What Makes Gaming Social?

In case we needed proof that social gaming is hot, look no further than the not one but two Silicon Valley conferences being held this month that are dedicated to the space. Yet with representatives at Interplay and the Social Gaming Summit from companies as far afield as Meebo, IMVU and Kongregate, it makes you wonder if there is anything linking these companies together at all. It’s time to define what we mean by social gaming, so that we can better focus on the actual value we are creating for the players themselves — and avoid the trap of slapping a sparkly new phrase on any gaming startup that wanders onto the scene.

Just as social networking is a tag applied to just about anything community-related on the web, it is temping to lump every game that has chat or a shared leaderboard under the social gaming umbrella. But to do so muddies the water of a category that just may be the natural progression from social networking. While social networking is focused on connecting people together, we should expect the best of social gaming to be about creating and building relationships with those friends. Not every multiplayer game is a social game, and by looking at it this way we can see that social gaming has a lot more in common with Wii Sports, Rock Band and Monopoly than it does with single-player casual games like Bejeweled or Bloons.

Texas Hold’em Poker is a great example of a synchronous social game. Playing a game of Texas Hold’em Poker with a friend tells me a host of things that last far longer than the game, including their level of aggression, willingness to bluff, and proclivity for risk. It’s also in the camp of games designed to rely on fast feedback in order to give a sense of being “there” with your fellow players. This real-time nature ties Texas Hold’em to synchronous communities that include Kart Rider, World of Warcraft and Club Penguin.

Synchronous social games feel like real-time card games at their lightest, and like Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games at their deepest. The unifier for synchronous startups such as I’minlikewithyou, Three Rings, and Habbo Hotel, is that in an increasingly “always on” world in which we are overwhelmed with choices, the high-value online communities of tomorrow will be the ones that get users past the “snacking phase” of browsing and asynchronous interactions to a place where they are engaged with each other.

This is in direct contrast to the other crop of social gaming companies, typified by Scrabuluous, that rely on turn-based asynchronous game mechanics to lower the stress level and focus on playing with your current crop of friends. Games such as Social Gaming Network’s Warbook, Ikarium, and Serious Games’ Friends for Sale have the benefit of closely matching the current behavioral model of social networks in which posting to walls and poking one other serve as the primary modes of communication. These games allow users to take time to make their decisions, they integrate well with a players current set of friends, and they do not require the “presence” that real-time games require.

Conduit Labs, the startup we founded a year ago this month, is firmly in the camp of creating a new, real-time social entertainment network. Despite this, however, I don’t think synchronous social gaming is going to “win” over asynchronous. They simply represent two very different types of play on the web, one ideal for maintaining relationships and the other for creating new ones. Just as there is room for both email and IM, there are key things that make each valuable.

To use an offline analogy, imagine trying to start a relationship, from scratch, entirely through sending snail mail back and forth. On the flip side, imagine trying to get 15 of your best friends to agree to get together at a concert. It’s a scheduling nightmare that might work in a rare situation, but you might as well just grab coffee with a couple of them at a time. In other words, synchronous gaming is a powerful way to build new relationships and have deeper interactions with current friends, asynchronous gaming is perfect for low-pressure friend/acquaintance maintenance.

What both of these modes of play have in common — and what separates them from other multiplayer games and the single-player gaming industry — is the real world social resonance of their activities. When a friend changes their relationship status on Facebook to “single” there is a emotional meaning that transcends the site. Similarly, there are the stories of Monopoly leading to long-term family feuds, to marriages that started from playing World of Warcraft, and to the effects of Rock Band on a group of friends at a party. Social gaming holds the promise of letting us have a little fun together online in a way that has meaning. That’s something worth remembering over the coming months as a slew of startups try to use the term social gaming to define everything in sight.

Written by Nabeel Hyatt, one of the co-founders of Conduit Labs.