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The Future of Social Gaming

The Author: John Band             From: Business Insight


Social gaming is an important way for social networks to monetize their user bases – but at the same time, it is much more than that. It is a marketing tool and traffic driver for anyone on the web, an advertising and sponsorship opportunity. It is also one of the few areas where a successful model has been created in persuading consumers to make small payments for online content. As the COO of a gaming company interviewed for this report told us:

“Why is social gaming important? Well, the cynical answer is that it appears to have been the first successful way to get Internet users pay for microtransactions…”

However, as a new market that straddles many different traditional silos, social gaming is a difficult industry to define and quantify. This chapter explains why this report was written and what benefits it has for readers, discusses various definitions of social gaming used within the rest of the report, and explains some key points and issues concerning data methodology.

Who is this report for and what is it about?

This report is aimed at companies across the online social gaming value chain, including computer games publishers; online social networks/portals; entertainment companies and content providers; payment solutions providers; mobile operators and handset providers; and consultants and advisors. In terms of job roles, it is targeted at senior executives, corporate strategy/M&A departments, marketing directors and managers, and product development managers.

The report profiles the online social gaming market, explaining current positioning, historical development, driver and inhibitors. It contains detailed data on the current and forecast market size globally, with data breakdowns by region and for key countries. Market size is measured in terms of users and in terms of revenues generated, split by network and game type. Users are segmented by age and gender, and the current and evolving demographic position is also analyzed qualitatively. The report considers the current competitive situation and leading players throughout the supply. Finally, based on all the above, the report explains the key opportunities across the market over the next five years.

Defining social gaming

The first step in understanding the opportunity presented by the social gaming market is to understand exactly what social gaming is. One simple definition is “games that run on social networking platforms, requiring the user to log on via a social network”. This has the advantage of being clear and unequivocal, and of encompassing the major titles that would generally be described as social games. For this reason, this is the definition that we have used to compile user numbers and revenue data.

However, many industry observers believe that this definition is far too narrow, and will become less helpful as technology changes. Planeto founder Martin Walfisz suggests a slightly more complicated working definition:

“A Social Game is a digital online game that: (1) utilizes a player’s social graph to provide an enhanced game experience, (2) facilitates and encourages communication about the game outside of the game, and (3) has a minimal barrier to entry (one click away)”.

This definition also encompasses the major games currently classed as social games and played through social networks, but is focused on how the game is played and how the game is spread, rather than focusing on the underlying technology behind the game. Although it would be unfeasible to collect and forecast data to this definition, since it would require a subjective classification of all the games in existence that could conceivably fit the three criteria, the analysis in this report is informed by this view. Particularly when discussing new technologies alternative platforms such as mobile and TV gaming, opportunities are considered based on this definition, rather than on the rigid definition used for the data.

Jeremy Liew of venture capitalists Lightspeed has a more radical definition:

“The true category is free to play gaming, and that social gaming is simply a tactic (albeit a very important and differentiating tactic) within this category… Social networks offer an easy starting point for new free to play games because of the large concentration of potential players, but there is no reason for free to play games to stop at social networks.”

This view is a little extreme – there are clear differences in gameplay between social games and the free-to-play web-based games that proliferated during the 2000s, based around recruitment strategy and playing with friends – but again should be borne in mind when considering the qualitative analysis and recommendations contained within this report. The same companies that are active in developing and marketing free-to-play games on social networks are also among the companies best-placed to market free-to-play games elsewhere, irrespective of the revenue model (‘freemium’ versus advert or sponsor supported) and platform. The report takes a broad view of opportunities within the market, with the whole gaming universe considered as far as it applies to social games developers.

Notes on data and sources

Establishing the scale of social network use is notoriously difficult. Numbers of accounts, log-ins, users and unique users are routinely conflated. The user data presented in this report is based primarily on the data published in the Business Insights report, The Social Networking Market Opportunity.

Data in that report was sourced from at least one hard source, such as a social network platform itself, or cross-referenced from multiple reliable sources. comScore data was taken as the most reliable third party source, since comScore includes mobile and cyber café access points as well as domestic and business PC access. Typically, market data has been sourced by triangulating data from comScore, major platform and domestic regulators or other reliable commentators.

This report further segments the online social gaming market, both in demographic terms and in country-by-country revenue splits. This has been based on data from multiple sources, and in some cases has also been augmented by modeling based on published sources, comparable countries, and demographic splits.

Core user data presented here deals in unique, rather than nominal, users (excluding the double counting of users running multiple accounts), or regular unique users (unique users amending profiles and interacting on a network on at least a monthly basis). These data have again been derived through the interrogation and triangulation process described above.

Forecasts have been presented for unique user growth to 2015. These forecasts are proprietary, but have been informed by major platform inputs, forecasts for Internet use, including mobile Internet use, and analysis of the social and economic openness to online social networking of the population in each market. The population forecasts of the UN Population division have been used.

The social gaming market context


  • Social gaming is a relatively new concept, reliant as it is on the widespread adoption of online social networks that allow application-based functionality. However, it has evolved from more traditional computer games.
  • The low-tech, low-commitment nature of most social games promotes a very different culture from the cutting edge of console game design: instead of pushing the envelope of technology with the budget of a motion picture, social gaming is mainly about a simple, captivating concept.
  • Facebook’s dominance in the social networking market in western countries has led to a perception that social gaming primarily consists of ‘games on Facebook’. However, the vast Chinese market, where Facebook has a negligible presence, highlights that this is not the whole story.
  • As social gaming becomes increasingly high-profile, the number of platforms involved is likely to fragment further. Zynga has already begun allowing users to log in directly via its own websites, bypassing Facebook, as well as porting many of its games to MySpace and other social networks.
  • There are three types of company that make direct revenues from social gaming interaction – whether that interaction involves consumers paying directly, or through advertising and sponsorship. These are developers and distributors; social networking platforms; and payment providers.
  • It is vital to paying attention to real-time metrics on how people play the game, which content attracts them, and which areas they are willing to spend on. However, the number of metrics-based clones in the market now means that optimized metrics are a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.
  • The key positive market drivers that Business Insights has identified are social network growth; favorable demographic trends; heavy promotion from content providers; and emerging platform opportunities.
  • The key negative market drivers that Business Insights has identified are concerns over trust and security; social networking fatigue; the highly competitive market; and increasing restrictions on viral opportunities.


In order to make sense of the user numbers, revenue data and competitive information presented in this report, it is important to have an understanding of the context in which social gaming exists. Specifically, this involves understanding some of the history of online and free-to-play computer games, the explosive growth of social networking and the platform dynamics within that market, and mapping the industry’s value chain. It is also useful to consider what the key aspects are that make a social game successful or unsuccessful, and consider the main factors promoting and inhibiting the growth of the social gaming industry.

Development of the social gaming market

Social gaming is a relatively new concept, reliant as it is on the widespread adoption of online social networks that allow application-based functionality. However, it has evolved from more traditional computer games – most obviously, the free-to-play web-based games that became popular during the 2000s, often used as a viral way of promoting brands, but also encompassing almost every other aspect of the games industry. The low-tech, low-commitment nature of most social games promotes a very different culture from the cutting edge of console game design: instead of programmers, artists and writers working to push the envelope of technology with the budget of a motion picture, social gaming is mainly about having one simple, captivating concept.


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