July 2010

The past few weeks have seen a distinct ramp up in rumors surrounding a new Google social network in the works — with social gaming being a big part of those rumored plans. Even though we have no details on what such a service would look like, we’re pretty excited about the potential of what a company like Google could do to revolutionize social gaming as we know it. Here are five features we’d like to see Google look into if and when they finally enter the social gaming arena.

Recommendations: One of the best things about Google’s search algorithm is that it almost always seems to magically know exactly what you want, no matter how cryptic the search phrase. Imagine if you had these same sort of magical recommendations to guide you to interesting social games. Google’s experience finding patterns in reams of data could help their social network lead players to the games they’re most likely to like.

And rest assured, Google would have reams of data to work with; from the play habits of you and your friends to your physical location to your search history and even the contents of your Gmail and Google Docs accounts. Sure it’s a little creepy to think about all the data Google collects about an average user, but if they’re going to be mining that data anyway, they may as well pay you back with some interesting game recommendations, right?

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Surprisingly, the Snake game Easter Egg that was revealed on YouTube this week isn’t the first example of a playable game on the online video service. On the contrary, for the last two years YouTube’s video annotation feature has let users add a measure of interactivity to their videos, in the form of clickable buttons that lead down different paths.
While a lot of the “interactive videos” to be uploaded in that time come across as lazy, cheesy or generally unwatchable, there are a few that actually take the idea in some interesting directions.

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Without a doubt, Xbox Live Arcade’s Limbo is an instant classic. The reviews are near-unanimous in their praise. Limbo is “bleak and beautiful.” It’s “haunting.” It’s “elegant and minimalistic.” It’s “clever.” It’s “gorgeously constructed.” It “will stay with you for a very long time.” Some are already calling it “a masterpiece.” Others are breaking out the dreaded a-word: “Art.”

But there’s one other thing Limbo reviewers are almost equally unanimous about. Some seem almost reluctant to bring it up. Others seem proud that they were able to find some flaw to balance out an otherwise glowing review.

Regardless, the critical consensus seems to be that Limbo is excellent but, well… it’s kind of short.

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“You get a cow. You can click on it. In six hours, you can click it again. Clicking earns you clicks.”

Such is the basic description of Cow Clicker, a new Facebook game that definitely delivers what its title promises — the ability to click on a cow. Yes, there are a few other social game trappings thrown in there — you can invite neighbors whose cow clicks count towards your total, and you can purchase prettier cows with in-game “mooney” — but there’s really little besides the titular cow clicking to this simple parody game.

Cow Clicker Creator and Georgia Tech professor Ian Bogost describes Cow Clicker as “Facebook games distilled to their essence” and in a way he’s right. Read that description from the first paragraph again. Replace “a cow” with “crops,” and “clicks” at the end with “coins” and you have a bare bones description of the basic gameplay in Facebook mega-hit Farmville. The same process can be applied to describe countless other popular social games. Cow Clicker even lets you spend mooney to skip the six-hour wait for more click opportunities, mimicking the way many other social games let you spend in-game money to avoid having to wait for rewards.

But Bogost’s simple parody utterly misses the point of social gaming in some major ways. Sure, in strict gameplay terms, there’s little to differentiate Cow Clicker from countless popular social games. But for million of players, the appeal of social games isn’t in the gameplay, but in the opportunity for world building and role-playing.

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Advergames on Facebook are nothing new — there are Facebook games marketing everything from cars to the distrubingly wholesome power of milk, and practically everything in between. But so far there hasn’t been a Facebook advergame that markets the field of marketing itself. Until now!

PoweRBrands is a creation of Reckitt Benckiser — the parent company of brands like Clearasil, Lysol and Woolite — that invites you to “use your innovative sales skills and marketing ideas to outperform your rivals, and work your way up to be President of the company.” Along the way, you’re told you’ll learn to “think and act like an RB person” and “learn something about global FMCG along the way” (that’s “fast-moving consumer goods” for those of you who aren’t already marketing professionals)

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The recent hard times for the social gaming market have been harder on some games than others. Last week, social-gaming mega-publisher Zynga decided to shut down two well-established parts of its catalog. First, the servers for Roller Coaster Kingdom (RCK) were shut off, then Ponzi Inc., a promising game Zynga got as part of a Challenge Games acquisition less than a month ago, went dark for good.

So, what can we learn from the abrupt termination of these two games? Well, one lesson seems to be that the standards for success in social gaming are going to keep increasing — at least for the big publishers. Despite their declining popularity, both Ponzi Inc. and Roller Coaster Kingdom had a relatively decent number of monthly active users when they were closed — 221,000 players for Ponzi and 1.2 million players for RCK. That might not seem like much compared against Farmville’s industry-leading 62 million monthly players, but it probably doesn’t seem like chump change to many struggling social game makers just getting their start.

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I covered the show for Joystiq. All the posts can be found here, but here are some highlights:

As usual, there was no shortage of highly anticipated games at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo. But amidst all the new game announcements, there were a few games that were conspicuous by their absence — games that had been announced or mentioned at past E3s that were, for one reason or another, relegated to the shadows for this year’s show. Here’s a rundown of some of the games we missed at this year’s show, and the latest on their status.

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