The early success in connecting hugely popular game franchises to social networks of their own will inevitably prove to be the exception and not the rule. When there are only a handful of channels, apps, and widgets to sort through, social features seem like a great idea. Imagining a future where every major game launches with its own stand-alone iPhone app, browser-based stat tracker, and channel would quickly transform the whole socialization movement into an overexploited clatter of empty vestibules blinking loudly for attention.
Not every game (or even franchise) deserves a Waypoint. Even still, many games might be improved by incorporating some of the lessons learned from social networks to help them cut through the chaos of the market.
"When we looked at integrating social networking into SSX we asked ourselves how we could enable players to create interesting content for other players in our game," Todd Batty, creative director on SSX, said. "The richest social networks tend to be the most dependent on the people who belong to them to make interesting and meaningful content for other people on the network."
SSX did not launch with a social network or system-level channel, but the idea of using player creativity and competitiveness to keep others returning to the game plays a central role. Borrowing from the Autolog feature EA has built up with the last two entries in the Need for Speed series, SSX uses Ridernet to asynchronously link players to the achievements of others in their friends list.
"We have a ghost system in the game, so if I play the game a lot and post a lot of my ghosts around the world then I've created something for a lot of my friends to compete against, which, by virtue of being there, make the game a richer experience," Batty said.
"We also have a feature called geo-tagging, an online kind of hide-and-go-seek where I can go anywhere in the world I want, hide the tag somewhere in the 3D space where I don't think anyone will be able to find it, and then see if other people can go find it. So I'm creating interesting content for people while I'm playing the game and having a good time on my own."
Underneath these features is a competitive wagering system where players can challenge each other using an in-game credits system. If you post a geo-tag, for instance, you can bet a sum of credits that no one will be able to find it. If some finds it immediately, they'll get all of the credits, but if it takes them a long time you'll get most of the credits.
"That right there is what makes a great social network: everyone is motivated to do something, and that thing makes the whole experience richer for everyone else," Batty said. "Any social network -- whether it's Facebook, Twitter, or a video game -- every single one of those relies on that formula."
"Some games talk about social features and have ways to meet up with friends and play against them, but they don't have that same means of creation and consumption in that loop, and so the entire social network falls apart. If you don't have interesting and constantly new creative content, the whole thing will fizzle out and die."
Ubisoft has embraced the idea of asynchronous social play in favor of building new social networks from scratch to support their major franchises.
"The idea is that triple-A games can really benefit a lot from the revolution that's happening around us," Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, said in an interview last year. "At Ubisoft, we already have games on the way that take advantage of asynchronous gameplay, the fact that you are connected all the time, and the tracking system that can actually give an experience that is more adaptive to each player, and also to his friends. So we can give the gamers the possibility to play alone, but also with his friends if needed."
The benefit of social networking ideas can be best implemented in overarching goals that don't necessarily interrupt the moment-to-moment gameplay, but rather affects the larger purpose players are trying to achieve through it.
"Imagine you have to decrypt a language," Guillemot said. "You're in a world, there's a language, so it's either a language that has been decrypted by specialists, or it's a new language that we've created that's to be decrypted that needs a certain number of competencies. If you decrypt the language, you will be able to discover a place in the world, and discover treasures and different civilizations."
"If the group is capable of decrypting that -- you can still play normally [alone] -- but you can do it with friends who can help decrypt it. And then they can take advantage of this, to go and fight other groups. We can stop being alone when we play, and play with friends who prepare something to help you succeed. And then that group who wins can be against other groups that will have other advantages and influences. The potential is just infinite of what can be done."
Perhaps the biggest benefit of increasing social ties in games come from the heightened connection between player and developer, offering a way for developers to better understand how their game is being played. "It has been a very interesting journey so far, and we learn new things every single day thanks to Battlelog," Löving said.
"We have never been so close to our consumers as we are now."
And that, finally, is what makes the addition of social features and social thinking into triple-A games so valuable. It is not just a means of adding a feature to a list or giving business development a new buzz word to bat around the conference room. It is about forming an even closer bond between people who love making games and people who love playing games. The closer that relationship, the brighter the future will be.