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The Fall and Rise of Social Video Games on the Web - Raul Otaolea

The Fall and Rise of Social Video Games on the Web

When we hear the term social video game, we intuitively think about video games whose main feature is interaction with other people. However, this definition has changed radically over time. To understand its significance and possible evolution, in this article I’ll be talking about the transformation this concept has undergone from its origins around 1998 to today. With this global perspective, I’ll finish by sharing my vision about the future of social video games.

Social Video Games before Facebook

The creation of video games was a huge innovation that offered a completely new user experience. Curiously, despite the fact that video games seems to be a digital translation of games, they have a very different nature and meaning. This similarity of names has created and still creates a lot of confusion, since there is a tendency to believe that video games offer the same experience as games but digitally, when in fact, in most cases, this is not true. Physical games are inherently social by definition. On the other hand, despite the fact that video games brought such radical innovations as the infinite possibility of imagining new spaces and ways of playing, they lost one of the main aspects of games: their social component. That is, we went from physical games where socialization was the raison d’être, to video games where socializing was no longer a priority, but where attractive, fantastic new worlds could be found for young players to discover new experiences that would challenge their imagination. Following that line of thought, the industry soon filled up with video games that could be played alone.

However, there has, in the industry, always existed the need to include that original social spirit. This came about via multiplayer video games, which allowed players to share the experience with friends, one way or another. The appearance of the first social video games was the result of bringing the physical games that we all played in our childhood to a greater or lesser extent to the web: games like chess, checkers/draughts, Parcheesi, bingo, Scrabble, Monopoly and Hearts; really any game that could be played with cards or on a board that was designed for more than one person. It was like an online Compendium of games, where games were created to entertain a whole group, be it of friends or family.

Before Facebook, there was no formal or at least widespread definition of social video game. I remember back in 2002, at a meeting at the web video game startup where I used to work, which ended up being a leading company in the field, we were arguing about how to name what we had created in order to differentiate ourselves from other video games and competitors. After an intense debate, we agreed to define them as social, dismissing terms such as “classic”, “online”, “for all”, “multiplayer”, “family”, etc. For us, social interaction and bringing together more people to play was the meaning that defined what we were doing: socializing via video games.

In this new category of video games, the social component, understood to be the interaction between several people during one match, was the priority over any other feature. It was even more important than fun the video game itself provided. It was a return to the original concept of a game, where interaction between people was at the core, and where the goal was to maximize the players’ experience exploiting that interaction. As a consequence, the differential feature was in focusing on the human needs and inquisitiveness inherent in interpersonal relationships, elements that are universal and timeless, and thereby transcend genres, countries, and cultures. From them stem game mechanics like collaboration, competition, sharing, cooperation, challenge, etc. that could only come from interactions between people. Studies of this type of video game focused on gameplay in socialization, an inexhaustible resource, because that’s what defines us as people. By shifting the focus from game playing to socialization, engagement became infinite.

In this time period, from 1998 to 2004, several companies popped up, trying to bring this concept of social game to the Internet. One of the first was pogo.com, which in 1998 offered virtual rooms specific to different games, where the users could find tables where they could sit down to play a game with other people in the community. The portal classicgames.com, which was later bought by Yahoo and turned into Yahoo Games, offered similar entertainment. Also juegon.com and ludoteka.com were born in that timeframe prior to Facebook.

However, these and other websites evolved to be generalist video game portals, including all types of video games, in addition to online multiplayer games. They widened the concept of “social” almost to be the same as “community”, where the bulk of interpersonal interaction was no longer in the video game itself, but rather in the platform that they were surrounded by: services like friend lists, rankings, chats, table searches, competitions, etc.

From a bit more technical point of view, all these video games were online multiplayer games, mostly playable on a desktop browser, and developed primarily in Java or later in Flash. The terms multiplayer and social were used interchangeably, since both needed more than one person to play. However, social video games emphasized the relationships between people, while multiplayer games were focusing more on the video game’s gameplay, where people played together to get a more immersive experience. As an anecdote, there was even the problem especially when things were just getting started when a user couldn’t start a game because of a lack of people. One widespread solution, though decidedly unpopular among purists, was to create robots, which is now actually quite in vogue.

