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Real-time multiplayer games: Could they help save Facebook?
Real-time multiplayer games: Could they help save Facebook?
August 10, 2012 | By Tom Curtis

August 10, 2012 | By Tom Curtis
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Video games on Facebook might be in trouble. Juggernauts like Zynga are struggling, games are losing players, and analysts fear the social space could be losing its momentum.

Game developers have been forced to look for new ways to prevent their games from bleeding users. One approach being utilized by studios like Kixeye, Rebel Entertainment, and even Zynga is to focus on developing games that people to play together at the same time.

Up until now, the Facebook market has been dominated by asynchronous titles, games where players are either playing by themselves or taking turns -- think Words With Friends, or even FarmVille.

But a handful of developers tell Gamasutra that head-to-head, synchronous experiences could prove more fruitful in the long-term, as players will feel a stronger, more immediate connection to each other, and will play even more.

Asynchronous Kickball

Kixeye, a developer focused on the more hardcore video game playing demographic, has been working with real-time, synchronous Facebook games since it launched Battle Pirates in the middle of last year. According to company CEO Will Harbin, these types of titles are particularly exciting for his players, as they can facilitate real social interactions in a way that asynchronous games can't.

"You just don't get the same level of engagement in an asynchronous environment," Harbin tells us, "Imagine playing a game like kickball in an asynchronous way. It wouldn't work! The whole point is seeing that other team there, and interacting with them on a variety of levels, and that same mentality should carry over into social games as well."

Even Zynga has seen players respond quite positively to real-time games like Zynga Poker, and earlier this summer the social giant announced that it plans to focus even more on synchronous gameplay, starting with a new head-to-head game mode in its arcade puzzler, Bubble Safari (pictured).

Zynga general manager Manuel Bronstein hopes that these real-time experiences will attract new audiences to Facebook. He says some players aren't interested in the asynchronous experience that most games on the network currently provide, but might be drawn in by real-time multiplayer games.

"While we can't share all the details of the data, we're seeing higher engagement with our real-time multiplayer sessions, since the players there typically don't want to play just one match," Bronstein says.

Even smaller developers think there's a strong future for synchronous social games. The Los Angeles-based Rebel Entertainment, for instance, is betting heavily on real-time play in its upcoming action game Dungeon Rampage, as the studio believes that breaking from Facebook's traditional model will help it stand out from the crowd.

"But to be clear, having the asynchronous features are important too," says general manager Mike Goslin. "That asynchronous stuff can really help bind your community together in the long-term."

If it's so easy...

Of course, developers face more than a few technical hurdles implementing synchronous gameplay.

Kixeye's Harbin notes that social developers really need to work hard on their server-side infrastructure, as latency and performance issues become critical when your game relies on synchronous mechanics.

Based on his experience, working on real-time, server-side games can nearly quadruple development time, but Harbin says it's all worth it as long as the game ends up finding and strong a dependable audience.

Zynga's Bronstein adds that synchronous social game developers also have to worry about maintaining a strong concurrent user base to facilitate real-time matchmaking, so developers will need to find ways to encourage sustained activity in their online community.

But despite these added difficulties, the developers we spoke to all agree that real time games are still well worth the effort, as they could be one of the things the struggling Facebook market really needs.

Real-time multiplayer might not prove to be the grand savior of social games, but everyone we spoke to agreed: it sure couldn't hurt.


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Comments


Kenneth Blaney
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The problem is not sync vs async. Battle Pirates gets put on the top of the heap (in my opinion) of facebook games pretty easily by simply not forcing you treat your friends as resources. Although I CAN get a reward for inviting friends to Battle Pirates, the rewards are capped (anything more than 17 friends doesn't help) and the rewards take the form of convenience, not power. This is in comparison to the "village" genre of games where, all to often, you are faced with situations like "this structure costs 20 stone, 10 gold, 5 wood and 3 friends".

Dave Ingram
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That really is the heart of the problem, from my view. I think social media platforms are an excellent place for games, but I simply can't stand the constant solicitation to annoy my friends. I don't want all of my friends to know I play ZombieFarm (or whatever), and I certainly don't want to spam them with solicitations for it.

Facebook games feel like loud casinos where every bell and whistle leads to annoying spam for my friends. That issue trumps all others.

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Jeremy Alessi
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The problem is that people have grown tired of games clearly created to use them instead of entertain them.

Terry Matthes
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I wouldn't say "people" in general. I think there is still a large flock of sheep to be lead around Facebook and it's terrible games. Every day I see friends and friends of friends spending time on some ridiculous titles.

Joe McGinn
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That, and gamers now avoid Facebook like the plague ... there have been so many failed promises to put a real game on Facebook, not one of them was true, so gamers won't even touch the things. And can you blame them?

Anatoly Ropotov
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No.

Dennis Hansen
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We're doing a synchronous football game called Soccorama on FB - it's still in Beta but you can play it now.

http://www.soccorama.com/

Lewis Pulsipher
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Synchronous games aren't likely to create very large audiences, because they're inconvenient. One of the hallmarks of mass-market games is that they're convenient. I could see an asynchronous, turn-based, cooperative game making inroads, something like Pandemic (board game) only with many tougher puzzles to collectively solve for those who get tired of the simple ones.

James Farmer
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If there's enough players, and matchmaking is a relatively smooth process, I don't see a synchronous social game being terribly inconvenient.

Arnaud Clermonté
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With matchmaking, you get to play with strangers though, which is not as interesting.

