Weekly Update

Will Facebook Help Social Gaming Find Its Voice?

Last week, when I read the news about Vivox’s voice plug-in coming to Facebook, it got me thinking about what the  integration of voice capabilities into general-purpose, consumer facing social networks would mean. Like most people, my initial reaction is to cringe. You can’t blame me for feeling that way, especially if you’ve experienced the interruption of Facebook Chat messages from random connections popping up willy-nilly during work hours. That said, when I get past my anti-social tendencies and think of the potential that voice adds to the social network and its associated apps, I can’t help but think this may be, well, game-changing.

No doubt, social gaming itself has been one of the few bright spots in the tech funding world over the past year. Companies such as Playfish, Zynga and others that make social game apps have seen strong growth, riding the shift among consumers who are going from playing casual games on destination portals like EA’s Pogo to playing within Facebook.

This shift from traditional consumer casual gaming apps tracks with overall consumer behavior, as consumers continue to replace discrete desktop and web apps with apps from their social network. As some have said before, the social network in a sense becomes both an OS and central communication hub for people.

Gaming is no different. In fact, social gaming makes even more sense than other applications, given its inherent interactive nature. And by gaming within a popular social network like Facebook, the barriers to sharing the experience with people you actually know (rather than a teenager in Macedonia) increases exponentially.

And now, by combining the power of social network–enabled gaming with voice for real-time communication within a game — be it something as simple as a networked poker game on Facebook or a more elaborate social network–based virtual world like Yoville — and you have an even more powerful combination.

Back before Skype attracted tens of millions of bargain-hunting callers and before Vonage had gained (and then lost) its millionth customer, Xbox Live was showing gamers the power of talking to each over the IP network. In fact, for a while in the early aughts, Xbox Live may well have been the largest voice over IP (VoIP) network in terms of subscribers in the United States.

The reason for the success of voice over IP in Xbox Live and other gaming services is, when you get down to it, VoIP is the perfect companion application to online gaming. Whether you’re coordinating with cohorts during the heat of battle or meeting new friends in a game lobby, voice is the peanut butter to online gaming’s chocolate.

While today Facebook has not said whether it would build a plug-in like Vivox’s voice app into the social network’s core features, I think it’s a bygone conclusion. There’s no doubt with Google’s push into voice, we will see more and more voice capabilities overlayed on web apps, and Facebook will also want to make its platform more useful to consumers and app developers by adding voice.

And then, while some of the more anti-social among us may choose to turn the feature off, there is no doubt that gaming — and many other social apps — will see higher overall adoption and engagement by finding their voice.

Question of the week

Do you thinking adding voice functionality to Facebook and other social nets would enhance social network applications?