Social Games: The Past, Present, and Future

Social Games: The Past, Present, and Future

The concept of “social games” is not a brand new idea that came tumbling in with Facebook. Rather, the term social game references communication, which is at the very core of most of the games humanity has played since the beginning of time. In other words, a social game is a game that involves socialization of any kind, and that includes card games, board games, dice games, video games and more.

But our modern usage of the term almost exclusively references electronic games that we play with other live participants across social networks or digital platforms like Facebook, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Steam, and any number of the virtual worlds that are accessible via the PC. To get even more specific, today’s definition of “social game” leans more towards social networking, and the easy-going, carefree casual games we play with our friends on Facebook and on Apple iOS platforms like the iPhone and iPad.

The Birth of Modern Social Games: Unplugged and On-Screen

Entrepreneur and author Jon Radoff believes that the social game push as we understand it today might have started with Dungeons & Dragons, an analoge role-playing game that “integrated the ideas of abstracting tactical combat along with storytelling and a unique social aspect in which individual players used their imagination and creativity to contribute to the ongoing game.”

Dungeons & Dragons was especially popular through the ’70s and the ’80s, the same era that saw the earliest video and computer games squirm out of their shells. The mechanics of D&D combined with the digital worlds and online connectivity of computers and game consoles to form MUDs (multi-user dungeons), as well as famous role-playing (RPG) series such as King’s Quest and Ultima. In turn, Japan sought to make the D&D and RPG experience more user-friendly and graphic-intensive through now-famous franchises like DragonQuest and Final Fantasy.

The Next Step: Gaming Online

Though MUDs and other text-based games preceded the massively-multiplayer online RPG (MMORPG) as we know it today, it was the more graphical MMORPGs like Ultima Online (1997), and EverQuest (1999) for the PC that brought MMORPGs to a mainstream audience. MMORPGs proved compelling primarily because of their social elements, which let players coordinate via text and voice chats and take down monsters as part of a larger hunting party.

When Blizzard’s World of Warcraft launched in 2004, the popularity of MMORPGs soared, even touching upon pop culture through television shows like South Park. World of Warcraft has since remained the most successful commercial MMORPG to date, with 11.1 million subscribers as of June 2011. That was also the same month Blizzard (which merged with Activision in 2008) announced that World of Warcraft would be a free-to-play game until players hit level 20, thus bringing the MMORPG’s virtual economy up-to-date with what had become the norm for online games and social games by that point in time.

Social Gaming’s Accessibility, Popularity, Spreads

“Most early MMORPGs built business models around subscription rather than virtual goods–which caused secondary markets to emerge for trading in items,” writes Radoff. “Today, many games in the Free-to-Play (F2P) market have turned this on its head, by making virtual goods the way the game publisher monetizes; because this has become such a good way to attract players and monetize attention, this has become ‘the’ business model of current social network games.”

Social networks existed before Facebook, and in the same vein, social games existed on those networks. Said games were admittedly on the crude side, and typically ran on HTML or PHP scripts: they didn’t go far beyond being able to “infect” your friends with zombie bites, or inviting your online pals to visit and play with virtual pets, dragons, and monsters that would grow according to the amount of attention they received.

In 2009, Zynga’s FarmVille, powered by Flash, hit Facebook. The game, which gives players incentive to recruit their Facebook, was more detailed, more complex, and more involved than the web-based games of the early- and- mid-Aughts. It was a little closer in scope to the subscription-based MMORPGs of the same era, but unlike the subscription-based games, FarmVille was free. Instead of asking players to pay up front, they had the option of paying for exclusive items and power-ups via “microtransactions”–small payments of one or two dollars (or possibly more, as social games are not without their “high rollers”) done easily via electronic means, like credit cards and PayPal.

Players were not averse to the idea of dishing out a dollar for virtual items that essentially turned them into Superman in-game, and so the “free-to-play” model caught on quickly and is now one of the standard means by which social game developers fund their projects.

Why Are Social Games so Popular?

Social games have proven tremendously successful for numerous reasons, but one of the biggest reasons is accessibility to moms, dads, kids and casual players alike. The free-to-play model makes it far easier to persuade someone to sign up and play, versus asking for a monthly or one-time fee. Moreover, many social games run on Flash (usually via Facebook or a web browser in general) and require few system resources, which makes signing in and playing a snap.

Communication is also a huge part of what makes social games so appealing. It’s one thing to engage friends and family members in small talk on Facebook. It’s much more gratifying and fun to get them to help you build up your farm, or run your city, or join you in conquering virtual countries that are governed by other friends and family members.

Finally, social games are typically updated with new content on a constant basis. Even though FarmVille is seemingly antiquated by bigger, better social offerings on Facebook, its development company, Zynga, is always responding to customer feedback and adding new skills for players to learn, and new items for them to collect. This model of game development is very different compared to the creation and publication of a retail game, which is typically a self-contained product with a definite beginning and end.

Who Plays Social Games?

Generally, the audience for social games is usually portrayed as middle-aged stay-at-home moms who are more comfortable with casual fare, but the truth is, all kinds of people play social games. That includes men, women, boys, girls, casual gamers, gamers who enjoy more traditional titles, and the aforementioned middle-aged stay-at-home housewife.

Recent studies indicate that half of all social gamers also own traditional game consoles, and that peole who play Zynga’s “-Ville” line of games (FarmVille, PetVille, CityVille, FrontierVille) also spend as much time online as the average fan of the Assassin’s Creed or Halo franchises.

The Future of Social Games

Critics of social gaming speculate that the “bubble” has got to burst at some point, and that companies like Zynga can’t keep turning amazing profits forever. At some point, the detractors say, players are going to get bored with the point-and-click flash interfaces, the microtransactions, the necessity for online teamwork, and they’re going to move on.

With hundreds of free social games currently available to play, there’s no possible way every single game will continue to earn enough money to thrive in the manner necessary for developers to afford the creation and addition of new game content. People have limited leisure time that social game publishers are competing for fiercely–and the traditional game market, which also demands players’ time and money to survive, is still alive and well.

By this time next year, the playing field will look a lot tidier. Start-ups that can’t keep up with the demands of running a social world will fall over and die, while the survivors continue to think on their feet, evolving as necessary. But seeing as social elements within games are not at all a new thing, we can expect that future developers will build upon those features in both the traditional and social markets.

About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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