Tom Baird
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Realtime games usually have Friend Game, and Regular Game
Async games usually have Play with Friend, and Play with Random.

Both are more enjoyable with friends, neither require it, and I don't think playing with friends or random people is unique or different for either style of game.

Gary LaRochelle
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Playdom/Disney has the synchronous game Wild Ones. Basically a Worms inspired game. It's a fun game to play but the internet lag makes it impossible to enjoy. The lag would throws off your aim and timing.

Ramin Shokrizade
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Wait wait, let me get this straight. These companies think that if they add real social interaction to their social games that players will find them more interesting? Brilliant! With most of the industry investment dollars going to social game development, this miraculous conclusion could have come a bit sooner.

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K Gadd
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If your game is largely synchronous, you are naturally limiting the total size of your audience, because many of the people who play asynchronous games won't have anyone to play a synchronous game with at a given moment. You end up crossing into appointment gaming territory, which is never going to be as big as something like FarmVille. Might be easier to monetize that audience, though.

James Hofmann
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Whether or not the game has explicit asynchronity in its design is orthogonal to game session length and availability.

For examples at both ends: MMOs are totally synchronous, yet many people play them solo. On the other hand, Words With Friends or Draw Something are played asynchronously but are heavily reliant on being in the context of people you know.

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Christopher Pfeiffer
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Our game is in beta and is synchronous. About 60% of players choose to play within Facebook even with the option to also directly play the PC client version:

www.bombbuddies.com

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Elliott Wu
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Yay for synchronous "victory to the highest bidder" gameplay!!! Zynga can now ask their players to bid for their victory in REAL time!! The Visa Crucible is now a reality!!!

Glenn Sturgeon
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It seems maybe the deal announced back in january to bring Gaikai games to FB is a big part of answer to the question, Real-time multiplayer games: Could they help save Facebook?.
http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/39681/Cloud_gaming_service_Gai
kai_coming_to_Facebook.php

I've been wondering how the Sony acquisition of gaikai will affect the deal they had.

Michael Joseph
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Has Facebook ever used celebrities to promote their games? Assuming they could actually get A list celebrities and athletes to help them promote their games, they might start investigating ways to tie "real" people with celebrity players. Yes it'd be gimmicky, but it might actually work.

"OMG Justin Beiber is going to be playing in the mega ManufacturedStarVille tournament this weekend! And the winner gets to have dinner with him!"

I think Facebook should play to it's strength which is connecting friends and family... and trying to help foster new connections through locality and common interests.

- dating services
- local movie nights w/ age ranges specified (so the 30 something crowd can avoid the teenyboppers and vice versa)
- gaming & hobby clubs
- craigslist style local classifieds
- genealogy trees
- local chat rooms (eg #seattle, perhaps age segregated)
- public access style local video feeds
- i dunno what else

anyways, focus on services and use their massive userbase to out compete existing online services in those respective domains and continue to help people connect with one another for every type of connection under the sun.

This is the same type of stuff google should be doing but google's problem is it's so damn generic and sterile and impersonal (which is fine for finding generic impersonal information online) Facebook at it's core starts by connecting you with people you actually know.

Nicholas Bellerophon
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I think Battle Pirates is particularly successful because it permits (and rewards) both synchronous AND asynchronous play. So if you want to come on and try to raid someone's base, you can, whether they're online or not. But you can also have enemies and/or allies online with you, at which point things become even more fun.

Furthermore, its social mechanics are well balanced. Not too much spam, but still definitely strong social pull from invites and gift requests. But the biggest social win for BP is that, really, it's a team game. Surprisingly, for quite some time Kixeye didn't even formally support the team element, but guilds emerged naturally using the Facebook Groups system, generally along the lines of available real-time in-game chat. It is no surprise that this chat is encapsulated by 'zone', which by the way correlates with physical base-to-base distance and thus fleet travel time. So what Kixeye have done is create a sense of LOCALITY, with chat permitting the emergence of COMMUNITY. This is how real society works. Game designers should take note :)

Charles Doty
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This is completely missing the 'typical' Zynga crowd. They aren't interested in 'playing games'; it's the interaction. They enjoy trading stuff, showing off their accomplishments, helping someone else, etc. But, they've been through a few cycles of quick advancement, followed by slower and slower advancement designed to wring money out of them. Each successive cycle has more than likely become less and less rewarding.

Lilit Abrahamyan
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A nice atricle, Tom. However, what surprises me is that it discusses synchroneous gameplay without mentioning Idle Worship at all, which, if i am not mistaken, is the fist synchroneous game on FB. I have been playing it from the very first day of its open beta and can say it's the best social game ever imfo... It also provides asynchroneous gameplay if one wishes not to communicate with the playing community, which, however, is quite difficult, as there are always online players there, ready to help/bless/curse or just chat! Besides, the game itself is built in such a way that you do communicate with other "Gods"-players eventually, who may bump into your island by chance. And it has wonderful social mechanics in place in form of very humorous greeting cards which you can post either on your wall and puch it onto your friend's newfeeds or on your friend's walls. You never need to invite a friend to help you out as there are plenty of players eager to lend a hand. I haven't played Battle Pirates yet... will check that out right away.

chris maloney
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william goldman once said "no one in hollywood knows anything." by that i mean gaming is entertainment just like movies and tv shows, driven by hits. and no one knows what could work and what couldn't. within a month or a year or never, we could see a major hit synchronous game. the possibility is there, but who knows if someone will develop a hit. i think a guy like mark burnett could do something, but guys like him don't focus on games.


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