Monday, June 1, 2009
(05-31) 16:25 PDT — When the best-selling game The Sims debuts with its third version tomorrow, it will include a Web site where players can share videos and snippets of information about their game experience.
“Their friends will be able to see those pages. They’ll be able to share those (things) and interact around the world,” said John Buchanan, senior director of marketing at Electronic Arts, the publisher of the life-simulation video game.
Buchanan acknowledges that the player profiles on thesims3.com will be like a version of the social networking site Facebook. But instead of sharing pictures of their kids or events in their own lives, players will report the milestones of their Sims, the imaginary people who populate the game.
Although EA is only dabbling in social networking for the moment, moves by the Redwood Shores company signal a growing convergence between the established video game industry and the evolving social networks like Facebook and MySpace.
The growth of social networks, where a widening swath of the population spends an increasing amount of time, provides gamemakers another avenue to grow their audience. A number of games designed specifically for social networks, such as Zygna’s popular Mafia Wars, have attracted big followings.
Besides launching its own social network for Sims players, EA will have a new tool that makes it easy for Sims 3 players to upload videos from their games onto their Facebook profiles.
EA also created a mini-game to promote The Sims 3 on Facebook. Previously, it launched an officially sanctioned version of Scrabble for Facebook (filling a void after a similar game called Scrabulous was shut down). EA has more games for social networks in the works.
It’s no mystery why video game sellers would want to connect their products with the social network phenomenon. In just five years, Facebook has accumulated 200 million regular users, two-thirds of them outside of Facebook’s original college student demographic.
Expanding its reach
That broad appeal is tantalizing to the game industry, which has tried for years to expand its own customer profile beyond young men. There have been successes – short online games known as casual games and, notably, the Nintendo Wii have brought in some older players and some women.
But proponents say that social games – which are usually played among friends and relatives who are connected on the social networks – stand to blow down the walls separating the world’s gamers and non-gamers.
Besides being played among real-life friends, social games are distinguished from other video games by including some kind of cooperation or incorporating social interaction in the game play.
For instance, Mafia Wars players are part of a gang, and recruiting more members is one of the ways that the gangs gain power. It also happens to make the game incredibly viral.
The convergence of games and social networks is already growing the audience for both businesses, said analyst Atul Bagga, an analyst with ThinkEquity.
“I have a son and he’s 11 years old. He did not have a Facebook account and he would always hook up to his mom’s account just to play (social game) Geo Challenge,” said Bagga. At the same time, his 35-year-old sister, who had never played video games, now plays Sudoku on Facebook to connect with family members who live far away.
Facebook says that games are the most popular applications on the network, with 2 million active users playing the 10 most popular games.
Bagga sees social games growing into a $1 billion market within three years. Aiding that growth will be the popularity of the iPhone, which allows people to fit in a little game play anywhere, whenever they have time.
EA’s Facebook gambits represent “the beginning of a trend,” said Gareth Davis, who leads gaming efforts on Facebook. “We talk frequently with the major developers and publishers and they’re all interested in figuring out how to combine Facebook with their games.”
That doesn’t mean the big game companies are jumping feet first into social games, though. The market is still small, and so far, the main forces behind the new niche are startups. The creator of three of the top five games on Facebook is Zynga, a San Francisco company that has ballooned to more than 250 employees from 45 one year ago.
Zynga was co-founded by Mark Pincus, a 43-year-old serial entrepreneur who also started Tribe.net, one of the first social network sites, in 2003. Its most popular games are Texas Hold ‘Em and Mafia Wars.
Zynga, which Pincus likes to call a “ghetto Google,” recalls colorful dot-com startups of yore in more than just its quick-growing payroll; it’s housed in an old potato chip factory and employs nine chefs to serve up organic meals.
Like other Facebook applications, Zynga’s games are free to play. The company brings in revenue through advertising, selling virtual items that enhance game play, and generating leads for outside marketers. For instance, Mafia Wars players can earn points if they sign up for a trial of Blockbuster’s monthly video rental plan.
Different revenue streams
The revenue streams in social games are fundamentally different from the established video game business, which is still selling game DVDs for $50 or so or charging a monthly fee for online games. That’s one reason why analyst Bagga expects the big game companies to let Zynga and other startups flesh out the business model.
“As the market starts to grow bigger, the easier thing for Activision or EA would be to buy one of these companies,” Bagga said.
Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appeared on page C – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle