Google's Got Game
The inevitable showdown between Facebook and Google looms - and games may well be the battlefield
One of the most popular pastimes of any group of games business types gathered together is to speculate and swap rumours about the pending entry of some giant corporation into the industry. A volatile combination of paranoia and anticipation, it's a topic of discussion which assumes that the world's top media and technology firms will eventually notice the explosive growth of gaming and step in to take their slice of the pie, show us all how it's done, or put everyone else out of business - depending on who you listen to.
Of course, there are plenty of giant media and technology corporations already engaged in gaming. We have platform holders like Sony and Microsoft, and latterly Apple - while the wholly games-focused Nintendo is a giant global corporation by anyone's standards. Disney, Viacom and Time Warner are engaged, on various levels, with game development and publishing.
Still, that doesn't take the excitement out of rumour-mongering. For a long time, the beast at the gates was News Corp, Rupert Murdoch's globe-spanning media empire, which includes IGN Entertainment, but from that has a massive game publishing shaped hole in its otherwise fairly comprehensive portfolio. The rumour mill had them poised to buy Eidos on both occasions when the British publisher was sold, and a popular (if unsubstantiated) piece of gossip suggested that EA's controversial acquisition of a large chunk of Ubisoft shares a few years ago was designed as a spoiling tactic to prevent Murdoch from getting his hands on the resurgent French firm.
Today, News Corp is old news - no pun intended. Industry conventional wisdom now suggests that the firm's fingers are still badly burnt by its expensive acquisition of MySpace, which it carried out shortly before Facebook entered the ascendant. With key sectors of the firm's portfolio, most notably the newspapers which were once the bedrock of that portfolio, under serious pressure, it's thought to lack the appetite for a major strategic entry into games.
In News Corp's place, the industry has a new beast at the gates - ironically, or perhaps inevitably, the very firm which Rupert Murdoch has constantly cast as the villain in his struggle to keep his company's core assets relevant. That firm is Google, of course, and in the past month rumours about the firm's intentions towards the games sector have swirled with a greater intensity than ever.
It's easy to see why. In early July, there was a $100 million investment in social games giant Zynga, which Google CEO Eric Schmidt said would produce a "partnership" between the firms. Since then, the firm has reportedly paid $182 million for social networking and app firm Slide, and over $55 million for Jambool, which operates a virtual currency system. Alongside these acquisitions, the search giant has reportedly approached EA-owned Playfish and the now Disney-owned Playdom about making games for... something.
The suggestion, of course, is that Google is about the launch a social games platform. Schmidt has poured cold water on the idea that the firm will create a Google version of Facebook (named Google Me by Internet rumour), saying that there's no point in replicating something that already exists, but there can be little doubt that the company wants to replicate Facebook's success at creating a social platform and leveraging the resulting social graph for games and applications.
Google is, in some senses, a company in a quandry. Its core search business is largely unthreatened by rivals - despite all of Microsoft's muscle, Bing remains a pretty undistinguished challenger, and every other major threat was seen off years ago. However, the company faces a much bigger problem in the medium term - the possibility that indexed search itself may be replaced for many key Internet functions, rendering Google's dominance just as obsolete as that of the newspaper companies who despise it so.
We can already see the beginnings of this transition, as people increasingly move towards recommendation and reputation based access of data and services online, rather than relying on search algorithms. Facebook presently serves as a key clearing house for this kind of transaction, with the social graph embodied in the service providing users with a powerful recommendation and discovery system. Other services such as Twitter are nibbling at the edges of this new market, but Google's attempts to engage with it - most notably in the form of Buzz, a Twitter clone launched earlier this year - have fallen flat.
However, Google has a unique set of advantages at its disposal which could flip the tables in its favour. It has an unrivalled capacity for gathering data about its users, hosting not only their searches but in many cases their email, their list of frequently read publications (via Google Reader) and even their phone service, through Google Voice. It has YouTube. It has a largely trusted status with its hundreds of millions of users, undermined only minimally by the tiny minority who voice (often legitimate) concerns about privacy and security.
It has some of the most advanced web application technology in the world, courtesy of successful projects like Gmail - and failed ones like Wave and Buzz, both of which failed to ignite the market but created plenty of useful and recycleable architecture. And let's not forget that it also has Android, a mobile operating system gradually picking up serious traction in its contest with Apple's iOS, and on the horizon, Chrome OS, which seems likely to make quite an impact in the low-powered device space.
In short, Google could, in theory, build a social service which beats Facebook at its own game, just as Facebook pushed MySpace into irrelevance. What it lacks - what it is, apparently, buying at a rate of knots - is the talent to build an entertaining, appealing, compelling social service, with the kind of games and applications which have sustained Facebook's lead in the market.
Hence the fact that it looks, right now, like Google is very keen to become a gaming giant - not in consoles, but in online gaming and mobile gaming, using web browsers and Android phones as its key platforms. It makes sense. It even fits the Google philosophy; the company has, all along, understood that the most effective business model online involves attracting users in droves and then monetising around the edges, leaving your core offering free to grow.
It's important, however, not to get carried away with ideas of what Google may do in this space. For a start, the failure of projects like Buzz, Wave and virtual world system Lively have shown that the company is relatively comfortable with trying out things which ultimately don't take off, and while the scale of its social gaming investments is significant, it shouldn't be assumed that this guarantees success. Google prides itself on being nimble, on a willingness to try out new ideas matched by an equal willingness to cut dead wood. This entry to the market will not match Microsoft's now-legendary willingness to throw good money after bad until the Xbox eventually became a success.
Moreover, whatever the company does is likely to be focused - and focused quite a long way away from the traditional gaming space. One widely circulated rumour this week has conflated Google's gaming ambitions with Sony's, suggesting a Sony Ericsson manufactured, PlayStation branded, Android powered phone handset is on the way. The idea that Sony would allow the PlayStation brand to be used on an Android device in this way - having refused Sony Ericsson permission to use the brand in the past - is fanciful, at best, especially with a PSP successor in the pipeline. Google's gaming engagement is exciting, but Android's position in its plans is unlikely to be as a challenger in the core gaming space.
One thing is certain. Google's entry to this space precipitates a true clash of the titans over social networking and social gaming. Facebook may be the obvious rival, but with Android being part of Google's focus, Apple also has an interest in this battle - and for Microsoft, which has done so well in the core gaming space only to utterly cede the casual, online space to new enemies, this may well be seen as a new front in the battle between Redmond and Mountain View. If this pans out as expected, gaming will be a key battleground on which the entire future of the Internet will be decided - and whichever way the chips fall, that's very good news for the developers and publishers who will provide the weapons and armour for this war.