Social gaming: The parlor-game crowd logs on

No geek credentials required for the low-tech, community-oriented games that draw Facebook fans.

By , Correspondent

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    The purpose of the game FarmVille, which is produced by San Francisco-based Zynga, is to handle the day-to-day operations of a virtual farm.
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A couple of years ago, Angela Morales received a Facebook invitation from her mother, begging her to sign up for a newish game called FarmVille. Unlike traditional console titles, FarmVille takes place entirely online – the industry term d'art is "social gaming" – and allows collaboration among millions of users around the globe.

In the case of FarmVille, which is produced by San Francisco-based Zynga, the purpose of the game is to handle the day-to-day operations of a virtual farm. Players feed the pigs, monitor the crops, and work to expand their pixilated holdings; meanwhile, other users can patronize the farm, or simply drop in to lend advice.

Ms. Morales was skeptical. She had recently started a photography company in Houston, where she lives with her husband, and free time was hard to find. Moreover, she had never really considered herself much of a hard-core gamer. But the invitations kept coming, and eventually, her defenses worn down, she decided to accept.

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The decision changed Morales's life. Within a few months, she was deeply immersed in the world of FarmVille, spending hours a day tilling virtual fields, and breeding virtual animals. In September 2009, she founded the blog FarmVilleFreak.com, a fan page dedicated to all things FarmVille; it has since become the most popular unofficial FarmVille fan site in the world (and yes, FarmVille fan sites are legion).

Although she and her husband recently had their first child, Morales estimates that she still signs on to FarmVille at least three times a day. "I can say that I'm thankful FarmVille didn't exist while I was still in college," Morales joked recently.

The idea that anyone would want to spend hours a week tending a fantasy farm may strikes non-social gamers as ridiculous – surely the denizens of FarmVille would be happier mucking around in a real garden, under a real summer sky. And yet Morales's story is hardly unique. NPD Group, a market research firm, recently reported that 56.8 million American consumers – or 20 percent of the US population over the age of 6 – had played a social-media game in the past three months. In Britain and the United States combined, the size of the market is an incredible 100 million consumers, according to a survey conducted by Information Solutions Group.

Most of these gamers are playing on Facebook, a social network that is itself expanding rapidly. This year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had topped the 500 million-member mark worldwide; in August, Internet users spent more time – 41.1 million minutes – on Facebook than they did on all Google sites combined.

"Historically, video games were bought at Wal-Mart and played at home or on a PC," says Justin Smith, the founder of Inside Network, a research firm that studies social-media trends. "What Facebook has done is open up gaming to a much wider audience – it has provided a platform for people who wouldn't even normally consider themselves gamers. It's changing the way that the gaming business is going to work. This is the biggest revolution in the gaming industry in quite a while."

As Mr. Smith suggests, social gamers are a diverse bunch. The social-gaming market comprises older gamers, younger gamers, and gamers who are happy to breed virtual pigs but wouldn't be caught dead playing an Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii. NPD Group says that 53 percent of American social gamers are women; 35 percent had never played a video game before. Perhaps most dangerously for makers of consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, social gamers reported having spent 20 percent less on gaming hardware or software since they took up network gaming.

"As more players are drawn into these games, the entire games industry is going to feel, and have to adjust to, the impact," NPD Group's Anita Frazier noted in a statement accompanying the study.

The majority of social-gaming titles are decidedly retro affairs – the gameplay is simplistic, the graphics are stripped down to a Nintendo NES level, the sound effects are tinny at worst and corny at best. In fact, for social-gaming studios, a simplistic presentation isn't just an unfortunate side effect of the production process – a simplistic presentation is the point.

"Our games should work perfectly well on an eight-year-old PC, and if they don't, then we've failed," says Garth Chouteau, vice president for communications at PopCap Games. PopCap – which commissioned the Information Solutions Group survey – makes a range of social-gaming titles, including Plants vs. Zombies, and the bestselling puzzle title Bejeweled. "The crudest possible version of Bejeweled would still be fun to play," Mr. Chouteau says. "It would still be fun because the fun isn't tied to the physical look of the game; it's about the experience."

Chouteau likens the appeal of social-media games to the old-style parlor games played in the 19th century. With parlor gaming, community was part of the appeal – you weren't sitting alone in a dark room, doing solo battle with a clan of bright-green aliens, as many modern console gamers do today. You were talking, you were gossiping, you were connecting with real people. "I think the idea of spending time with colleagues and friends was kind of lost in the first few waves of the video-game revolution," Chouteau says. "There wasn't something like Facebook that gave us immediate and ongoing access to our friends. But now we're at the point, technologically speaking, where we can let people back into the parlor."

Andrew Sheppard, the chief product officer at Kabam Games, acknowledges that social games don't have the same complexity as console games – and that they may not immerse the gamer in exactly the same way. But he points out that social games are uniquely capable of bringing people together. For one, there's a low barrier of entry – you don't have to be a veteran gamer to enjoy a social game. Furthermore, because social-gaming titles work inside Facebook, there's a raucously collaborative element to the gameplay experience. Mr. Sheppard points to the Kabam title Kingdoms of Camelot, a game that Inside Networks says attracts more than 6 million monthly users.

"We regularly hear about [Kingdoms of Camelot] gamers meeting up on weekends to celebrate their in-game victories," Sheppard says. "The friendships these people have are a direct result of the experiences they shared inside the game."

Some aspects of social gaming, of course, remain controversial. Social-game creators, from PopCap to Kabam, get their revenue from a variety of sources, including in-game advertising, promotion for existing for-pay titles, and so-called "microtranscations" – upgrades or premium objects that users must pay hard, nonvirtual currency to obtain. In Kingdoms of Camelot, for instance, a user can choose to purchase packets of in-game "gems," for costs ranging from $5 to $500. This premium content is no way intrinsic to the game – a user can get along perfectly well without a big bag of gems. And in fact, most do. (NPD Group says only 10 percent of gamers spend real money playing social titles; 11 percent indicated that they would be willing to do so in the future.)

Still, most industry insiders expect the social-gaming market to continue to expand, despite the hiccups. Colin Sebastian, an analyst at investment firm Lazard Capital, said in an interview that he expects to see "more opportunity for social gaming, particularly since people seem to be gravitating towards games as a means to interact with their friends and acquaintances on Facebook and other platforms." Mr. Sebastian is not alone: Investment bank ThinkEquity has estimated that in-game advertisements and virtual good sales will together bring a revenue stream of $2 billion by 2012.

Chris Carvalho, the chief operating officer at Kabam, predicts that in coming years, "hard-core" console gamers will continue to migrate to social-gaming titles on Facebook – and the studios will continue to produce. "We believe there is a huge opportunity to create real games, games that bring popular mechanics from traditional games to social gamers and drive deeper, more lasting engagement," Mr. Carvalho says. "To borrow a line from Wayne Gretzky, we don't want to skate to where the industry is, but to skate to where the industry is going – towards more robust gaming experiences."

Who's playing social games

41.1 million – the number of minutes users spent on Facebook in August.

56.8 million – the number of American users who have played a social-media game on a platform such as Facebook in the past three months.

35 – the percentage of those 56.8 million users who had never played a video game before trying out a social-gaming title.

$183 million – the amount of money Google reportedly paid for the social-media company Slide.

$563 million – the amount of money Disney reportedly paid for the social-gaming company Playdom.

$2 billion – the amount of revenue that social games could generate by 2012.

– Matthew Shaer

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