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What distinguishes a social game from a multiplayer game? March 21, 2008

Posted by jeremyliew in games, games 2.0, social games, social gaming.

As I’ve spent more time looking at the games on Facebook, I’ve been trying to detangle the difference between a social game and a game on a social network. In response to my post on the top developers of Facebook games one commenter asked:

1. Andrew – February 13, 2008[Edit]

I’m all for the development of games on the Facebook Platform, and can even see the value and revenue model working…..but does it really need to be branded ‘Social Gaming’? The idea of playing multiplayer games isn’t exactly new, and even on a web model, Yahoo and MSN Games have existed for years….

Something about this didn’t sit right with me. Scrabulous feels like a social game to me, qualitatively different from multiplayer games on the web. But what is it that makes Scrabulous on Facebook a social game, but Chess at Pogo simply a multiplayer game? I think the difference is that social context has an impact on the game play and enjoyment.

Playing Scrabulous against my wife puts the game into context in a way that playing with a stranger that I met in the Yahoo games lobby simply doesn’t have. If I’m losing against a stranger, I might just abandon the game – not an option against my wife. If I’m taking too long to move, I’ll hear about it from my wife in a way that will cause me to play- not true for a stranger. The bragging rights on the win will be more meaningful and last much longer when I’m playing my wife. And finally, the act of playing itself has the subtext “I’m thinking of you” that is absent when playing against a stranger, where the game is the only concern.

That being said, many of the games on Facebook lack this social context. Warbook and Texas Hold’em, their success notwithstanding, are more like multiplayer games that happen to sit on top of a social networks – the social context is not a key element to the game itself.

One game that has strong social context is Parking Wars. Ian Bogost has a great discussion of the social context of Parking Wars over at Gamasutra:

In Parking Wars, each player gets a street with several spaces as well as a handful of cars, which come in different colors. Play involves virtually parking these cars on the streets of one’s Facebook friends. Each car earns money by remaining parked on the street over time, but the player can only cash out a car’s value by moving it to another space. Players level up at specific dollar figures, earning new cars as they do so.

Some spaces have special rules, like “red cars only,” or “no parking allowed.” It’s possible to park illegally in these spaces, but if their owners catch you they can choose to issue a ticket, which tows the player from the space and forfeits the money earned to the space’s owner.

parking wars screenshot

When possible, it’s best to park legally. However, in practice this isn’t easy, since many players vie for the limited resources of their friends’ collective parking lots, just like we do with our coworkers at the office. Moreover, very occasionally the signs on spaces change, so no one’s guaranteed to be safe.

Playing Parking Wars is an exercise in predicting friends’ schedules. A colleague in Europe is likely to be sleeping during the evening in the States, and thus his street might offer safe haven at that hour.

And just as some meter-maids don’t get around to patrolling real streets, so some players of Parking Wars don’t get around to patrolling their virtual one. Of course, such players might just be busy, or they might even be baiting their colleagues so that they can later issue a whirlwind of unexpected tickets.

The social context – knowing which of your friends are diligent about ticketing and which are not, and who might be too busy (or sleepy!) to be ticketing at a particular time, are key elements of the gameplay.

MindJolt, Jetman and Diveman are all games that use the “challenge” dynamic as their social context to drive repeat play.

I’m looking forward to seeing more games involving explicit social context get launched over time. What games do readers think have social context as part of their gameplay, thereby making them social games?


1. Sidney Price - March 21, 2008

Friends For Sale! comes to mind as a game specifically designed for the social context.

2. Alexey Kostarev - March 21, 2008

The main difference between social games and traditional multiplayer games on portals like pogo, msn, bigfishgames is the content of this games. If the generated and the main coтtent of the game is social content based on communication between players it is more social game. Important is that the content of the game is the significant sum for the player condition of the game as the system. For example Mafia game.

3. Nabeel Hyatt - March 21, 2008

It’s no surprise that two of the most popular board games in the last 10 years, practically the only new franchises in board games, were both social games. Would you Rather? and Cranium — are both explicitly social in their context.

In Would You Rather? you can’t help but get personal, and it’s one of the really great things about that mechanic. In Facebook, Friends for Sale is a great example of a social mechanic – layering a market-based economy on top of Hot or Not.

