It's easy to argue that 2011 has been the year of social gaming, one that started with Farmville jokes and ended with its creator, Zynga, achieving an IPO worth $1 billion. The genre has opened up gaming to a whole new audience of casual players, who would never have considered purchasing a console but are happy to spend their lunch break on Facebook playing City Of Wonder or The Sims Social.
2011 saw veterans from the big hitters, Activision and EA, leave the traditional games arena to start up smaller, more agile studios like November Software, launched by Star Wars: The Force Unleashed series and EA Tiburon veterans.
AAA companies like Crytek and Ubisoft made it clear that social gaming was part of their future too, with Ubi's Thomas Paincon, online brand marketing group manager, telling GamesIndustry.biz that all new IPs will now come with a complete digital strategy that incorporates Facebook and iOS as well as just console. Meanwhile Crysis developer Crytek announced online, free-to-play shooter Warface. Social gaming became a means of connecting with your fans and sneak in some marketing in a way that simple television and print ads never could, tying together a portfolio of products that in the past would have simply been a collection of disjointed ports.
2011 saw veterans from big hitters like Activision and EA leave the traditional games arena to start up smaller, more agile studios
And then there was the new kids that started in social gaming, entirely focused on that genre, and reaping the benefits. In August at GDCE GamesIndustry.biz spoke to Jens Bergmann, CEO of Wooga, who revealed that his company was hiring two new members of staff a week to keep up with rising demand for the its Facebook games. It was a similar story for Moshi Monsters, a family MMO that will be familiar to anyone with children that has spawned books, music and television from a collection of adorable beasts.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, whose social network provides the platform for (and takes a cut of) many of the most popular titles, declared that social games had changed the industry forever.
"The gaming industry has been completely transformed. Social gaming has taken off from scratch to be, the biggest companies in the gaming industry are now social games companies."
Not that the trend was without critics, with industry veterans like Silicon Knights founder Denis Dyack arguing that social games were "damaging traditional gaming." He predicted the biggest crash the industry had seen in years when the bubble finally burst.
Nintendo president Satoru Iwata was equally concerned, sharing his fears about social gaming at GDC in March.
"Their goal is just to gather as much software as possible, because quantity is what makes the money flow - the value of video game software does not matter to them."
And then, just last week, Zynga finally went public, selling 1 million shares priced at $10 and raising $1 billion in the process. While some have whispered about issues with employee happiness and falling user numbers becoming a concern for analysts, and the stocks have all but stalled, the IPO was still a milestone for the industry. Update your friends list, because social is only going to be more important in 2012.
The Biggest Stories Of 2011: Social
EA targets $40m in digital revenues: A big publisher with big plans, this was a sentiment that was to be echoed later in the year by Ubisoft, a sign that even those who relied on AAA titles had realised the potential of social and free-to-play tiles. The proof of the pudding was seen later in the year, when EA reported soaring MAU numbers for Sims Social, a Facebook game based on the popular franchise that had done so well for it in more traditional markets.
A call to arms: Brenda Brathwaite's passionate speech at GDC in March helped to sum up the tensions in the industry that came with the rise of social gaming. "We are the first wave - the marines storming the beach to take our culture and our medium back. As you look upon these games you will see on the very same horizon a great space of possibility. I hope that you will someday be the occupying force." The words were given all the more weight by Brathwaite's history in the industry, working in games for 20 years and with 22 titles to her name.
Mind Candy vs. Lady Gaga: While the industry is no stranger to legal battles, not many of them feature a mega celebrity famous for wearing clothes made of meat, or indeed a singing baby. But the battle of Lady Gaga and Lady Goo Goo over the Moshi Monsters song The Moshi Dance was a blow for Mind Candy, which argued the character was a parody. The judge disagreed, and served an injunction banning the company from "promoting, advertising, selling, distributing or otherwise making available to the public The Moshi Dance or any musical work or video" by Lady Goo Goo.
Creating a COD killer: Everyone talks about creating the title that will topple the Call Of Duty franchise, but Dusty Welch is different, both in how he intends to do it and his experience - he helped to launch the franchise at Activision in the first place. The launch of U4ia, a new studio founded by Welch and Chris Archer, which is focused on creating a AAA social shooter, is surely being watched by AAA publishers with interest.
Zynga's billion dollar IPO: After month of speculation, analyst chatter and plenty of news inches, social gaming giant Zynga finally went public, selling its shares at $10 each and raising $1 billion in the process. The share price fell by 4.2 per cent in the first day, but analysts are predicting a rise to $12.50 per share by this time next year. As the biggest brand in social gaming, the IPO will act as a touchstone for other up and coming companies looking to a future IPO.
Product Of The Year: The Sims Social
Playfish has to be recognised for not only successfully merging an 11 year old franchise with an up to the minute business model, but for providing Zynga with some real competition. The Facebook title that combines quests with soft furnishings and virtual flirting may not have managed to knock Zynga off the top of the MAU leaderboards, but it's growth was rapid and impressive, hitting 51.5 million monthly active users in September. Numbers have declined a little since, but Playfish has committed to creating new content to keep players coming back for more, and bringing new gamers to the franchise. This month Playfish launched Sims FreePlay or iOS devices, proving that the Sims brand hasn't finished evolving just yet.
Company Of The Year: Mind Candy
Not many companies transform into an entertainment brand and take on Lady Gaga at the same time, but Moshi Monsters has gone from child friendly MMO to a brand with music, television and merchandising arms, a Nintendo DS spin off and smartphone apps. Headed up by the charismatic Michael Acton Smith, the company is currently working on brand new IPs, while maintaining the Moshi brand, which at last count had around 100 licenses to its name. While what Mind Candy is doing now is impressive, it's what it will do in 2012 that is the really exciting prospect.