The New Arms Race in Gaming: Facebook vs Google+

Will the center of the social gaming universe remain tightly within Mr. Zuckerberg's grasp, or is there a legitimate challenger in town?

The vast majority of Patch readers are likely to have a Facebook account. USA Today reported last month that the online social networking giant had grown to greater than 750 million active users. Its #2 Alexa Ranking is behind only Google.com. However, when you take into account that Google’s ranking is a combined effort of all its applications (search engine, Gmail, Calendar, Reader, Docs, etc.), it’s quite a feat.

Speaking of Google, they clearly aren’t comfortable with Facebook nipping at their heels. They have tried and failed at social networking with Google Wave and Google Buzz (yes, come on now, Buzz is a failure). But they have potentially struck oil with their newest effort in Google+ (G+ in shorthand), which launched on June 28th.

On the strength of having greater user control over who sees what content, the newest service in social networking reached 25 million users in its first month, with the trend being those users spending increasingly more time on the site. They’re still quite a long way off from approaching the kind of usage that Facebook, Twitter, and Myspace sees, but it’s notable that it took those sites at least 20 times the amount of months to reach the same amount of unique visitors. And that’s without any promotion on the part of G+, a service that has grown through word-of-mouth alone. Imagine what could happen with just a bit of light promotion on any of its applications, or on other Google-owned sites like YouTube.

So, whats does this mean to gamers? Nothing, really, until two days ago.

If you’re on Facebook, it’s hard to overlook the popularity of some of its games. Social gaming developer Zynga’s games alone combined for over 44 million active Facebook users daily over the month of June. That’s more than the entire population of G+ so far. And through the use of micro-transactions, many of these workplace productivity-killers are also huge moneymakers. Zynga itself is reportedly worth up to $20 billion.

Yeah, Facebook Games are popular. Really popular. In fact, Facebook users with no interest in its games have argued that they are too popular. In order to attract more users, many of Facebook’s games would litter news feeds and inboxes with invites and published achievements, awarding the sender with in-game items and features. It annoyed enough users that, last September, Facebook decided to limit the games’ “virality” by preventing many of these situations. But even with these limitations in place, you can’t get completely get away from the games if you’re not interested.

On August 11th, Google+ began it’s rollout of its own Games service. Right away, popular names like Zynga and PopCap are prevalent, with games like Bejeweled Blitz, Zynga Poker, and Angry Birds being offered already. Yes, now G+ users will not always have to go to Facebook for their gaming fixes, and it gives the service another reason to continue its alarming growth. It also gives rival services another reason to take notice.

While there aren’t many differences between Facebook games and G+ games, one is significant: noise. Like it or not, Facebook feeds are still riddled with updates to your friends’ gaming whether you want to see them or not. Their solution is to add “opt-out” functionality to these, allowing you to hide potential posts from particular games. When choosing to exercise this option, you might find yourself still having to actively hide them more often than you would like.

Google+, however, is taking an “opt-in” approach. If you don’t want to play the games, or if you don’t want to hear all about your friends’ achievements, you won’t. Maybe you want to play the games, or maybe you do want to see what your friends are up to with them, and you just don’t want to see them now. You won’t. If you feel like playing the games, press the Games button at the top of your G+ feed. If you feel like seeing the game notifications, click the “Game notifications” feed. That’s it. It’s there when you want it, and not there when you don’t want it.

Time will tell if this begins a gradual leveling of the playing field. But while Facebook will claim that they’re not worried, some of their actions speak otherwise. Unfortunately for some, the actions entail making Facebook games more visible to all users all over again.

Following Google+’s gradual rollout of their Games channel, Facebook announced that they are re-opening the floodgates. Games will once again be able to post to news feeds, specifically when a user has been playing a particular game for more than 15 minutes, or when they complete an in-game objective. There will be reportedly be privacy settings available to users to turn off such notifications, but judging by Facebook’s past, we can probably assume that they will default to “on,” continuing in the “opt-out” philosophy of the service.

The Google+ gaming channel being only two days old (with limited availability thus far as it is), and the entire service being less than two months old, to say that it is too early to draw more significant conclusions is an understatement. But with G+’s rate of growth, this has potentially huge implications to the gaming landscape. And while Facebook is saying that they aren’t worried, they also are making immediate changes to their service, so it’s clearly on their radar.

For now, why not sample them both?


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