Google+ has Facebook's gaming success in its crosshairs

Gaming could be a major weapon in the growing social networking war

Google+ took a big swing at its most prominent competitor this week when it added gaming to the fledgling site.

The new social network announced Thursday that it is gradually rolling out gaming capabilities to the site and adding highly popular games like Angry Birds. The rollout started Thursday, although the company didn't say how long it would take before the games would be available to all of its users.

The move to add games is a direct hit at Facebook, the largest social network with more than 750 million users worldwide. Such popularity puts Facebook right into Google's crosshairs.

"Google is creating a full-on competitor to Facebook, which means they will move to match what Facebook does, like making Google+ a platform, and they will also add things that Facebook hasn't thought of, like Circles, for instance," said Rob Enderle, an analyst at the Enderle Group. "Games could be incredibly powerful in the social networking wars."

Facebook has made a lot of hay in the social networking world by offering users popular games like Farmville, YoVille and Mafia Wars.

Now Google+ wants a bite of that action.

Actually, Ray Valdes, an analyst at Gartner, said Google+ needs that action.

"Google is adding games, not in order to compete with Facebook, but rather to address an important aspect of the social experience on the modern Web," he said. "People go to Facebook and similar sites to connect with friends and, as part of that, to engage in social play. ... Casual social games, such as Farmville, are not for everyone's taste but are important to a significant portion of the user population."

Valdes noted that one-fourth of Facebook's enormous user base plays a social game on the site. That is why Google+ needs to get into the gaming world -- to find at least parity with Facebook, said Dan Olds, an analyst at the Gabriel Consulting Group.

"Google needs to harness this 'fun factor' and add games and other diversions if they want to make a serious play for Facebook users," said Olds. "A compelling and highly entertaining game can turn a nongamer into a casual gamer and a casual gamer into committed fan. ... It keeps user eyes focused on the social networking site, which is the object."

Facebook, however, isn't sitting back and letting Google+ grab all of the gaming limelight.

On the heels of the Google+ announcement, Facebook unveiled a bigger gaming screen and noted that people who play games on the site will have a separate stream that will show their high scores, as well as friends' gaming activity.

All the analysts said Facebook will have to push itself to come up with ways to keep users engaged with the games on its site.

"The best response for Facebook in a situation like this would to substantially enhance its already mature gaming ecosystem and platform," said Brad Shimmin, an analyst at CurrentAnalysis. "They should take, for example, a popular game such as Angry Birds and socialize it."

Facebook also will have to keep game developers happy.

"What Facebook might do is promote their platform to developers as a vehicle that gives them the most visibility and the best chance for commercial success," said Olds. "Google does a pretty good job of wooing developers and will certainly put forward a compelling pitch to game creators. Facebook needs to make sure that they're offering at least as good a deal as Google, and make sure they emphasize their massive user base compared to Google+."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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