— The days of playing games alone are over.
Or at least, that's what a whole lot of folks in the business of making games are saying.
"In the future, all games are going to be social," Matt Hulett, the chief revenue officer for GameHouse, said earlier this week. GameHouse is a company that develops and publishes casual, mobile and social network games. "I think that the fact that gaming has been a solitary experience has been a very weird outlier in the history of gaming. For centuries gaming has always been social."
Hulett is hardly alone in his opinion. Finding ways to make more games more social has been a hot topic at Casual Connect, a conference in Seattle this week for those in the business of creating casual, mobile and social network games.
The thing is, in the last couple of years what appeared at first to be a gaming fad has proven to be an important gaming trend — that is, playing games on social networks like Facebook. There's "Mob Wars," "Texas Hold Em' Poker," "PetVille" and perhaps most importantly of all, "FarmVille."
Despite struggles with Facebook itself, Zynga's virtual agriculture game — which launched just a little over a year ago — has counted upwards of 80 million users at its peak. Roll your eyes if you like, but game makers say the important takeaway here is not just that people really do like to play games on social networks, but that people like to play games with other people.
Of course that means social network game developers and publishers are rolling out all kinds of new Facebook games. Zynga recently launched "FrontierVille" (a Wild West-themed game that already has more than 20 million users) and Playdom has just launched "Fanglies" (a cross between "The Sims" and "Animal Crossing.")
"I would posit that social gaming is dead," said John Pleasants, CEO of Playdom, during a Casual Connect presentation this week. He was, of course, speaking with tongue firmly planted in cheek. His point being, "We will die as a niche but what we’re going to do is spread much more widely."
Indeed, even companies that have traditionally created games that you played all by your lonesome, are bringing their games to social networks. Casual games maker PlayFirst made its first foray into the world of social gaming this week when it took its popular "Chocolatier" series to Facebook with the game "Chocolatier: Sweet Society."
Meanwhile, PopCap, the company that basically kicked off the casual gaming boom with its megahit "Bejeweled," launched its "Bejeweled Blitz" game on Facebook and, later this summer, will be launching another of its hits — "Zuma" — on Facebook as well.
"The concept of playing this solitary game is going away for us," said PopCap co-founder John Vechey, explaining that finding ways to make the company's games more social is a top priority for PopCap.
But it's not just casual game makers that are looking to leverage the connective powers found in Facebook gaming. Recently Microsoft began connecting its Xbox 360 games with related Facebook games. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
For example, when Microsoft launched "Crackdown 2" for the Xbox 360 last month, it also launched "Chuck's Ducks 2" on Facebook. By playing the carnival-style balloon-popping game on Facebook, players can earn points to unlock special ducky grenades to use in the multiplayer modes of the Xbox 360 game. The Facebook players can not only earn those grenades for themselves but for any of their Facebook friends who have linked Xbox Live accounts.
But PopCap's Vechey said that making games more social doesn't mean "every game is going to look like FarmVille." It means finding new and different ways to connect people who are playing games.
PopCap has announced that it's going to bring its hit tower-defense game "Plants vs. Zombies" to Xbox Live this fall. And when it does, the company plans to give the game a multiplayer mode for the first time. PopCap will also use the network to come up with fun ways to let players check in on the progress their friends are making in their own "Plants vs. Zombies" games.
"We believe games on all platforms and for all audiences will eventually leverage social components," said Tony Leamer, VP of Marketing for I-play. His company recently announced it would be focusing on making its casual games far more communal.
Indeed, a number of game companies have begun launching platforms designed to connect players with their game-playing pals well beyond the boundaries of Facebook. Earlier this week Oberon Media launched the Blaze platform and GameHouse recently launched GameHouse Fusion, both of which are designed to bring together gamers playing games in different places — on social networks, mobile phones, PCs, etc. — and give them a variety of ways to interact with each other.
Game makers say that making games more social is both good for players and good for them. That is, it makes games more fun to play for gamers. Meanwhile, when gamers are able to connect with their friends, it makes it that much easier for them to spread the word about a company's game. Hello free marketing!
At Casual Connect Tuesday, Jason Oberfest, vice president of social applications at ngmoco (a company responsible for iPad and iPhone games like "GodFinger" and "We Rule") said making game apps social is critical to making them successful in the crowded App Store.
He said making an iPhone game social has a drastic impact on how often gamers play it. He cited research the company has done on the number of sessions per day people played one of their games compared to the number of friends they had in that game. Those who had zero friends playing the game played it less than five sessions a day. But those who had just two friends played it eight times a day and those with four friends played 10 times a day.
However, during a Casual Connect panel discussion looking at the hype and realities of various gaming trends, two big players in the biz were at odds when it came to the topic of making more games social.
Erik Bethke, a senior product director at Zynga (the company that made "FarmVille") said, "I think games should always be social. I think we have a really rich history of decades of people playing games with each other."
But Paul Thelen, founder of Big Fish Games, disagreed. "I would take issue with the comment that all games should be social," he said. "That’s like saying all women want to be Paris Hilton. There are different needs and wants."
He makes a good point. After all, for many people, playing games is a form of escapism — and sometimes what you most want to escape is other people.