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As has been known to happen every once in a while, the Internet has gone completely berserk over a new technology that nobody knew even existed a week ago. And, as has been known to happen every once in a while, the mind flayers at Google are behind it all.
Google has been trying to figure out its angle into social networking for a while. If you're a keen watcher, you'll know that social and sharing features have been quietly sneaking into Google Reader, Chat and other Googly services for a while. You'll know that Google most recently stunned the world with Wave, a super-cool real time inbox tool that nobody has as yet found a compelling use for, but which speaks volumes about the technical skill of the company that created it.
And this week, they seem to have cracked the social network box open wide with a little thing called Buzz. Buzz is an addition into Google Mail that basically brings a Twitter-like network using your pre-existing contacts and encourages sharing, commenting and liking all while integrating (sort of) with your e-mail to help you keep track of the madness. And it can import feeds from selected sites (soon to expand no doubt) so that you can be automatically sharing your good and not-so-good stuff if you choose. On first glance it appeared that this might be another DOA like Wave has kind-of been for most users. 2 days and millions of users later, it looks like Google has hit the jackpot.
What seems to have prompted Buzz is the death of Friendfeed. Friendfeed is a social networking service which does a stand-up brilliant job of aggregating and republishing feeds from just about everywhere and functions as an amazing pipe. Friendfeed was where the social networking pro's congregated until Facebook bought the company and effectively killed the development of the service. The brilliant engineers behind Friendfeed have apparently been working away in the Facebook mines ever since, though it's not entirely apparent on what exactly.
Many of those social networking pro's left Friendfeed and went back (grudgingly) to Twitter. Twitter's fast, but it's also noisy and kind of annoying and lacks many of the advanced features that Friendfeed has. And then along comes Buzz, and everybody from Robert Scoble to Mashable are all over it like a hot rash. (I seem to be acquiring followers by the hour also, and my Reader followers has jumped from 10 since time immemorial to 120 just today).
By getting the early adopter crowd in and getting them excited, Buzz has a great advantage. Also by answering all of the open-web-standards call (which is very Googlicious) it looks set to be that perfect melange of Facebook sophistication and Twitter portability that the pro's have always lusted after (and which Friendfeed promised to be until it wasn't).
So what does all this mean for social games? The answer is a great deal. It's a game changer.
One of the key things that has defined social games up until this point has been their close-platform heritage. Social games, for the most part, actually means "Facebook games", and whether those games are big and sophisticated or small and silly, they all live within the Facebook hallowed walls. A few of them break out from time to time, like Farmville.com, but the perceived best strategy until now has been that the social network site is the platform. So you have to go where the platform goes.
So Buzz looks like it wants to kick all that out. If the platform is going to be more open, e-mail based and consist of users following and forwarding sites and feeds from just about anywhere, this begs the question: Do social games really need Facebook any more?
I see three possible scenarios:
1. The social game that is its own presence. A social game that I follow using Twitter, Buzz or some form of Facebook Connect. Following grants access to the game. So in this scenario, the social game attracts tribes of willing membership and "installing" the application (to use the Facebook metaphor) is as simple as a Follow or Unfollow.
2. The social game that uses Buzzes or Tweets to notify you of game updates. Facebook are killing game notifications inside their platform because developers have been abusing them as an advertising channel. However with Twitter or Buzz followers, I as user have much more direct control over that interaction anyway, so this alters the nature of notification traffic to be something more positive and relevant.
3. The social game that is a melange. It exists on Facebook, but also on other platforms, and essentially melds its various user bases under one semi-contiguous meta-platform of platforms. Personally, I think this will be a nightmare to co-ordinate, but I also think that for many of the companies that have already staked their claim in Facebook that it will be the best way for them to get started on their next phase. (I also think that such projects will have something of a commitment-phobia though, so that might cause them to only try this stuff half-assedly and thus fail).
The main risk is spam.
Social games have thus far not been shy about using spam or advertising techniques to drive user retention even though all users everywhere hate advertising based content. Some cheeky games like Spymaster basically try and use Twitter as an ad-and-story channel, a strategy that has led Twitter gaming to rise and fall with spectacular speed. Twitterers have no patience at all for applications or other users who fill their busy streams with unwanted adverts. Somebody will try and use Buzz the same way, with the same results.
I think that this will lead to a community of Buzz and other game users who become very switched on very quickly about crapplications that spend a lot of time trying to steal their attention. On the other hand I think it opens the door for a Zynga (or indeed any other developer) to really hammer home a platform strategy. You may not like Farmville, but imagine a Farmville player who follows Farrmville and gets nothing but relevant and personal interactions from its notification channel as opposed to the impersonal stuff that we already see. That's engagement through the roof.
I don't know about you, but this all has me pretty buzzed. Pun intended.