I sat in a corner of the Casual Games Roundtable at the Games Developer Conference, among 30-40 developers, when the ice was broken with the following question: "Who here is targeting mobile with their current game?" Every hand in the room shot up. "Who's targeting Facebook?" Perhaps three or four hands were raised.
A couple years ago, the same session would have been dominated by Facebook. The meteoric growth of games like Mafia Wars and FarmVille propelled their developers to rapid success. Today, while Facebook usage remains as strong as ever, it appears to have fallen out of favor as a strong gaming platform. The growth of smartphones and tablets around the world has made mobile development the king of casual games. That doesn't mean the social element is gone, though. Game developers still view social connections as a key part of their game design, or at the very least, an important way to get their game noticed and shared among friends.
To that end, there were plenty of tools and middleware on display at GDC to help mobile developers make their games more social. Consider the nifty Propeller SDK from Grantoo. It allows developers to more easily build in social network connections, tournaments, competitive challenges, and more on iOS and Android. It also adds in an extra layer of monetization (a key topic among mobile and causal game developers).
Not just for casual games
Of course, social layers in video games aren't restricted to casual and mobile games. The big living-room console games haven't failed to notice the trend. In fact, it's one of the pillars of the PlayStation 4 design, which will include a "Share" button on its controller and let you stream video of your play sessions using a partnership with Twitch.tv.
Of particular interest is streaming games company Playcast, which is one part "stream games to play them" service like OnLive or Gaikai, one part game TV community like Twitch.tv. The difference is that Playcast delivers streaming games for play over existing cable and IPTV providers and uses their existing set-top boxes. So for a user, you just turn to a specific channel, choose your game from a selection, and play it right then. You'll likely need to plug a USB gamepad into your set-top box, but there's otherwise no software to buy download or install. It's just a matter of whether or not your TV provider has partnered with Playcast.
The real question is how deep social integration will go with the new Xbox and Playstation consoles set for release later this year. Developers making mobile games are used to building games that work seamlessly with your existing friends lists, but major consoles have built their own, closed-in networks of friends. Will the big console makers do more to make it easier for games to integrate more deeply with larger social networks? We'll probably find out more about all that at the E3 Expo in June.