There’s a Facebook group called ‘You can fuck off with your fucking Zombies’ whose title alone sums up the feelings of many people about the emerging Facebook games market. They’re short-lived novelties. They’re only marginally more interactive than the poking feature. They’re annoying as hell.
But y’know what? Facebook’s vampires, pirates and ninjas say more about how gaming will evolve in the next five years than any bloated military-themed Xbox 360 first-person shooter; than any rush-job PS2-to-PSP port; than any so-so mobile game based on a movie.
These various games platforms aren’t dying, as such. They’ll continue to mine their separate niches (and before you start spouting console sales figures at me, tell me what proportion of the overall population that is). But none of them are a tenth as interesting as the connected social games we’re going to see on Facebook, OpenSocial and other online platforms in the coming years.
Let me tell you about one particular Facebook application, called Tower Bloxx (yes, I’ve praised it here before). The game involves building a tower by clicking to drop one block at a time, as they sway from a crane. It started life as a mobile game based on that core concept. But on Facebook, there’s a new element, where it tracks the scores of your Facebook friends.
As your tower goes up and you pass their scores, you see their mugshots at the side of the game window, before seeing your ranking in a league table format when you eventually crash out of the game. It’s those photos that are the key thing here: you find yourself coming back again and again with the sole aim of securing bragging rights. And, of course, your Facebook friends are notified when you post a new high score, tempting them to come back in.
Tower Bloxx isn’t hugely popular yet on Facebook – it currently has just over 34,000 users – but other games are going down a storm. There are more than 573,000 active users of Scrabulous, many of whom are playing two or three games at a time against friends. Music app iLike has more than 550,000 active users, and has rolled out a simple ‘guess the song’ music game, which again tracks your score compared to friends.
This blend of gaming and connectivity is the future, not least because it’s piggybacking on your wider social network, not the narrow subset of friends with the same console and game as you. There is no barrier to entry other than a Facebook profile, and a computer that doesn’t judder in the face of Flash content.
And this is just the start of it. Developers are still in the early days of figuring out what can be done with Facebook – and that’s just one platform. Google’s recently announced OpenSocial initiative will (theoretically) make it easy to code a social game that runs seamlessly over many social networks. MySpace has announced plans to launch its own casual gaming section, which will tie into user profiles.
I think we’re going to see a brain drain of the most innovative game developers away from console, handheld and mobile, and towards social web games. There’s more freedom to experiment and innovate, and the focus is away from technology, and towards pure gameplay – even when that gameplay is nothing like existing genres or formats.
The social gaming market isn’t being driven by companies pimping their 3D processors or technology. It’s not controlled by retailers or mobile operators with their commercial imperatives. It’s not dominated by people trying to copy whatever Nintendo did last year (not yet, anyway). And it’s a world away from the endless fanboy willy-waving over whose console is best or who’s losing the most money.
I’m not a cheerleader: there are challenges in social gaming. Nobody knows how to make money out of these games yet, since nobody pays to play a Facebook application, and many traditional online advertising formats are intrusive in this context. There’s also already a lot of rubbish out there, and more will follow in the coming months, presenting a challenge of how to find the good stuff. There will doubtless be some dreadful Facebook advergames.
But that doesn’t obscure my main point. Think about games that really changed the face of interactive entertainment – that represented a significant step on from what had gone before, and changed the way people played. The games equivalents of punk, disco and rave in the history of music, I mean.
You can argue for days whether Doom, Super Mario Bros, Tetris, World Of Warcraft, Brain Training with Dr. Kawashima, Halo or Wii Sports deserve to be counted in that list. But I’m telling you that the next one; the next title that’s a true paradigm shift in gaming, won’t be on a console or handheld device. It’ll be on a social network.
Stuart Dredge is editor-in-chief of Tech Digest. He spends more time memorising two-letter words for Scrabulous than playing on is PS3 these days.
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