Social gaming picks up momentum
Social gaming picks up momentum
Ellen Lee, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008
Social Gaming. Chronicle graphic by Tracy Cox
Once a day or so, Marcus Segal will take a break from his job at a San Mateo technology company, nibble on a sandwich and fire up a three-minute online game of Scramble.
And because he's playing the word game on Facebook, he can connect and challenge his far-flung friends, including his friend's mother, who is in her 60s, and his former Boggle partner in New York.
"It allows me to stay in touch with friends all around the country through a simple game," said Segal, 36. Plus, he said, "It's better for your brain than watching 'Celebrity Fit Club' or whatever."
Online casual games like poker and puzzles have long drawn their share of fans. One study by Park Associates, a research firm, estimated that 34 percent of U.S. adult Internet users play online games weekly.
But as it has with other activities, the social-networking phenomenon is introducing a new layer to gaming.
The combination of social networking and games, known as social gaming, is presenting online games to users who have never bothered to play or were turned off from their earlier experiences. It is also opening doors to new kinds of games, building on the social and connected nature of sites such as MySpace and Facebook.
The momentum has been building since last year, when Palo Alto's Facebook started to allow outside developers to design programs for the popular social-networking site, kicking off a trend that has inspired thousands of applications, from photo slide shows to virtual gifts. Other social networks quickly followed suit, with Google, Yahoo, MySpace and others teaming up to form OpenSocial, a move to simplify the process for developers so they can create programs that run on multiple networks.
Games have become some of the most popular applications to be introduced. While some programs have quickly flamed out, games have drawn repeat users who keep coming back for more. And, games have steadily amassed new recruits as players invite their friends.
Unlike traditional online casual games, users playing inside a social network aren't competing against strangers who happen to be online at the same time, but against their friends. It's a significant distinction: Segal said he had tried playing backgammon online in the past, but didn't have a good experience. If he played well, his opponents sometimes would just abandon the game and disappear. That doesn't happen among his friends.
Social gaming has become yet another means to keep in touch.
"It delivers the message, 'I'm thinking about you' without having to think of something to say," said Jeremy Liew, a general partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, who has blogged extensively about social gaming. "You can't always instant message (your friends) or write to them, but playing games with them is one way of expressing that they're important to you."
Buy a friend a drink
Some games are starting to take advantage of the network's inherent social element. Zynga Game Network, a San Francisco startup from entrepreneur Mark Pincus, introduced a feature in its Texas HoldEm Poker that lets players give chips to their friends and use their chips to buy their friends a virtual drink. On the first day two weeks ago, players sent drinks to each other 200,000 times, Pincus said.
San Francisco startup Serious Business, founded by 23-year-old Alexander Le and 24-year-old Siqi Chen, believes that a new genre of games could be mined from tapping into social networks.
In November, the duo created Friends for Sale, now one of Facebook's most popular games with nearly 700,000 daily players. Users buy, sell and own their friends, as though their friends were pets or stocks. Owners can control their acquisitions, forcing them to do or say things, as well as sell them and turn a profit. Those being bought and sold are also part of the game, going up and down in value.
The game has become especially popular among Facebook's crowd of users in their 20s.
People are game pieces
The idea, said Chen, is to develop games that make people the game pieces. Here, winning is not necessarily about developing the best aim or reflexes or driving the fastest car. "We can make games where the pieces are people instead of plastic, abstract things," said Chen. "You succeed at the game based on how good you are at social skills, like bluffing or negotiation."
One of the earliest successes, Scrabulous, a type of Scrabble game developed by two brothers in India, demonstrated that players did not need to take part in the game at the same time, a factor that has opened possibilities and freedom for online games.
That's a component that has become popular among other social games. In Ghost Racer, a simplified car racing game from Zynga much like Electronic Arts' Need for Speed, one person can race around the track and then challenge a friend. That person can race at a different time, chasing the ghost of the friend's car.
"My games are for people who don't have time for games," Pincus said. "I don't make games for gamers."
Many of the most popular social games have taken established games such as Scrabble, Risk, Boggle and Battleship and moved them inside the social networks. They also have been inspired by console, role-playing and massive multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft.
It hasn't been without controversy. Scrabulous, which has nearly 700,000 daily active users on Facebook, landed in hot water because of its close connection to Hasbro's Scrabble, which has a licensing agreement with EA. RJ Software, the company behind Scrabulous, is in discussions with Hasbro, said co-creator Jayant Agarwalla.
EA said it plans to introduce a free online social-network Scrabble game for North America in the near future and to tap into other Hasbro brands.
But not all games are copies. San Mateo's Rock You turned one of its early Facebook applications, Vampires, into a role-playing game as it added elements such as the ability to pit vampires against werewolves.
Social Gaming Network, whose games include War Book, spun off from Freewebs earlier this year and started operating in Palo Alto this month.
"We're in the Pong stages of social gaming," said Shervin Pishevar, CEO of Social Gaming. "In terms of building new ideas, you should expect to see innovation for what it means to be a game and tap into the social graph, the people you enjoy playing games with."
Make it exciting
The challenge for developers is that Facebook members are not necessarily looking to play games when they sign onto the site, said Jim Greer, CEO of Kongregate and the former technical director of EA's casual games site, Pogo. To draw them in, the games need to be easy to learn and start, but also exciting enough to encourage users to return.
If they're successful, it could also expose users to more intense or complicated games on other sites, he added.
Most social games, like other applications, depend on advertising for revenue. Agarwalla, for instance, said that Scrabulous draws about $20,000 a month in advertising. Some games are also branching out into other forms of payment. On Ghost Racer, users can spend $20 to upgrade their car so they can race faster.
"We're in the early phases," Liew said. "Companies have been formed in the last few months and there is a lot of innovation still to come."
Top 10 games on Facebook
-- Friends for Sale
-- Texas HoldEm Poker
-- Compare People
-- (Lil) Green Patch
-- Speed Racing
-- CBSSports.com The Official Tournament Brackets
-- Who Has the Biggest Brain?
-- (fluff) Friends
E-mail Ellen Lee at firstname.lastname@example.org.