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Why is Zombies, like other social games, so infectious?

March 31, 2009 |  2:37 pm
Vampires, a game on Facebook and MySpace. Credit: Zynga.

If you're on Facebook, chances are very good that you've been bitten by a zombie at one point or another.

Zombies is an application on Facebook whereby users of the social network try to create armies of followers by "biting" their contacts. Think of it as a virtual game of tag -- when you've been bitten, you can choose to ignore it (and your friend doesn't get the credit for biting you) or you can add the application and start infecting others.

Why is that interesting? It's not, really — until you find out that more than 230,000 people were infecting their friends on Facebook last month.

Zombies and another Facebook app called Vampires are among a new breed of "social games" that are rapidly accumulating players, almost overnight, as we've mentioned in our previous post on the topic. How do they do it? We picked the brains (Mmmm ... brains!) of three people at the Game Developer Conference last week in San Francisco.

Kristian Segerstrale, the chief executive of publisher Playfish, said social games are built to be "inside out" — they draw people in with their incredibly simple design, but they also have incentives for people to reach out to get their friends involved. One of Playfish's most popular titles is Who Has the Biggest Brain? (sense a theme?). Players take quizzes or solve puzzles to get a score that they can then compare with those of their friends. The game becomes a test to see who among your contacts can get the highest score, said Segerstrale. If that sounds simplistic, tell that to the 3.9 million people who played the game at least once this month.

What most of these games have in common is ... 

... something that Nicole Lazzaro of XeoDesign calls "social capital." Lazzaro, a game design consultant who presented a talk at GDC called "Massively Social Online Games," said the viral nature of these games comes in part from the ties they create between people. If my score bests yours, I can rib you next time we meet or message each other.

Another example is Pet Society, developed by Playfish, a London-based developer. My virtual pet can visit yours and give your pet a virtual gift. The act of virtual generosity can help create an invisible bond between us. Or maybe it just gives us something to talk about next time we see each other. Either way, these games help to weave a social fabric, however ephemeral, among its players.

This notion is central to what Mark Pincus, chief executive of publisher Zynga in San Francisco, believes separates social games from, say, games played with the Nintendo Wii console. Here's what Pincus said:

The Nintendo Wii is on the path to social gaming, but it doesn’t go nearly as far as social gaming. True social games give players the ability to interact with lots of people. With the Wii, you're limited to the people in the same room. Secondly, the Wii is synchronous, which means they have to be there with you at the same time to play. For many of us, that's too hard to coordinate. Because it's turn-based, I don't have to be online at the same time as my friends to play with them. That sort of space and time shifting is a huge enabler to social games and the popularity of social games.

OK, so we're all here -- millions of us, though not necessarily at the same time -- playing free. How do companies like Playfish and Zynga make money from that? That's the subject of our next post on social games.

In the meantime, it's your turn: What online games do you play? What keeps you coming back to them? Or are you bored to tears with them?

-- Alex Pham