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Google Buzz and Social Games
by Tadhg Kelly on 02/12/10 06:02:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

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, 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.
Twitter: @tadhgk
Buzz:  tadhgk

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Lin Swimmer
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Long time reader, first time poster. But I'll take a quick stab at it.

Here's my Buzz proposal, as it was posted originally, excluding the link here explaining where the idea popped up.

If it's okay with everyone, I'd like dibs on the anti-social angst-ridden non-team-player Raphael/Starbuck/Tim Riggins cliché. We can always have more than one! Or a whole "band" of them. I don't know.

Just throwing it out there.

Rather than wait for someone much smarter and busier than myself to think of an actually sensible method of approaching this problem... I'll just start us off. :D

* * * * *

The year is unspecified. While we're at it, geographic location and techno-sociological development are equally unspecified.

A deep snow blankets the coastline.

Your memory is intact, damaged, or irrelevant as you see fit.

You have no weight restrictions, but are not carrying a samurai sword.

So... what do you do?

[Character sheets are not necessary. If you're at a loss, try VERB on OBJECT. The system may not recognize them, but it's worth a shot! Also, just heading towards points on the compass is a valid "move." Try it, if you like.

Also, an excellent way to end an "entry" is with the words WHAT HAPPENS TO ME? Maybe another controlling authoritative geek will tell you that you were robbed in a truck-stop, or eaten by a troll, or became President of a new militia-fronted government body, recognized by the UN!]

Alan Youngblood
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Hey Tadhgk, Interesting commentary on what I thought was an un-interesting release for tech this week. I'll admit to using buzz, simply because it's there and there's no reason to deny it really. As for any perceived value to me personally, I have not discovered it yet. On the other hand, I think that wave has a lot of value that I really like. It's so easy and wonderful for things like posting art for commentary and critiques and writing business plans or corporate documents with fellow employees. That's what I've used it for thus far and it's really quite good at that. Once a feature or extension is added to wave for digital drawing/painting that users collaborate it will be all sorts of awesome. Being able to sketch out ideas together with someone in real time would be awesome.

I'm still trying hard to understand the allure and value of 'social games' or as you aptly put it, facebook games. I for one, hate spammy things. I have a rule in facebook of denying all applications. I was an early adopter of facebook back in 04 and while I generally think the service has improved (although still in many ways a time waster) I have yet to find an app for it that actually adds to the value of my facebook use. Most detract from the value. I can't deny that they are popular and I know Zynga and similar companies are making good business out of it. (Or at least high yield short run revenue, good business is yet to be determined). I agree with your thought of making farmville more engaging, but I feel like this category of games has a fundamental flaw. Sid Meier once said that a game is a series of interesting choices. Social games the way I see them are a series of choices, without the interest. Which to me personally is tedious. I've heard them called "spreadsheet-shifters" and that doesn't excite me in the least.

Back to the issue at hand: I think it will be interesting to see if buzz can revolutionize social games the way you have forecasted. So far it strikes me as very odd seeing that google has more or less just followed and emulated the competition. It is really weird to me because I'm used to google being light years ahead of everyone else. I thought that was the huge selling point of their company. Mapquest? Ha! Check out Google Earth! They thrive on being ahead of the competition, but maybe you are right that they have done just that with social media. Maybe I'm just not seeing it yet.

Tadhg Kelly
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Hi Alan,

The allure of Buzz is similar to the allure of FriendFeed: While Twitter is great for broadcasting and Facebook is great for swapping friendly stories about what happened on Saturday night in the pub, Friendfeed tried very hard to create a deep discussion and sharing service. It's problem was that it was yet another network, another site to check, and it never really caught fire as a result. Buzz is very similar, but it has the advantage of being hooked into everyone's Gmail and Google Reader already. Same idea, much more potential.

I agree with you on social games as they are today. I've blogged on that before, saying that social games to date were barely concealed spam engines, with slot machine style compulsive engagement, and also that they are under threat because Facebook is changing the pipes through which they can spam. However I believe that at the core of social games is a powerful idea about gaming based on connection, which could change the world. An example of this is Foursquare, a geo-location service which is actually a game.

On the future, I actually think Google has innovated here. It's not just the idea, it's the context and implementation that matter. Buzz is a big move and it's not quite as me-too as it appears. Just as Google took the ideas of Hotmail and did it better with Gmail, Buzz is something to watch out for. All I know is that the Silicon Valley bloggers and such are going crazy for it, and those guys are hard to impress.