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Fifteen years ago, video games underwent a paradigm shift, migrating from 2D to 3D. In the years since, it's been unclear what the next major paradigm shift would be. Might it be motion controls? Online multiplayer? 3D displays? Could it have something to do with the simplicity of mobile games? Or the social networks that make them available to hundreds of millions of potential players? There is no clear answer to this search -- the truth may be all of these areas of transformation will cohere into something as yet undefined.
The industry's biggest publishers were slow to invest in motion controls and have been even more skeptical about 3D displays, but in the last few years investing in social network games has drawn more and more attention. This isn't just about creating mini-game crossovers that can be used to promote an upcoming blockbuster console release. Instead, it's about rethinking the overall design of a game as a kind of social network of its own, a medium through which people can play with each other, become friends, and share their creativity.
Activision has launched Elite for its Call of Duty franchise, EA has built similar services with Autolog and Battlelog for its Need for Speed and Battlefield franchises, each of which plug into the wider umbrella network that EA uses for all of its online games, regardless of platform.
Microsoft built Waypoint as a permanent home for Halo fans in the Xbox Live dashboard, and Nintendo has even experimented with custom channels for its Mario Kart and Wii Fit games.
Ubisoft has has praised the "socialization of triple-A games" and is approaching it via its Uplay service. The company's recent purchase of Trials-developer RedLynx, as well as its upcoming Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Online could mark the beginning of the company's new social era.
What are some of the benefits of treating a game as if it were its own social network? Is this a passing phase, or an essential foundation on which the next major paradigm shift in video games will be built?
"We have been creating Battlefield games for more than a decade now, and we felt that we owe it to both ourselves and the community to build a social network around our games that we are in control of and that we can update frequently," Fredrik Löving, Battlelog Producer at DICE, said.
The addition of a social network to long-running game franchises like Battlefield is many ways a matter of developers catching up to what players had been doing on their own. The Battleog launched alongside last year's Battlefield 3 as a browser-based social network that allows players to build profiles, connect with people they've played against, track stats, watch feeds from other people's games, and keep track of leaderboards. Rather than build the service as an app for Facebook, EA and DICE decided Battlelog would work best as a network that stood on its own.
"I believe that people don’t have the same friends on Facebook as they have on Battlelog," Löving said. "Personally, I have lots of friends on Battlelog that I play with every day, and I feel that we are truly friends in the realm of Battlefield 3. However, we are not friends on Facebook, as Facebook to me is more about people I would actually meet face-to-face and not only in the gaming realm."
The decision to make Battlelog its own separate entity -- neither tethered to Facebook, the PlayStation Network, nor Xbox Live -- sets the tone for the whole experience, something that self-contained and isn't set against a background of dinner photos, Spotify playlists, or Netflix notifications. For PC players, Battlelog works as the game's launch pad, a sort of vestibule that filters out everything unrelated to the coming session of play.
"We did a poll and found out that roughly 12 percent of Battlelog users even have Battlelog as their start page in the browser," Löving said. "That made me very happy, since it’s even stronger numbers than the equivalent for Google, Facebook, and other popular start pages."
For many players, the kinds of socializing that happens around and within a game are nothing like the sorts of socializing that happens in Facebook or Twitter. There would be something disjunctive about treating their Battlefield 3 sessions as a subset of Facebook, a separate but equivalent variation on tagging people with notes, posting photos, and making party invitations.
The socializing that happens around Battlefield 3 can be seen as a way of escaping those simpler and more traditional forms of interacting; Battlelog is a social network whose richest interactions ultimately takes place outside of its borders.
Call of Duty Elite
"I think that's where it gets pretty exciting -- where a social network becomes a network that actually lets you go out and participate in something together," Jamie Berger, Activision's vice president of digital, told Gamasutra in an interview last year. Like EA's Battlelog, Activision launched Elite as a self-contained social network in support of its Call of Duty franchise. The service, which has free and fee-based subscription options, is a stand-alone browser-based social network that directly connects to players' time spent in Call of Duty games.
"One of the most interesting things to me is how positive people are in the service," Berger said. "I'm most excited that within it, people are being supportive; they're actually talking to each other, and amongst each other."
"They're so happy to actually have a place to be part of a community, not a message board... they're actually behaving very much like people who just want to be social and have fun, not people who want to flame each other."