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Plugged In

Just how different are social games, anyway?

Plugged In



Once upon a time, nearly all games were social.

With the exception of solo card games like Patience, for the vast majority of human history, if you wanted to play a game you'd need to sit down with a few like-minded comrades. All that changed with the coming of the
video game, and for a few decades gaming became more associated with
solitary fun.

But log on to Facebook, as around half of all Americans have, and you'll
realize the pendulum is swinging back the other way. Gaming's going
social all over again, led by a string of huge hits from top social game
developer Zynga. Although you might think these social-network
timewasters couldn't be more different from conventional gaming hits
like Call of Duty: Black Ops (Buy | Search), you might be surprised at how much they
share with the traditional business of computer entertainment.

-- They're huge business

Which business is worth more: Electronic Arts, with nearly three decades of
churning out hits like Madden, FIFA, The Sims, and Rock Band; or upstart
social games developer Zynga, with a mere three years of churning out
titles like Farmville and Mafia Wars?

The answer -- at least according to an October estimate -- is Zynga, at a staggering $5.5 billion.

Social games are nearly as popular on Wall St. as they are on Main St., and
you only have to look over 2010's headlines to see the effects as a slew
of traditional video game publishers, media conglomerates, and Internet
giants sought to buy their way into this brave new world.

Disney made headlines in August when it paid over half a billion dollars for
City of Wonder developer Playdom -- and Electronic Arts itself took the
plunge back in 2009 when it acquired Pet Society dev Playfish. 2011 has
yet to see its first big social-gaming deal, but with so much money on
the table, count on seeing one before long.

-- They're staggeringly popular

Over half of Facebook users play games. Nearly 20% are self-confessed addicts. Almost 20 million people play Mafia Wars every month -- and astonishingly, even though Mafia Wars is one of Zynga's older games, it's still growing on some platforms. New Zynga smash Cityville is the biggest so far, though, smashing Farmville's record in just two months of availability, making it quite possibly the fastest growing video game of all time.

-- They're mostly played by women

Unlike the male-dominated world of traditional video games, social gaming is a
more inclusive pursuit, with female-to-male ratio of 55%:45% in the
U.S., according to research conducted by Popcap.
They're also mainly played by older people: the average age of a social
gamer is 48, and only 6% of social gamers fall into the under-21
segment traditionally thought of as "gamers." Female social gamers play
more frequently than male social gamers, and they play with relatives
twice as often as men. (Men, though, are more likely to pay cash for
social game rewards or benefits.)

-- They're usually co-operative, not competitive

Holiday season shooter Call of Duty: Black Ops ruled the year's video game
charts, but like most other hit games its online modes are focused on
high-intensity, head-to-head play. In the social world, you're more
likely to find yourself fertilizing your friends' fields than shooting
them in the back. In Fishville, and many other social titles, you can
drop in on your friends' aquariums, farms, or cities, lending a helping
hand where needed. And even in cut-throat Mafia Wars, your first port of
call is finding friends, not foes. (Or else it'll be you who's sleeping with the fishes.)

-- They're free, to some...

Mostly, at any rate. You don't need to invest in fancy gaming hardware, take a
trip to the local retail store, or cough up exorbitant subscription
fees, but if you get serious about social games you'll probably wind up
opening your wallet at some point. From Fishville's in-game resources to
Bejeweled Blitz's lottery spins, players who pay out real money get
ahead faster -- and there's no shortage of people out there taking
advantage. Estimates for 2010 put total social games earnings in the
$1-2 billion range, and although that's around what Black Ops took in
its first few weeks on sale, it's a number that's bound to grow in 2011.

-- ...but very expensive to others

So while you might not be paying anything, someone out there is -- and
those who spend money on social games often spend big. Real big.
According to Social Gold, a startup that provides payment services for
Facebook, their top individual client (a resident of Saudi Arabia) has
spent over $25,000 on his or her social gaming habit. While that's a
rare case, it's not completely isolated. Even Social Gold's fifth
highest spender has paid out $10,000. Man, that's a lot of fish.

-- They're turning up all over the place

You're already used to playing video games on PCs, Macs, consoles, and
portable devices like Apple's iPhone and iPad -- and social games are
moving into the exact same territory. You've been able to play Farmville
on your iThings for some time now, and a suite of social games (like
Smurf Village and We Rule) have sprung up to cater specifically to the
portable market. Now they're reaching beyond their traditional domain of
Myspace and Facebook, and joining the selection of downloadable and
online entertainment on sites like Yahoo! Games, offering those with
Yahoo!-using friends the opportunity to connect with them in games like
and Mafia Wars.

Looking for online friends to play with? Leave your Y! ID in the comments.


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