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Social Gaming Summit: Recap and observations

Social Gaming Summit today
Thanks again to Charles Hudson for inviting me to attend the Social Gaming Summit. I won't spend too much time summarizing the content of the conference, because of the Efficient Blogging Market Hypothesis, which states:

For every conference event summary that's posted, there's already an existing one that's earlier, more comprehensive, and better written ;-)

In this case, Justin Smith and Mashable have already posted some partial writeups here and here. Instead, I'll just focus on a couple observations shared during the panel discussions which I found interesting.

1) The "social games" crowd mostly consists of web people learning about games, rather than the other way around
Although representatives were there from more "casual" companies like Nexon, Neopets (Viacom), etc., for the most part the audience consisted of web folks building on social networking platforms building out pretty light game experiences. You can tell from the conference agenda, which has topics like "What Makes Games Fun?" that the game discussion was pretty light. Compare that topic to something like "Distributing your game on the internet 101," which might be the inverse discussion targeted at the games audience.

Similarly, you don't have folks from hardcore console/FPS/RTS/MMOG companies there trying to figure out how to branch out into the social networking platforms. Although it's clear there's some discussion on this, the conference didn't include many of those people. Ultimately, I think this tells you that the social games world might continue to be driven around discussions on distribution, basic game mechanics, etc. rather than focusing on story, narrative, art, and other more creative elements of the games world.

It was an interesting point that John Welch from PlayFirst made about the use of games as a storytelling medium. In games, like movies, you can create intricate stories, with characters, tension, narratives, plotlines, and such – and in the case of Diner Dash, he tries to build that up. Compare that to many websites and the initial wave of social games, which are more like board games in that they are more rulesets and less stories.

2) Building from the social interaction up, rather than the virtual world down
A very compelling point made today by the IMVU CEO Cary Rosenzweig was around the process of designing IMVU from the ground up, rather than their previous project There.com. He said that when the IMVU originally constructed There.com, the problem was that they created a ton of "space" without the social activity to make it dense enough and interesting enough. It was too easy for users to end up wandering around the environment without interacting with each other enough. This description reminded me of the problems that Half Life faced early on, described here, where the levels weren't fun and had to be reconstituted to be as "dense" experientially as possible, to make it interesting.

Anyway, Cary then described that after this lesson about focusing too much on the world rather than the players, IMVU was constructed around the chat, and the environments have been created to enhance the chat experience as much as possible. This is similar to the idea of really figuring out one "core mechanic" of your product, in this case socializing, and doubling down on that rather than potentially creating a scenario where users are walking down beautiful, albeit empty streets. One might also point out that from the Bartle Types point of view, this serves socializers much more than explorers, because the latter might be OK with large empty environments. (Consider Myst as a good example of this)

3) Virtual worlds can be harder to build than well-bounded games
Another comment I liked was when Daniel James from Three Rings pointed out that in many cases, virtual worlds can be much tougher to build than traditional "games." The reason is that for his previous game, Puzzle Pirates, which revolves around a pirate theme, there is clear context. You know that pirates seek treasure, fight other pirates (and the British Navy), steer ships, say "ahoy" and "AARRR," and other ideas that fit into the mythology. This ultimately creates an internal set of motivations where the players sorta know what to do!

On the other hand, virtual worlds are sandbox structures which give the user more flexibility in how they want to play. But then subtle things, such as allowing photos versus avatars, using real names versus fake ones, start to impose a system of hidden rules to the social system. To guide the user to enjoy certain things, and allow them to be spontaneous is hard, when you're trying not to impose too much of yourself as a designer.

In a way, there's a big tradeoff in the contextual, immersive cultures versus the sandboxes. While the engagement might be better for your users who accept the context, the bad part is that the context also turns some % of users off. Similarly, a virtual world might lack context, which makes it more accessible for people who want to do a bunch of different things, yet this lack of context means you have to spend more time guiding the user in helping them develop their own goals

4) Social systems that are real-life relationships versus online relationships are different
Daniel also made an interesting point about products which reflect real-life relationships versus online relationships, which is that the latter facilitates fantastical experiences more effectively. That is, if you want to play a female character with a 17th century costume and name, you might not want your real friends to know, nor will you want to put too much of your real interests and information into the character. Similarly, if you are building your own stand-alone site, the ramp-up period to get to critical mass might be easier because you just have to get your main "public space" to have enough people to be interesting.

Compare this to Friends for Sale, a social game which uses real names, photos, and relationships to make a fun game out of the situation. This is a game that very likely would not exist without Facebook's social graph. Question is, given their use of real information, does it make it harder to create an immersive environment, storyline, and character cast? Maybe so.

In the above two paragraphs are two categories of games: Companies that create destination sites and create a social graph of users who don't know each other in real life, and on Facebook of real life friends, but then the companies bootstrap on a platform to make it happen. Imagine a social game that both was based on real friends but was also a standalone site! The critical mass issues there are much more complex and difficult.

5) Social activities that enhance game-playing, versus games that enhance socializing
Dave Williams, SVP of Shockwave and Addicting Games, made a great point about how they view their effort on their own destination site, Addicting Games, versus their efforts to build a presence on Facebook. He made the distinction that Addicting Games is really meant to be a destination site which is focused on making it fun to play games. All the social activities on the site must be meant to support that, rather than changing the focus to communication or socializing. The reverse is then true on Facebook, where the focus is on socializing, and games are a specific way to passively socialize, similar to watching a TV show together (sometimes in silence!)

I think this focus explains to me the stratification of sites that are really "content sites" like YouTube, MetaCafe, Miniclip, Addicting Games, ABC.com, Hulu, and others, which display media content and make it easy to consume, but don't really build social activities around the site. The reason is that putting these activities in there can dilute the core value of the site, and people would rather use their traditional methods (like MySpace, email, etc.) to pass the media around anyway.

Conclusion
Net/net, I had a lot of fun – thanks again to Charles, Jeremy, et al for putting this on!
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