For reasons unknown to me, Silicon Alley Insider decided to publish a marketing piece by CEO of a Facebook clone titled Facebook Has It All Wrong When It Comes To Social Games. That post was for a while the top one at TechMeme. The stupid - it hurts.

In essence, the CEO of MyLifebook says that Facebook is a bad place to find other people to play games, unlike his site. It’s really easy to mock Facebook and Zynga on that FarmVille and its successors are not “real” games, but rather simple creations to kill time. However, it’s not like Facebook forces people to play FarmVille and yet it seems to be a popular choice and according to the study Cook links to, a main reason why many log on to Facebook.

My problem with the article is not Facebook-bashing, but the slowly creeping revelation that Cook probably doesn’t know that much about games.

And while we may not explicitly think of eight-ball, basketball, monopoly, and cards as synchronous games, that’s what they are.

It would be of course interesting to know what the reasoning is behind the above is, as basketball is the only non-turn-based game of the above. The one thing that all of them have in common is that they are games that are played in the real world (but do have their computer incarnations as well). It’s like games that can be played on only computers are a new thing or something.

One interesting aspect is the URL slug of the article the-dark-ages-of-social-games-and-the-coming-renaissance, which was probably the original title of the piece before it was SEO’d up. The dark age wasn’t dark because things were bad but because people forgot a lot of what was already discovered. And to me, the current generation of Flash games on social networks are just that. They are missing at least a decade’s worth of innovation in computer games. That Cook has only real-world games as examples of “synchronous” games affirms that he’s well stuck in that dark age.

In my opinion the whole term “social game” is a misnomer, as games and play has always been a social activity. Sure, what people usually mean is that the game utilizes some sort of a social networking service, but when you put it that way it doesn’t really sound so revolutionary.

Which is why if I had to bet on any trend in social gaming for the next 12 – 24 months, I would bet on synchronous games.1 The space is wide open and has a lot of favorable dynamics.

The huge elephant in the room, of course, is Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. Boasting 12 million paid subscribers today, it’s hardly a trend anymore. Also, with an increasing number of people playing on a console or a smartphone that space is not really wide open but pretty much locked down by Sony (PSN), Microsoft (Xbox Live) and Apple (Game Center). On PC, Facebook pretty much dominates the web space and many game publisher already have their own social platform (like Blizzard, EA, Microsoft and Valve).

And that’s before we even tackle the underlying assumption here that somehow “synchronous games” (whatever that means2) are better than “asynchronous, asocial games” (actual quote). The huge genius behind games like Words with Friends is that it allows you to time-shift the game - something that’s borderline impossible with real-life Scrabble. Like digital video recorders, it puts you back in control of your time. Sure, the game probably spreads over couple of days and the intensity just isn’t there, but in the end you probably end up playing more games than you could if you had to arrange a mutually suitable time slot to play. Also, you can easily parallelize many games. I really don’t see how Words with Friends is inferior just because it’s not “synchronous”3.

It’s also rather strange to claim that Facebook’s social graph is incompatible with synchronous games while at the same time AAA-games like Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit and Company of Heroes Online have Facebook integrations of some sort. Granted, Cook’s argument is that by trying to limit the social graph to actual friends, Facebook’s social graph is not suited for finding people to find games. However, is this really a market Facebook wants to be in? Facebook’s plan is to make money out of the valuable social graph so it’s definitely not in their interest to clog it up with people you played a game of online pool once. This of course raises the question on how MyLifebook plans to make money on these weak connections.

The reason why there are 0 friends online at a given time to play a game you want is not really Facebook’s fault. It’s pure conditional probabilities and Venn diagrams. Without prior communication, I would find it a (pleasant) surprise if my friends wanted to play a game with me at the exact time as I am4. So that’s one of the few things where I think Cook is right is that Facebook is not the hub you want to use if you’re looking for people to play with you. However, his own network is not much better. He boasts that “with 25+ million members and 100,000+ online at a given time” his social network is the place to be. Right now as I wrote this, there were 227,382 in-game and 1,952,228 online on Steam and last October Steam passed the 30 million active account mark. And that’s just a service for PC5 gamers, who Cook would probably categorize as “hardcore”. PlayStation Network has 50 million registered accounts and Xbox Live has more than 20 million. Compared to these numbers, active user to customer base ratio doesn’t really sound that good. You might argue that the comparison isn’t fair because the market MyLifebook is after is different, but then what’s new there that Yahoo! Games didn’t have since 1997?

In my opinion Cook also a bit misreads the study he links to. To quote:

Recent research from the Information Solutions Group’s study of Popcap gamers found that the #2 and #3 most popular groups of people to play social games with are not people they know in “real life,” but instead “online friends” and “online strangers.” What’s more, 76 percent of people prefer to play with others of around the same age. Why? Because the point of playing with people you don’t know is to make new friends, and people generally make friends around their age. The study also found that more than 70% of people made new online friends by playing games together.

The first sentence is of course a bit puzzling, as what on Earth is left after those three groups? Pets? The second sentence is misreading the statistics as it actually states that 76% play with others in their age range (+/- 10 years) (as opposed to their children’s, parents’ or grandparents’ age groups), nowhere is said that they’d prefer it6. The study doesn’t either say why people play with strangers, but says that just 24% play because it allows them to connect with others (friends and strangers). I couldn’t find the 70% figure for people who made new friends through online games. Also, the study was made for PopCap but was not about players of PopCap’s games.7 Also, PopCap is hardly known for “synchronous” games and as far as I can gather none of the games named in the study were what Cook would call “synchronous”. The only social aspect Bejeweled Blitz offers, for example, is a high score list of your friends.

What I did learn from the study is that games are apparently divided into three distinct groups: social, casual and hardcore. Also, examples of social games were popular Flash-based games in Facebook (FarmVille, Mafia Wars, Bejeweled Blitz, etc.). I find this classification both stupid and harmful.

If there are people who truly believe that the “renaissance” of social games are Flash-based browser games with Google Ads and other monetization schemes we’re pretty far from anything resembling a rebirth of gaming.

  1. My bet, mobile. Look at Top 10 iPhone games and see how many of them are “social” at all. Not many.

  2. It seems to me that Cook’s definition is that to a game to be both social and synchronous means that both players share the same experience at the same time, but possibly at different places. He never really explains any of the fancy terms he uses, probably because he’s a pro.

  3. Words with Friends has Facebook integration to find friends, by the way.

  4. This is also the reason why “asynchronous” turn-based games are more suitable in Facebook’s context. This goes for mobile games as well. Forgetting the context where people play these “social” games is a another crucial omission Cook makes.

  5. and Mac!

  6. Sure, I agree that most of probably prefer to play with others our age and not with our parents. Do they even play games? PopCap’s study suggest they might, but not probably the games you and I play.

  7. Also, it only looked at US and UK “social” gamers and even between those two quite culturally similar groups there were notable differences in how people behaved.