Compared to how long computers have existed and even compared to how long the internet has existed, social networking is a relatively new phenomenon. Facebook and MySpace have both existed for less than a decade and LiveJournal is only 11 years old. Applications that run on these platforms and allow users to play a game, otherwise known as social networking games, have been around for even less time than that. Yet, due to the burgeoning popularity of social networking sites, these games are quickly gaining massive popularity, with the biggest social networking games able to claim over 50 million active players.
In comparison, the biggest massively multiplayer online role playing game, World of Warcraft, has only 11 million subscribers and the best selling game of 2010, New Super Mario Bros. Wii has only sold approximately 16 million copies. In fact the only current game with even vaguely comparable numbers is Wii Sports which is packaged with every Wii sold.
These numbers create the impression that social networking games are gaining traction as a new form of gaming, which is true. They also lead to the question of whether social networking games are competition for the gaming industry. And, if they are competition, is the growing popularity of social networking games a threat to the traditional gaming industry? While there is some cause for concern in the gaming industry, for the following reasons the gaming industry should not yet be overly concerned by the growing trend.
Price – Social networking games are, in general, free to play. While nobody dislikes free, that doesn’t mean that free games will always come out on top. In fact, there is a strong belief among most gamers that quality goes hand in hand with price. A free or low cost game is generally considered to be inferior to a pricier, but similar game. And, there is some truth to this. But, whether it is true or not, most gamers actually want to know that a game should have a high cost, whether or not the player actually paid for it. In addition, while social networking games are mostly free, nearly every social networking game provides additional benefits to players who do pay money for it. This creates a disparity between those who have paid and those who haven’t that often turns off gamers.
Time Investment – While social networking games usually require less of a time investment than traditional games, they often require that time to be invested at specific intervals if the player wants to fully benefit. A traditional game can be played at will and does not require it to be accessed at specific times. A game should be beholden to the player, not vice versa, and this feature is one that turns off many players.
Casual Players – The majority of players on social networking games are what are described as casual players in the gaming market. These are people who aren’t particularly interested in playing long or difficult games and likely do not own a home console. Only one of the three major console designers, Nintendo, is actively courting casual gamers with the current generation. Both Sony and Microsoft design games primarily for hardcore gamers. Since casual gamers aren’t really an audience for these systems, the popularity of social networking games is unlikely to hurt sales. Nintendo may feel the pinch slightly, but that is likely to be countered by the fact that social networking games are causing people who never before played games to get interested in video games in general. This can and is likely to lead to new consumers for the gaming industry.
Handheld Systems – One of the major advantages of social networking games is the ability to play them anywhere and at any time. Handheld gaming devices already provide this advantage. The current generation of handheld devices are as powerful as the console systems of the previous generation and the Nintendo 3DS, which is expected to be released within the year, will actually be the first system ever to provide 3D gaming without special graphics. This particular benefit of social networking games is a lot less appealing when a handheld system can do the same thing much more powerfully.
Friends – The most obvious benefit of social networking games is that they take advantage of the social networking site to allow people to play the game with friends. Playing video games with friends has had a strong appeal ever since the early days of arcade games and little has changed on that front. The appeal is especially strong with social networking games because nearly every one that exists provides large benefits when multiple friends play the game. In fact, many Zynga games practically require that at least a dozen friends play the game, in order to succeed in the games. But, this trend is nothing new, and nearly all of the major game developers are aware of it. Multiplayer modes are practically standard in every game and the Xbox 360, PS3, and Wii all have ways of creating a friend list and playing games with friends. In fact, with the exception of the Wii, playing games with friends is much less difficult and intrusive in traditional games than it is with social networking games.
In the midst of a nearly worldwide recession, free social networking games may seem to some like a preferable option to traditional video games, but that alone is unlikely to topple the video game industry. Sales figures prove that the industry is weathering the recession remarkably well and social networking games have been popular for long enough that any major damage to the industry would already be apparent if price was the cause of a downturn in sales. Cost simply doesn’t tell the whole story. While social networking games can be fun, they also tend to be a time sink. And, the major way to avoid that time sink is to spend money. This nullifies the major advantage of social networking games. In addition, most social networking games are rather basic, utilizing game play that was first introduced a decade or two ago. The simple fact is that traditional games and social networking games aren’t really competing at this time. They appeal to mostly different audiences and fulfill different needs.