Page last updated at 16:01 GMT, Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Social network games catch the eye of computer giants

Zoe Kleinman
Technology Reporter, BBC News


Online gaming makes a splash - Zoe Kleinman reports for Working Lunch

Would you spend £10 on a virtual sofa shaped like a pair of lips?

It may sound like an extravagance but Kristian Segerstrale, chief executive of social gaming publisher Playfish, says they were a big hit when the company offered them as an optional extra to its online gaming customers.

Unlike traditional console games publishers who command high prices for popular games (Modern Warfare 2: Call of Duty was £60 per copy in some outlets), Playfish has built its entire business model around relatively tiny micro-transactions.

Anyone can play its games for free on social networking sites such as Bebo, Facebook and Myspace.

Whether you are creating a virtual pet or setting up a restaurant, the basics cost nothing. For extra menu ingredients and special accessories however, players spend between 5 pence and £3.

The secret is in sheer numbers. Analysts predicted 10 million global sales during the first two months following the release of Modern Warfare 2 (likely to be its peak) - Playfish has a monthly customer base of 60 million active players around the world.

"It's free to play so what we try and do is get as many people engaged in the game as possible," explains Mr Segerstrale.

"Then we try to maximise the number of those players that we can offer something interesting to - that they would be willing to pay money for."

Now the company has caught the eye of an even bigger fish - gaming giant EA (maker of console kings like the FIFA football games and virtual world The Sims) snapped it up for $300m (£180m) in November 2009.

It's free to play so what we try and do is get as many people engaged in the game as possible. Then we try to maximise the number of those players that we can offer something interesting to - that they would be willing to pay money for
Kristian Segerstrale, Playfish

Big hits

The biggest games in its portfolio are Pet Society, where users interact via their virtual pets (this attracts 21 million players each month) and Restaurant City (18 million active players), where people run individual restaurants and in addition to inviting friends to dine there, they can put them on the staff.

Who Has the Biggest Brain?, a quiz in which players compare their general knowledge scores, is not such a big hit, attracting just under 2 million monthly users.

Around 80% of Playfish players are aged between 18 and 34 (a recent survey carried out in the US found the average adult video gamer to be 35) and the male/female divide is a fairly even split.

The developers try to maintain their interest through constant updates. A successful game will have new features every week, explained developer Steve Shipton.

"We recently created sticker albums, you could send stickers to your friends - that was a phenomenal success," he told BBC News.

The world of social network gaming is a comparatively gentle one. Players are more likely to be growing crops and cooking dinners than slaying monsters and killing bad guys.

Additionally players can only interact with others that are already their social networking "friends" - giving the experience a safer, more cosy perception.

"The games are simple in the same way that a deck of cards or a board game is simple," says Mr Segerstrale.

"The game play doesn't come from the object or the game itself - it's what it enables you to do with your friends. Whether that's competitions, expression (of feelings) or generally socialising in a games environment."

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