Less killing, more kissing: new breed of computer games bring people together


Platforms take lead from sites such as Facebook and emphasise social interaction



A new generation of designers and developers is putting the social element back into video games, using online networks such as Facebook as platforms to turn people from across the world into poker aces, boffins and the proud and sometimes obsessive owners of virtual pets.

These new games give people the ability to play with their friends rather than strangers, which has sent usage through the roof.

Facebook is already seeing over 2bn minutes of game play a month, and the longer people stay online the more chance the game's developer and the network itself have to make money out of them, most obviously through advertising.

Investors have spotted the opportunity of social gaming and even as the economic climate turns chilly they have been putting funds into these businesses. Though most social networks have their roots, or at least owners, on the west coast of the US, one of the most successful social gaming companies is based in Britain.

Using bright colours, animated characters and addictive quizzes, Playfish has already attracted 25 million registered users in its one year of existence. It is responsible for four of the top 10 games played by Facebook users worldwide, including Who Has the Biggest Brain? in which players compete to solve maths and memory problems.

The first wave of social network games were essentially variations of tag and were based very much on the initial excitement of social networks - ie, who can get the most friends. They allowed players to "bite" or "tag" their friends to turn them into zombies or vampires and the person who did that to the most people was the winner, of sorts. In stark contrast, the second generation of social games is more friendly and collaborative - in the same way as many Facebook users now value the quality of their online friendships instead of merely measuring their online success by quantity.

In Playfish's highly popular Pet Society, for instance, players design and decorate their own homes, visit friends nearby and earn points not by killing but by kissing them. Pet Society has more than 3 million members - it grew 30% in October alone.

In the same month, Kidnap! went from nowhere to 2.5 million players. Context Optional, a social network marketing group, built Kidnap! for the Travel Channel as a marketing tool. The rather more traditional Texas Hold'Em Poker, by Zynga, meanwhile, has attracted almost 6 million players.

"We have added a vital new element to games - namely your friends," said Kristian Segerstrale, chief executive of Playfish. "That's not possible on any kind of console."

He reckons the gaming industry is being reinvented by social networking. "Competition is great but to create social interactions - not about who is better but about social emotions - is much more complex ... it involves status and emotions. For the first time, games are where you hang out. This is a much broader audience."

Geography fun

Many Playfish games also have an educational element. The company's latest release, Geo Challenge, requires users to memorise flags, learn the location of cities and guess a country's identity from its shape.

"Our guiding thought and vision was to transform video games from something sad that you do by yourself into something social and fun for everyone. We started on Facebook because it was the easiest, most mature platform."

Of course, it has been possible to connect a computer to the internet and play a game with other people for a long time. Multi-player platforms such as World of Warcraft have been phenomenally successful and Microsoft has tried for years to persuade people to put their Xbox consoles online and interact with other gamers. But players have essentially been variants on the theme of teenage boys in their bedrooms.

Nintendo has been one of the most successful in moving gaming out of the bedroom into the living room by widening its appeal. The advertising for its Wii console and handheld DS device is based around family and collaborative gaming.

Whereas rival technology firms such as Sony and Panasonic have warned that profits are set to crash as consumers keep their cash in their pockets, Nintendo has bucked the trend. Its chief executive, Satoru Iwata, reckons the festive season will help the Japanese company to its third successive year of record earnings.

But consoles are expensive and even the highly successful Wii has shipped only 35m worldwide. There are more than three times that many people on Facebook alone. Tying social networks and gaming together represents a massive opportunity.

Gareth Davis, Facebook's platform program manager, believes the new style of Facebook games can take the concept of online gaming popularised by World of Warcraft and expand it into a much wider market in the same way that Nintendo has widened the appeal of console gaming.

"Many Facebook games would be categorised as casual game experiences," he said. "Casual games appeal to men and women equally and are popular among all demographics. Nintendo brought casual gaming mainstream with the Wii and DS consoles. Facebook games are of Nintendo quality but add the compelling social aspect of playing with your friends and family across the internet.

"People prefer to play with people they know, rather than strangers."

It is an opportunity that investors have also grasped. Zynga attracted some high-profile backing a few months ago when it got $29m (£19m) from investors including Kleiner Perkins, who backed Google and Amazon. Zynga counts among its advisers Bing Gordon, who used to be chief creative officer at Electronic Arts, the world's largest computer games group.

Then two months ago, as the world's stockmarkets crashed and a host of businesses found themselves with serious cashflow problems, Playfish raised $17m from Accel Partners, one of the companies behind Facebook, and Index Ventures.

"They already had fantastic momentum before the investment and are now well placed to consolidate their leadership position," said Ben Holmes, of Index Ventures, whose previous investments include music site Last.fm.


Playfish makes its money through in-game advertising and charging very small amounts for in-game items: allowing players to buy goods or upgrade their status on their favourite games. It is already one of Google's largest partners for the in-game variation of its Adsense advertising platform.

"We're already seeing the potential of both revenue streams, and monetisation of our games is an exciting area of innovation for us," said Segerstrale.

Holmes added: "If players are willing to play 10 hours a month on one of these games, it is not unrealistic for them to spend €10."

As for Facebook, the more time people spend on its site, the more chance it has of making money.

"Two billion minutes a month is an important traffic stream for Facebook," Davis said. "People who play Playfish games come back to the Facebook site frequently, spend a lot of time being entertained in the game and then spend more time on the site, sharing and connecting with friends.

"Games have been popular activities since the beginning of civilisation. As the usage of the internet and social-networking sites grows, games have found a new medium: you get to play with friends, family and colleagues.

"Games began as a social activity, a form of play, interaction, connection and sharing. On Facebook they have come full circle, using the latest technologies to connect us with each other and have fun doing it."


back – popierać

boffin – technik, naukowiec

buck – walczyć

compelling – fascynujący, zajmujący

grasp – chwytać, rzucać się na

momentum – rozpęd, impet

reckon – sądzić, uważać

require – wymagać

revenue – dochód

spot – dostrzegać, zauważać

stark – jaskrawy

through the roof: to go through the roof – podnosić się, wzrastać

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