If it was possible to define the whole of the 2016 gaming industry in just a few words, things like “Bitcoin”, “virtual reality”, and “Pokémon Go” would inevitably take the podium. In 2017 though, the world is likely to see the resurgence of an old buzzword from the mountain of terms already out there, the strange and confusing world of “social gaming”. But what is it? Is the world facing another glut of Facebook shovelware or is something more complex about to happen?
The problem with the concept of social gaming is that, today, it describes just about anything, from a regular poker night or a Dungeons and Dragons game to a shouting match on Overwatch – if it’s a game and people are talking to each other, there’s a good bet it slots into the social niche somewhere. In 2011, The Independent had Angry Birds pegged as the archetypical social game; now, the category is most commonly associated with casino.
According to research firm Eilers & Krejcik Gaming, social casino is an industry valued at c. $4.4bn, around 4% of the sector’s income overall. Here’s where things get a little strange though – social gaming doesn’t necessarily imply player interaction; the “social” part of its moniker simply refers to the fact that games are hosted on the Facebook API. In any case, Adweek defines it as a separate thing to mobile and console experiences.
While it’s true that social gaming as a distinct niche appeared on Facebook, a phenomenon perhaps more deserving of the title is gaining prominence alongside the maturity of people born after 1982 – millennials or “Gen Y”. Social gaming is becoming more of a mechanism, describing the addition of chat features, leaderboards, competitions, and similar elements to enhance the experience of existing players and get new ones onboard.
The template for social gaming comes from an unlikely place – bingo. Given the game’s origins as a vehicle for socializing over a numbers card and a cup of tea, online brands like Sun Bingo were inevitably going to create a model that favors player interaction. With games starting every minute and four different hosts to choose from, Sun Bingo offers an arguably more flexible experience that the offline variant, with the added convenience of mobile play.
But why is social functionality such a critical concern for gaming brands? Multiplayer is ubiquitous in console gaming, even when far from necessary, and Facebook pages are considered essential for even the most technologically backward organizations. As mentioned, the socially forward millennials are key to that trend; 88% of people aged 18-29 use Facebook according to the Pew Research Center.
The gambling industry has a unique problem though; online variants of games like craps lose their boisterous atmosphere during the transition to a website or mobile so it’s probably fair to say that the recent appearance of live dealer games is an effort to bridge the disparate worlds of online and offline experiences. The fact that millennials enjoy that kind of environment may be just an incidental benefit.
Social gaming is an evolving phenomenon that will come to define casino brands in particular during 2017. The recent appearance of gambling social networks, pages that let subscribers compare bets with others, group up for syndicates, and collate opinions from other gamers, is perhaps the best evidence out there that nobody is spared the presence of strangers on the internet.
One of the more interesting traits of social gaming, especially of the type confined to social media, is what a growing preference for mobile play by developers does to the demographics – around 73% of social casino gamers are female, perhaps due to the fact that the most popular type of activity is playing slots (the reels are largely the domain of middle-aged women in real casinos).
A final, compelling argument for appeasing millennials: most social casino gamers are young, with smartphone players averaging 36 years old. While that group definitely consists of the more senior members of Gen Y, it’s still a long way from the 45-year-olds who frequent physical casino – and something of a success story for the industry’s innovators as a consequence.