There is a question being bandied about by people in the game industry. It effects something you do, or, if you don't, your friend, roommate, wife or fencing opponent does. Social gaming.
Is social gaming - games played on social networks, like Facebook and MySpace - actually gaming? Millions of users have already given their tacit approval that there is indeed entertainment value in those games. But what puts hardcore gamers' skivvies in a knot is the idea that there has been total sacrifice of gameplay in exchange for filthy lucre - that these "games" have been so neutered that they only outwardly resemble gaming. And so the more important question is this: Are hardcore gamers simply demanding that all cars on the road be sports cars, or are they a bellwether of a shift in social gaming from click-click-click, to quality?
"Social games are making tons of money," said Karen Clark, a Project Manager at several large triple-A game development houses. "They are like slot machines made legal and web-accessible. There's a lot of investment. Most game people think these 'games' suck because they are more like exercises in clicking and monetization of customers than they are fun."
It is a burgeoning area. In December, Digital Sky Technologies bought into Zynga for $180 million. EA snapped up PlayFish for $400 million and Playdom, whose "Social City" game racked up 10 million players in about a month of existence, scored a $43 million series B.
Most social games as well as some casual games make use a business model of selling in-game "currency" for the purchase of anything from fertilizer to a straight-razor and combining that with player-privileges sales and advertising.
"The business model for social games worked really well," said Mark Hendrickson of Big Fish, a Seattle-based gaming company, "because there were only a few companies who could harvest all the affiliate money and swamp anyone else's efforts by putting that money right back into the Facebook ad network. I really think they should have called it 'Facebook gaming.' Social gaming is only on the radar because it is a really, really cheap way to possibly make a whole lot of money, if implemented properly.
"As Facebook goes, so goes social gaming."
Tami Baribeau, the producer of Metaplace's Island Life game on Facebook, sees it very differently.
"Games go where people go," she said. "Social networks are clearly a hot platform right now because it's where people are spending time on the web."
She attributes the fiction that gameplay is compromised to hardcore gamer prejudice more than to any pandering to a lowest common denominator.
"The fact that social games are whittled down to their basic core mechanics and feedback loop mean that they're instantly understandable, casual, and the fun is easy to find. This is why they open up the market to so many people, and such a different demographic than traditional console/PC gaming. Traditional gamers don't like to admit (or simply don't realize) that games do not have to be massive, 3D, scripted, deep, and immersive experiences in order to be fun and engaging and monetizable. "
Alex Swanson, Project Lead at Playdom, also disagrees with the notion that good gameplay is stepped back in social gaming.
"Initially computers themselves were extremely complex and difficult to learn, so the platform self-selected for people that were tolerant of (or even attracted by) complexity," he said. "Since then computers have be come much more accessible, creating a gap in the market between the average computer user and the average 'gamer.'
"Part of the reason that games like these were never very successful prior to the existence of social networks is once again an issue of accessibility. These games are built around the idea that the user has a connected identity. Trying to ask users to build out their social graph as part of entering a game would create an insurmountable barrier to entry. Fortunately, Facebook has already convinced the players to do this by providing its own unique benefits."
If you play social games, you probably do not care about this argument. You play because it's fun. Maybe that's enough. Maybe it's not for one group of gamers to tell another that they oughtn't love what they love.
"All I know," said one social gamer, " is I've met the nicest people playing Mafia Wars."
For another view of social gaming, see ReadWriteWeb's post on Armchair Revolutionary.