Social Animals

Social networking promises huge changes to how we play games.

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Everyone understands that social networking is one of the most important consumer trends of the past five years. Different networks may rise and fall in popularity - with Facebook presently still ascending while MySpace's star wanes, for example - but social networking itself is an inexorable force.

Many people within the games space feel, intuitively, that there must be a way of marrying social networking and videogames together. The connections between the two are obvious, after all. The demographic is roughly the same, with the age and income groups which embrace Facebook corresponding closely to those that most often play videogames.

Social network users play some games - witness the success of titles like Mafia Wars, Pet Society or the perennial favourite Bejeweled on Facebook. Game players do some social networking, too. What are Xbox Live and PSN if not rudimentary social networks? All logic suggests that there must be a way to bring the two worlds closer together, to integrate games and social networks in a way that makes both experiences better.

Even the platform holders are excited about the potential for social networking to tie into games. At E3, Microsoft proudly announced integration of Facebook, music network Last.fm and Twitter with Xbox Live. The latter pair are fairly irrelevant, admittedly. Last.fm is solely a music service, while Twitter isn't actually a social network at all - it's a one-to-many broadcast system, which isn't quite the same thing.

Despite the noise around Microsoft's announcement, Sony is actually quite far down this path already. The PS3's OS includes the ability to capture in-game videos and post them directly to YouTube, which is arguably more interesting than having a cut-down Facebook site on your console. However, I'd argue that neither company is remotely close to tapping into the genuine potential of social networks and gaming. They're not even scratching the surface; rather, they're scrabbling slightly desperately at the surface with blunt fingernails.

The breakthrough in this space, and the real profitability, will not come from anything as straighforward as putting social network access onto a device. Rather, it's going to require very clever designers and businessmen to sit down and think about how people interact with game consoles, how they interact with social networks and online services, and how those interactions can be built into gameplay systems.

Some developers already do rudimentary things with Facebook which are incredibly powerful at driving re-visits to games. PopCap's Bejeweled updates you when your score is beaten by a friend, and allows you to send taunting messages directly to friends whose scores you have just passed. Several of the "virtual pet" games reward you for visiting the pets of your friends and interacting with them every day. Games like Mafia Wars organise friends into "families" who encourage each other to continue playing, since the group advances more quickly when everyone contributes.

These are simple examples, but Facebook developers are already finding that they can drive their unique user figures into the millions. Remarkably few videogames achieve this kind of sustained return-visit appeal - but with business models in flux and developers increasingly thinking about microtransaction, subscription and advertising-based revenue models, sustaining return-visit numbers ought to be high on the agenda of any good game designer.

What, then, are the key lessons that social networking is already teaching? The first, quite simply, is about reach. Despite big talk over the past decade, developers still haven't quite worked out how to make videogame experiences jump off the console and follow you around.

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