In their Casual Connect panel in Seattle, the trio presented a survey of the 12 most interesting and ground-breaking trends in social games to emerge over the past year.
Trend 1: Virtual Worlds
"Last year, the discussion centered around whether virtual worlds would work at all in social games, and whether there was room for avatar-based games on the platform," said Rohrl.
"The first folks to address this was an app called YoVille from Zynga, which was very much patterned on Habbo Hotel. You could have furniture in your home, an avatar, and so on. Apps like Pet Society followed."
Trend 2: Customization and Personalization
"If you think about the success of the Nintendo Wii, one of the first things that happened when people had friends over was that you would either put the remote in their hand and say go play tennis, or have them create a Mii avatar," said Croal.
"Compared to the PlayStation Home's more realistic avatars, the Miis demonstrate things that Disney and Pixar have known for years: characters don't have to be super-realistic to be engaging. The ability to customize avatars is clearly something that can pull people in, like paper dolls or dress-up."
Trend 3: Collections & Wish Lists
"Mafia Wars started off as a pretty uninspired clone of Mob Wars. Now it has more than 3 million active users," said Meretzky. "The reason: well-implemented and interesting features, including a collecting and trading feature."
"In addition to receiving normal loot when players do mission, sometimes they get special rare item that are part of collections. Players can vault certain items to get permanent character buffs, such as +2 stamina. Players can also create wishlists showing what they need to complete collections."
Trend 4: System Simulators
"Instead of simply pressing the 'win' button to play in Mafia Wars, other role-playing games, or familiar games like poker, developers have been creating interesting social entities like farms that allow a greater degree of interaction and engagement," said Meretzky.
"In fact, the platform is completely overrun with farm games at the moment, including Farm Town, FarmVille, and Barn Buddy."
Trend 5: Narrative
"Developers are looking at where the places are that story can be injected into games, especially in cases where you don't have hours of cutscenes or fully-voiced characters," said Croal.
"We're starting to see more dialogue and artfully-placed cartoons in social games, which makes the experience less boring than simply clicking through."
Trend 6: Making Missions More Interesting
"One way to make missions more interesting is 'mission mastery,' which first appeared in Street Racing," said Meretzky. "Each time players do mission, they earn some percentage towards mastering that mission."
"When they've mastered all missions in given location, they unlock more content (the next location)," he explained. "In Mafia Wars, when players have mastered all the missions within one tier multiple times, they unlock a unique piece of loot."
Trend 7: Gift Invites
"(Lil) Green Patch started this trend by encouraging people to five free plants to friends to get a plant in return," said Rohrl. "Although not it's terribly innovative, why is everyone doing it? It works, and it's very, very viral."
Trend 8: Donations as Revenue
"One way of monetizing social games is to 'disguise' micro-transactions as donations," said Croal. "By phrasing your request for donations in language such as 'donate via PayPal to further the development of this game,' players are encouraged to think of the game not as a finished product that they're paying to play, but as a work in progress that their donation is going towards improving."
Trend 9: New Horizons in Virtual Goods
"Innovations in virtual goods included limited edition items (items that are sold for just few days, or until a limited number of them sell), such as weapons in Mafia Wars, cars in Street Racing, or clothing and accessories for avatars," said Meretzky.
"Pet Society offers a store with virtual goods for purchase that offer bonuses to the character, such as a tread mill that improves the pet's chances of winning foot races."
Trend 10. Using Friends' Gameplay Data
Some Facebook games offer players straight-up bribes to invite their friends to play. In PlayFish's Crazy Planets, inviting more friends to the game reduces the amount of time it takes to research new weapons.
"This sort of arrangement is ok, but it doesn't track how engaged the friend actually is with the game - or if they're even playing it at all. The friend is just a number," said Rohrl. "Parking Wars played on this idea by making the strategy to park on the streets of friends who played the game the least, because they were less likely to log in, notice you and give you a ticket.
Some games are taking the idea a step further by rewarding players based on how engaged their friends are. In Crazy Planets, players can recruit friends into the game as helpers, and the number of hit-points they have is based on how much the friend has levelled up.
Rohrl added: "I think we're at the beginning of this and over next year we'll see developers exploiting friend's data in interesting ways."
Trend 11. The iPhone and Social Games
Croal used the example of ngmoco's Word Fu to illustrate the emerging relationship between the iPhone and social games. Essentially a Boggle clone, Word Fu allows players to post high scores then challenge friends through various online platforms including Twitter and Facebook.
Trend 12. Capitalizing on Player Resources
In the game All that Glitters, players have to identify sections of photographs based on a small thumbnail. Players can also plug photos from their own albums into the game, which is an example of games that tap into the player's own resources to provide gameplay content. Croal said there's no reason why in the future this couldn't extent to a player's status updates and other information as well.
Rohrl offered the theoretical example of a virtual scavenger hunt, where, for example, the next piece of the artifact might be in Cincinnati, so players would have to find the friend who lives in Cincinnati, and so on.
[Gamasutra is presenting its Casual Connect 2009 coverage in association with Gamezebo (http://www.gamezebo.com), the leading editorial and community site for casual games across all platforms. The site features reviews, previews, news, and strategy guides for the latest and greatest in casual games.]