4. Paul - March 21, 2008

What a fantastic game. The closest I have seen to social gaming 1.0. I’m an ex-hardcore gamer so maybe it is simply the first game I have seen that makes me think ‘aaah so that is what all the fuss is about’. Warbooks, Poker, Scrabble, Jetman are games that have had social functionality bolted on to them. I would argue that Parking Wars cannot even exist outside of the social graph and is therefore one of the first mature social games.

5. Li - March 21, 2008


For your “definition” of social gaming, then every game in a social context/environment would be such one. I see two trends:
1. social networking companies adding game, such as Meebo.com. You open a chat window with any IM friend and you can play a game with them. So potentially, QQ, AIM, ICQ, Skype(already has embeded game), will all be killer here.
2. game company adding social element. Those MMORPG in Asian countries (China/Korea etc) in one hand doesn’t fit your definition as I am “fighting” with a stranger but on the other hand, once I became a friend with someone in the virtual world or just playing with my friend, then it’s a very social gaming.
3. 3rd options such as Yahoo (neither game company nor SNS site), they also could do this fairly easy. But pain for Yahoo is focus & execution.

Anyway, I think your definition of “social game” is nothing new but more emphasize on the “scale”, even though you may not explicitly state that.(Or I could be wrong). Game on Facebook truly has a potential to become next headline and since people’s attention allocated to game is just that much, traditional game company should really worry about this.

Li Hong

6. Andrew - March 21, 2008

Me again…I think the investments in this area are sound, as are the business models, I just wasn’t a fan of the naming convention. If you think about it in the Social Context – I’ve been able to play Chess, Uno, Billiards, Scrabble, etc on MSN Messenger by directly challenging a friend while were chatting away, so there is some Social Context to that as well.

7. preetam mukherjee - March 21, 2008

a friend of mine does some fun experiments w/ social gaming:

the waiting game: http://waiting.nickreid.com/

hot books: http://www.htbks.com/

billing 06: http://www.nickreid.com/06/

i know he has a few others but these are on his site right now…

8. Ian Bogost - March 22, 2008

The thing about most of the FB games — even the ones that rely on deeper social context like Parking Wars or Packrat — is that they are still essentially games about collecting things. In Parking Wars its money, and now badges (a new feature that renews the game for veterans). For Packrat it’s literally stuff, virtual stuff, but stuff nonetheless. And stuff in groups. Packrat exhibits some of the same prankishness/trickery that I discussed in the Gama article, i.e. you can steal stuff from people when they’re not looking, or even when they are. Likewise, Friends for Sale is a bit devious in this fashion.

But I’m not sure I’ve yet seen a “social game” that allows people to collaborate through deep knowledge of their friends social context. Anybody?

9. Three examples of truly social games « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - March 25, 2008

[…] mechanics, games, games 2.0, gaming, social games, social gaming. trackback Last week I asked what distinguishes a social game from a multiplayer game and suggested that for social games, social context has an impact on gameplay and enjoyment. […]

10. We’re excited to invest in Serious Business/Friends For Sale! « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - April 26, 2008

[…] networks. As I’ve mentioned before, social games differ from merely multiplayer games in that social context has an impact on the game play and enjoyment. I believe that the Serious Business team has a deep understanding of how to create these social […]

11. Inside Social Games » Blog Archive » What distinguishes social games from multi-player games? - Tracking the convergence of games and social networks - May 8, 2008

[…] What makes playing Scrabble with friends and family different than playing with strangers? Jeremy Liew describes how the social context affects game play within Scrabulous well: Playing Scrabulous against my wife […]

12. Social gaming is a tactic not a category « Lightspeed Venture Partners Blog - March 25, 2009

[…] social gaming, viral, viral marketing, virtual goods. trackback I’ve been blogging a lot about social games over the past couple of years and have been a big proponent of the space. However, […]

13. Multiplayer game - April 19, 2009

Really intresting subject, thanks for a great article really gave me a new perspective on the multiplayer game thinking.

14. Langeweile - April 24, 2009

Nice aspects! Thanks for sharing your knowledge… added your blog zu my feedreader 🙂

15. A&E Facebook Parking Wars - October 6, 2009

[…] The engagement is measured not just by the number of users, but by their daily involvement. Fewer than 5% of registered users are active in most Facebook apps, but 30-40% of Parking Wars players are active in the game on any given day. This has yielded over 250,000,000 page views in two months. Its success has led to feature articles in BusinessWeek (1,2) and wide coverage across various media (1,2). […]

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