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AddictingGames makes social-network play

The Nickelodeon-owned site will announce several steps to turn its Flash-based games site into more of a community for teen players.

Nickelodeon's AddictingGames, one of the largest gaming sites for teens in the United States, is turning itself into a social hangout for generation Y and their younger brothers and sisters.

This week, the company will announce several steps to turn its Flash-based games site into more of a community for teen players. By the end of October, AddictingGames visitors will be able to create a member profile, featuring things like photos, member name, games played, high scores, and a buddy list. At that time, members will also be able to see a high-score list among friends who play the same games, rather than all-time high scores, and they'll have the ability to challenge friends or join them immediately in a game when they log on.

Users will also have an IM application to chat with friends, according to Dave Williams, senior vice president of the Games Group at Nickelodeon's Kids and Family that formed in June. (For instant messaging, AddictingGames plans to use social network Meebo's Community IM service, due in the fall.) But despite these features, Williams was careful to say that it won't be another social network.

"Our big focus now is community," Williams said in an interview with CNET News this week. "Games were always meant to be social."

AddictingGames, which attracted its largest audience of about 10.7 million U.S. monthly visitors in June, according to ComScore Media Metrix, is stepping up its social game at a time when casual gaming, socializing and user-created content are converging online and on the mobile phone, particularly for kids and teens. An estimated 86 percent of teens on the Internet regularly play games, and most of them belong to a social network and own a mobile phone.

While the company has stiff competition from the likes of game providers Miniclip, Yahoo and Kongregate, even more challenging for AddictingGames might be to keep the attention of capricious teens--especially its main constituency of teenage boys. Last year, Nickelodeon said that it would invest as much as $100 million in online and casual games, and part of that money is being funneled into making its game sites more "sticky" with profiles and chat.

To be fair, another site that Williams heads up in the Games Group, Shockwave.com, has been trying out many of these social features already.

Shockwave, a casual game site geared more for older audiences like mom gamers, has had member profiles since late last year. Since that time, the profiles have boosted the time spent on the site by 30 percent, to roughly 47 minutes a month, according to Williams. (Players spend an average of 30 minutes monthly on AddictingGames, according to ComScore.) In that vein, Shockwave has also recently began letting members create a so-called virtual talking avatar for a profile page. Members can designate for the avatar a gender, voice type and accent, as well as give it scripted text so it speaks for them on the profile page.

Part of the strategy to keep teens attention is to constantly introduce new games, some of them "flirty," according to Williams. AddictingGames has about 3,000 games on its site, adding between 12 and 20 new ones every week. "New game Friday" features a bulk roll out of nine new games at once, many from its user community.

AddictingGames, which became a part of Nickelodeon and MTVN when their parent Viacom bought Atom Entertainment for $200 million in August 2006, is also leaning toward more social games. Those are games that ask for player's creativity and collaboration.

As little as a year ago, online games were geared much more to a solo experience, ala Solitaire. But now casual games are encouraging more interaction among players. Pencil Racer, for example, is a game that asks players to draw their own track, upload it to the site, and pick from a range of vehicles, like a monkey on a bike, with which to race. The game was launched only a few months ago, and people have already created more than 1 million different race tracks.

"We have lots of kids cutting their teeth making new games," said Williams. A 15-year-old boy from Sweden, for example, built a popular shooter game called Clear Vision.

Because Addicting Games caters to a younger audience, Williams said that it will be sure to promote teen safety when it introduces profiles and other social features later this year. For example, kids under the age of 13 will not be able to sign up for an account, and members over the age of 18 will not be able to "friend" those under 18 years old.

As for how it makes money, the site sells advertisements and sponsorships for its more popular games, and it has been profitable for years, according to Williams. AddictingGames, for example, recently created a version of Pencil Racer that allowed players to race a T-Mobile phone.

Not to ignore the trends in mobile gaming, Williams said that his division is looking closely at games for the iPhone. But he said that there was nothing to announce at this time. The company already sells a pack of Flash-for-mobile games called "addicting quickies" for Verizon phones.