games. Those are normally games that you play with your friends or family, not games that you play on your own. Social games appeal to us because human beings are social animals that prefer to play with other people instead of only playing alone. For a long time that was not possible with downloadable games on a PC, but the Internet made it possible to play with people again.

For the future of social games that means that it’s unlikely that many new themes will suddenly appear, most of the famous download games have been made into social games already. The social layer may become more advanced and graphics will likely get better, but I don’t expect a whole genre of new games to suddenly appear. Likely more simple casual games will be transformed into social games, something you now already see with games that popular games such as Bejeweled (made by Popcap). Also you will see that traditional single player flash games get a social layer on top, so that you can post your high scores and compare your results with your friends. Spil Games is adding these features to all of its new flash games for example, not only on the web but also for mobile games.

The biggest change for social games will likely be that they will be played on a mobile device (phone or tablet) instead of on a PC or laptop. This will change some elements of the game play (touch vs. keyboard/mouse) but it can also add a location based element. That may lead to some interesting new ideas in which real world locations can be used in social games (Foursquare meets Cityville anyone?).

Concluding, social games are quite similar to traditional popular download titles and it is not likely that complete new genres will appear soon. More likely existing casual games will get social functions and many of the future popular games will be played on mobile devices. There the innovation will take place, not in the game themes.

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