Social Video Games after Facebook

The impact Facebook had on social video games (and video games in general) was radical. It’s even worthy of coining new terms, BFB and AFB (before- and after Facebook). Although the metaphor with basing our calendar on the birth of Jesus Christ is exaggerated, it does mark a major milestone.

Jokes aside, Facebook was a revolution. It showed that there are video games for all, not just for a male teenage minority. Facebook made it possible to develop less competitive video games that were designed for the vast majority, where you could start by playing by yourself, and then use the fruits of your play to interact with your contacts inside the social network. The impact was such that hundreds of millions of people played on Facebook every day. And from that success, the term “social game” came to be used to name the video games you could find inside a social network, a term that was practically synonymous with Facebook. Actually, they should have been called social network games, which is a more precise term for what they are. But for that, the users would have had to have knowledge of the history of video games and the concept of social, which they just didn’t have, as many were playing for the first time.

The most successful games were single-player, with a format aimed at tasks and collection, and continuously rewarding achievements. They were games that were easy to play, had no punishments, and were very low-stress. One of the biggest hits was including a management of time that aligned very well with how people were using Facebook itself, that is, short, frequent visits. Video game designers included time as a resource in the game itself, which could be played for only short timeframes, but at the same time, needed to be played assiduously.

At first, they used the social network to advertise the game among one’s contacts with prizes, which really got them to go viral. Later, they began using the social network to maximize the game experience, applying video game theory and psychology to increase profitability. Then, video games began to come with consumable virtual goods, exploiting the social infrastructure of Facebook to go viral and grow quickly. However, the social part of the video game was reduced to sharing scores, showing off achievements, and adding contacts (not friends), which had very little to do with the former social meaning before Facebook.

The unprecedented success of the first video games caused the business model to be refined and to become much more aggressive. Designers started focusing on the exploitable economic behavior on social networks, turning contacts into mere resources to augment the game’s profitability. Players were invited to share all their achievements as a means to get some reward, without realizing they were becoming a source of spam. Upon reaching that point, some began to ask, are social video games really social?

What is true is that Facebook made video games popular to the point of massification. It made it possible for games to reach all, for free. It destroyed the mental structure of traditional developers and players, who thought that video games were only about killing, running, and showing off spectacular graphics. Hundreds of millions of people waiting for “their crops to grow” showed that there were new niches to discover. However, the enormous potential of the business that social networks represented with their billions of users caused the games to turn to aggressive and often annoying practices. Perhaps it’s time to re-imagine what a social video game is, and how to reconcile it with social networks.

Re-imagining Social Video Games

It seems clear at this juncture that we need to rescue the original meaning of “social”. That’s why, in the future, a social video game must be based on social interactions between players. These interactions will happen as the game is being played, and will be reinforced by socialization tools offered by the community. The community is the social infrastructure that surrounds the video game, which could be a social network like Facebook, an ad-hoc community, or any combination of the two.

Traditional video games are based on creativity, meaning they’re inherently subject to aging, just like any other work of art. On the other hand, social video games are based on socialization and not creativity, which is much more ephemeral. The potential of the social component is that it transcends mechanics, platforms, technologies, genres and ages. That doesn’t mean that creativity is replaced by the social component; it is simply subject to it.

The key innovation in the future of social video games will be the way in which people interact. It will offer a moment of entertainment that will start with pre-existing social connections, which is to say, friends. These relationships will evolve, creating new digital and real social networks inside and outside the community. This socialization will be the driver of engagement in this kind of video games.

Another important aspect is the platform to play on. Historically, social video games were mostly for the PC. However, future social video games will be accessible from all types of devices, especially the mobile, and will be playable synchronously and asynchronously. This means that any person, at any time, from any device, will be able to play with a friend the way he wants to. That is, it will be the video game that molds to the player, and not the other way around.

In summary, social video games of the future will be more social and accessible from all devices. And probably, and this is more than a wish, they will do credit to their name.

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