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E3 2011: Where are the social games?

There's no denying that social games, primarily those played on Facebook, are in their ascendancy right now. Why are they still persona non grata at the biggest video game event of the year?

A couple from The Sims Social video Jay Greene/CNET

For a trade show all about the latest and greatest in interactive entertainment, it's somewhat shocking that many of the most popular video games being played right now are either underrepresented, or not represented at all. We are, of course, speaking about the social and casual games that have audiences larger than almost any traditional console game, and what's more, have managed to tap into the recurring revenue stream of microtransactions that seems to elude so many others.

This is no unintentional oversight. Many attendees of E3, the Game Developers Conference, and other industry events say that games such as Farmville and Cityville are not "real games," and that even mentioning them in the same breath as Halo or Gears of War would be to cheapen the entire medium.

At E3, these kinds of games are woefully underrepresented, despite having in many cases tens of millions of players (MAU, or monthly active users, is the standard metric for social games--the most popular game of this genre, Zynga's CityVille, currently has 90 million monthly active users). If you looks around artfully, however, you can still find a few examples. EA's social/casual subsidiary PlayFish, is here, and has scored with games such as Pet Society and Madden NFL Superstars. At E3, a portion of EA's giant floor space was devoted to The Sims Social, a Facebook version of the popular suburban life simulation game.

A handful of more traditional games have also dipped a toe into these waters. EA's Dragon Age II had a successful Facebook game tie-in, and streaming PC game service OnLive had added a new level of Facebook integration that allows players to launch the OnLive game browser from a friend's related Facebook updates.

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  • E3 2011: Complete coverage
  • Telltale, maker of casual iPad and PC games is here (although only in a private meeting room off the show floor), showing off the latest in a series of point-and-click puzzle and adventure games, including Puzzle Agent 2. One of the only eye-catching booths we saw for a social game was for Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville Online, a town-building game from THQ.

    Zynga's Empires & Allies
    Zynga's Empires & Allies Zynga

    The most interesting recent development in social games has been the gradual blurring of the lines between traditional and social games, as seen in Zynga's just-launched Allies & Empires, an ambitious Facebook game that is far beyond the crop-tending or gift-trading that most social gamers are used to. Also coming soon is a Facebook version of the classic PC strategy game Civilization--a title not even hardcore gamers can turn their noses up at.

    But the animosity between social games and E3 may go both ways. A Zynga insider told us that the reason the IPO-bound company didn't have a big E3 booth (company reps walked the show floor as attendees, however) was that, for now, hot social games sell themselves, and don't need either the retail deals or press exposure that draws other game makers to E3.