Facebook has irrevocably changed how we interact online, and even offline, but its influence has extended to other areas besides relationship statuses and vacation photo albums. This little-startup-turned-corporate-giant has changed society by helping usher in concepts such as social marketing.
But one of the biggest impacts Facebook has had is also one of the most overlooked: the gaming industry.
Facebook entered the market during a time when the blockbuster games were hitting their stride, with major franchises such as "Halo," "Call of Duty," "Zelda" and "Gears of War" leading the way. But Facebook developers saw an opportunity to sidestep the "hard-core" gamers and cater to the distracted teenagers, the bored employees and the moms who just needed a break.
And suddenly, the casual game market took off.
There have always been casual games, but acceptance wasn't widespread beyond some surreptitious rounds of Solitaire when the boss wasn't looking. Now Facebook (along with the surging interest in smartphone game apps) has made it much more common for consumers to identify themselves as gamers, even if they never consider playing the traditional blockbuster games.
Peter Molyneux, a renowned game designer, has said that Facebook-style casual gaming is leading to a rebirth for PC gaming, which has been in a gradual decline since the advent of the modern game console. Indeed, social gaming companies such as Zynga and Playfish have user bases numbering in the hundreds of millions of players, something any PC game maker would envy.
So what has Facebook (and, to be fair, other online casual game sites) done to change the gaming landscape so dramatically? Here are a few factors:
Facebook made games mainstream
It's a simple function of being the single largest social network in the world (around 750 million accounts). Everyone has had a chance to be exposed to FarmVille, even if they haven't played it themselves. When so many people are trying it out, others want to see what the fuss is about, and Facebook has plenty of people to introduce games to those who wouldn't have known about them otherwise.
Facebook made games social
One of the biggest draws of Facebook's brand of casual games was adding multiplayer elements. The very nature of the social network makes it easy for players to help one another, share resources and offer tips. It's an environment tailor-made for limited multiplayer gaming, and casual players thrive on the feeling of connecting with people while they play.
Facebook made games manageable
The classic gaming stereotype, while not always true, holds that gamers spend large chunks of their day playing. Many people don't game because they just don't want to commit the time to it. Facebook offered bite-size chunks of gaming, so to speak, that let people pop in when they had 15 minutes and leave again, knowing they could come back when they had another moment. This made gaming much more accessible and manageable for those who didn't think they would ever try a game to begin with.
Facebook made games addictive
It's no secret that some people already found games addictive, but Facebook game designers created an interesting twist that keeps people even more enthralled: the timer. As mentioned above, one of the keys of Facebook gaming is a game that manages itself well and only needs a player to check in periodically to monitor how things are going. FarmVille is the quintessential example. Players set up important processes, such as planting or feeding, and can leave the game for minutes, even hours, while they do other things. Then the player returns later to collect the rewards.
This kind of macromanagement has proved addictive to casual gamers, not only because it provides the illusion of being able to leave a game whenever they want, but also because gamers can let the game run in the background and just return for the rewards. Even though the game play is vastly different from traditional games (and consequently often boring to hard-core gamers), it has proved incredibly addictive for many people who impulsively return to the game at regular intervals to check on their farm or city or gang, etc.
Facebook made games free … ish
The "freemium" game model, where basic game play is free but players must pay for in-game accessories or additional features, had seen only limited use before social gaming came along. Designers had success stories, but until Facebook gaming took off, no one knew just how lucrative it could be.
Of course, playing games for free was key to those who just wanted a quick distraction or didn't consider themselves gamers. But once they became engrossed in a game and had invested large amounts of time in their digital world, it became much easier to pay a buck or two for small perks. Over time, game designers have found that they can make even more money with the freemium model than with traditional game sales, and many consumers feel like they're getting more for their money because they are paying for things they already have a vested interest in, rather than a game they have yet to play.
Facebook isn't the end
Many an apoplectic gamer or game designer has spilled diatribes all over the Internet about how Facebook has destroyed gaming. Major game publishers such as Electronic Arts are investing heavily in social gaming, making many worry that time-honored gaming styles will be left behind.
Facebook has certainly changed the gaming industry permanently, but it's hard to see this as the end of traditional games. New games for the Xbox 360 are having opening weekends that rival that of movie box offices, and the contingent of hard-core gamers is stronger than ever.
Still, everyone should get used to seeing Facebook integration in their consoles and solicitations for help with a troublesome cow, because those trends aren't going away any time soon.