The hottest trend in gaming isn't aliens or wizards. It's something more down to earth. The grass is green. Guitar chords drift lazily from a front porch. And the crops are ready for harvest.
Such are the bucolic pleasures of FarmVille, the Facebook game that led the way in a games revolution that transformed how hundreds of millions of people are entertained online. In the process, a new generation of players has pushed aside the stereotype of the lonely teen in the basement. Instead, she's the middle-aged mom harvesting virtual corn in FarmVille. He's the commuting executive with his iPad, slingshotting evil green pigs in Angry Birds. They're the retirees on their iPhones playing Words With Friends.
Video games are in a renaissance. Even as game developers continue to churn out big-budget shooters and sports games for the trinity of home consoles—Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation 3, and Nintendo's Wii—the real action is migrating to a decidedly less hard-core arena: social networks and mobile applications.
According to the Nielsen Co., the top two activities for Americans online are social networks and games—together accounting for about a third of our time on the Net (one casualty: time spent on e-mail, which dropped nearly 30 percent in the past year). Those two trends converge in games like FarmVille. It boasts more than 50 million monthly players, and its sequel, CityVille, is fast on its way to surpassing 100 million a month, according to the website Inside Social Games. The explosion of such "social games"—games played on social networks—has been aided by a perfect storm of broadband penetration, wireless connectivity, and mobile platforms. And it's made Zynga Game Network, creator of the "Ville" series (which includes FrontierVille, FishVille, PetVille, and YoVille), the second biggest publisher in the game business, worth as much as US $9 billion, according to The Wall Street Journal. Zynga, based in San Francisco, is now bigger than Electronic Arts, the industry mainstay famous for the chart-topping Madden football and Sim City franchises. The communal aspect is central to Zynga's strategy. As Dorion Carroll, chief of technology of the shared technology group for Zynga, says, "We're not a gaming company. We're a social gaming company."
Games are profoundly shaping the future of the Web and, as a result, the strategies of the two biggest players online: Facebook and Google. The annual Game Developers Conference is the usual place where people take the pulse of the industry. And at this year's conference, the two companies loomed large. The panels on Facebook games and Google's two-day-long developer summit were both jammed.
The companies' interest in games reflects their differing visions: the openness and decentralization of Google versus the walled-but-thriving community of Facebook. "Games for Facebook are a mechanism to drive you to the page and keep you there," says Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush, a Los Angeles–based financial services firm. "Games for Google are to drive you to their [Android operating system] and keep you there. It's different strategies and outcomes."
Social games aren't new. Before computers, games were inherently social, because essentially all of them were meant to be played by two or more people. The new social games, however, have a fundamentally different purpose. Socialization isn't meant to enhance the games; the games are meant to enhance socialization. They've been designed to do that for a very specific and simple reason: The more people who hang out online, the more Facebook and Google can cash in.
By attracting specific demographics of players and uncovering information about their habits, preferences, and acquaintances, social games are tailor-made for supporting targeted advertising. Moreover, players can enhance their experience by purchasing digital items with credits, for which they pay real cash in the real world. If you think no one but a misfit would spend hard-earned money on a virtual crop duster, you're wrong: Zynga alone is pulling in $1 billion that way, according to estimates by Wedbush. And by taking a 30 percent cut of all credit purchases made through all its games, Facebook earns roughly $500 million a year.