The demise of the term “social game”

Paul Hyman’s article on Gamasutra this morning was timely, as I’ve been thinking a lot about the term “social game” lately and what it actually means. Increasingly its usefulness as a descriptor is over.

Five or ten years ago we all talked about “online games”. When I ran developer relations at Sony I remember giving a lot of talks about the PS2 network adaptor, talking to our middleware partners about supporting online features, and working with developers to implement multiplayer online gameplay. Nowadays, we don’t talk about “online games” at all – that’s because ALL games have online features. The term “online game” has been deprecated, by and large.

The same thing is happening now with the term “social game”. Right now in the popular consicousness “social game” really means “Facebook casual game with social graph features”. But there are a lot of social graphs available now from other social network platforms such as Hi5 and RenRen. Apple (Game Center), ngmoco (Plus+) and Aurora Feint (OpenFeint) are examples of just a few of the social graphs available to developers on iOS. Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network of course have had social graphs inside their walled gardens for quite some time. So are games on mobile and core (console) game platforms that use social graphs “social games”? No one uses that term at the moment – so why do people use the term for casual titles?

As the game industry continues to evolve, “social game” will die out as well. Why? Because ALL games will connect to a social graph. That’s practically true already! It’s only a question of which social graph they will connect with, and how you will manage that as a player. And then, as a developer, finding an easy way to give the player control over that access.

At the moment, most developers I talk with seem to be abstracting away social graph API calls, in a similar way that one might abstract away rendering calls so that your game can run successfully using either DirectX or OpenGL. These kind of abstractions are never optimal, there’s always some slop involved when you try to determine the minimal set among multiple platforms and yet still allow your game code access to platform-specific features. But the time for arguing about whether or not to include social network access in your game is over: the answer is yes. Now, how to do it?






6 responses to “The demise of the term “social game””

  1. Robert Smith Avatar

    I really hope whatever it is that comes out of Google as far as the rumored Google Games and/or GoogleMe helps out with the problem of optimizing social solutions. I run a small developer, we make “social games” and would love a way to develop for multiple platforms social graph that was remotely user friendly.

    Eventually I think the term social game as it is currently bandied about will be absorbed by the term casual game. Eventually, whatever social network you use will have “core” games and “casual” games and whatever your taste you will be able to play them.

  2. Kim Pallister Avatar

    @Robert: “Casual” is similarly flawed 🙂

    >Right now in the popular consicousness “social game” really means “Facebook casual game with social graph features”

    I’d add that right now at least in the industry it’s also weighted with an assumption about biz model (FtP, item sales and/or offers, etc).

    Your point still holds though.

    On your point about abstracting social graph calls, here’s a thought to ponder:

    Games that abstracted away the graphics API usually also had to hold themselves to a lowest common denominator of API functionality. This was a dangerous game in a world where your shooter’s screenshots were competing for magazine covers.

    Will games abstracting the social graph also be held to a lowest common denominator, and risk a less compelling social game experience or less effective montetization scheme because of this compromise?

  3. Robert Smith Avatar

    @Kim: As I wrote out the term “casual game” I felt something akin to irony.

  4. Trimbo Avatar

    If you haven’t read this article about Farmville, it’s worth a read. Most of these “social games” aren’t games at all — they’re social obligations that are the antithesis of recreation. I think we’re calling them “games” because there isn’t yet a good alternative term for it, and because “games” get a lot of dumb money thrown at them. With all of the dumb money thrown at MMOs and Farmville ripoffs, it’s probably more than any other sector of venture capital right now.

    I think some kind of term will have to exist for this type of experience, just like we have “shooters”, “RTS”, “RPG”. But let’s see if we can find a way to remove the “game” misnomer, even if “social” sticks.

  5. Mark DeLoura Avatar

    Hey Trimbo! Thanks for your comment. I remember when that article came out. I have to admit it occurred to me like a clever essay for someone’s grad school courses.

    There is a large contingent of the core game industry that looks down on social games with disdain. “There’s no story, ” they say, “the game design is horrible.” But people are playing, and while some may do it habitually, and not out of enjoyment, it’s almost certain that a large proportion of the people playing are getting SOME satisfaction from it. It may be the feeling of accomplishment for completing a small task, or beating their friend to level N, or creating a clever design out of their patches of grain. It’s definitely not a game as we know it, but is it not a game?

    It’s hard to say. Perhaps it’s just a different kind of game. In any case, with over 60 million people still playing Farmville, I find myself drawn to wonder how I can get some of those players to play MY games. 🙂

  6. Jon Webb Avatar
    Jon Webb

    Hmm.. Not sure I buy this just yet Mark. I still see a pretty big divide between developers/designers who are leveraging the available social graphs in ways that actually impact game design, and those developers/designers who are merely utilizing 1st tier friend relationships for shall we say “operational purposes” (read: invitation, matchmaking affinity, chat, and even marketing).

    It’s entirely reasonable to say that these things will probably converge, especially as garden walls crumble with regard to social graphs. However, I don’t think it’s happened just yet, and with my feet firmly planted on both sides of the fence, I think we’re a few years out at best. The next wave will be an attempt to bridge this divide by having complimentary applications in both realms talk to each other and play off one another, but they are certainly not adopting adopting the other’s designs.

    Let me know when Nathan Drake tells you that he can’t reach the treasure on the opposite ledge, but he thinks he might be able to do it if you invite 5 of your friends to build a ladder. I’ll be there with my $1.50 worth of Alpaca Coins to purchase the virtual twine necessary to hold it together.