Social networking promises huge changes to how we play games - just as soon as designers get their heads around it
Everyone understands that social networking is one of the most important consumer trends of the past five years. Different networks may rise and fall in popularity - with Facebook presently still ascending while MySpace's star wanes, for example - but social networking itself is an inexorable force.
Many people within the games space feel, intuitively, that there must be a way of marrying social networking and videogames together. The connections between the two are obvious, after all. The demographic is roughly the same, with the age and income groups which embrace Facebook corresponding closely to those that most often play videogames.
Social network users play some games - witness the success of titles like Mafia Wars, Pet Society or the perennial favourite Bejeweled on Facebook. Game players do some social networking, too. What are Xbox Live and PSN if not rudimentary social networks? All logic suggests that there must be a way to bring the two worlds closer together, to integrate games and social networks in a way that makes both experiences better.
Even the platform holders are excited about the potential for social networking to tie into games. At E3, Microsoft proudly announced integration of Facebook, music network Last.fm and Twitter with Xbox Live. The latter pair are fairly irrelevant, admittedly. Last.fm is solely a music service, while Twitter isn't actually a social network at all - it's a one-to-many broadcast system, which isn't quite the same thing.
Despite the noise around Microsoft's announcement, Sony is actually quite far down this path already. The PS3's OS includes the ability to capture in-game videos and post them directly to YouTube, which is arguably more interesting than having a cut-down Facebook site on your console. However, I'd argue that neither company is remotely close to tapping into the genuine potential of social networks and gaming. They're not even scratching the surface; rather, they're scrabbling slightly desperately at the surface with blunt fingernails.
The breakthrough in this space, and the real profitability, will not come from anything as straighforward as putting social network access onto a device. Rather, it's going to require very clever designers and businessmen to sit down and think about how people interact with game consoles, how they interact with social networks and online services, and how those interactions can be built into gameplay systems.
Some developers already do rudimentary things with Facebook which are incredibly powerful at driving re-visits to games. PopCap's Bejeweled updates you when your score is beaten by a friend, and allows you to send taunting messages directly to friends whose scores you have just passed. Several of the "virtual pet" games reward you for visiting the pets of your friends and interacting with them every day. Games like Mafia Wars organise friends into "families" who encourage each other to continue playing, since the group advances more quickly when everyone contributes.
These are simple examples, but Facebook developers are already finding that they can drive their unique user figures into the millions. Remarkably few videogames achieve this kind of sustained return-visit appeal - but with business models in flux and developers increasingly thinking about microtransaction, subscription and advertising-based revenue models, sustaining return-visit numbers ought to be high on the agenda of any good game designer.
What, then, are the key lessons that social networking is already teaching? The first, quite simply, is about reach. Despite big talk over the past decade, developers still haven't quite worked out how to make videogame experiences jump off the console and follow you around.
Sega's abortive experiment with Dreamcast VMU mini-games aside, there's a shocking dearth of game experiences which span multiple different platforms and environments with different, inter-linked experiences. I can't play something on my iPhone or Android device while waiting for a bus to work that influences something in the game world I'll be playing in on my console that evening, or access something through Facebook on my office computer which lets me carry out various tasks related to a game on my Xbox or PS3 at home.
Even on a simpler scale, these devices aren't being used to improve players' experiences. Why can't I arrange to play Call of Duty 4 or Killzone 2 with my friends at 8pm this evening over Facebook, email or text message, and then get a reminder and an invitation to join the automatically created party when I turn on my console in the evening? Why can't I set up a Street Fighter or FIFA tournament for my colleagues on a social networking site, and have the game service automatically set up the matches and fill in the results?
The second key thing which the games industry should take away from the rise of social networking is that differentiation between friend groups is important. At the moment, both Xbox Live and PSN are shockingly simple in their implementation of "friends". The services which these networks can offer are restricted on a simple, social level, because they don't actually distinguish effectively between different friend groups. When your system doesn't understand the difference between a lifelong pal and someone you've played a couple of times in Forza Motorsport who "seems like a decent sort", the extent to which you're willing to share information - or be contacted directly - is extremely limited.
Appreciating the difference between a close friend and an acquaintance is the difference between your game's social features being a channel for spam from near-strangers, and being a fantastic channel for friends to challenge, taunt, invite and cajole one another. This is the fine line which any kind of social networking integration needs to walk - many early attempts at Facebook games had an unacceptable signal to noise ratio, were quickly labelled as spam and blocked by millions of users, a cautionary tale for any developer who takes steps into this space.
With the ability to work out more detail about the relationships between players and to permeate further into their social lives - and even their working lives, given the level of Facebook use among office workers - there's no question that the potential here for games is immense. From inspiring competition among groups of friends to organising them together and giving them shared goals and responsibility for one another's success; from extending the game world onto mobile devices and office PCs through to whole new takes on the meta, "alternate reality" game concept; social networks promise to add a host of exciting new tools to the arsenal of the modern game designer.
The integration promised by Microsoft and Sony is nothing but a first faltering step towards a much more exciting future. Facebook on Xbox 360 and YouTube on PS3 aren't the marriage of social networking and gaming - at best, they're just the two sides finally noticing one another across the room. The best is most certainly yet to come.