Is Gaming The Future of Social Networking?
Games are increasingly becoming social spaces. 56% of the most frequent gamers play multiplayer games and spend an average of 7 hours per week playing with others online. 55% of them point out that video games help connect them with their friends.
Such is our desire for social interaction and entertainment, it’s no wonder that many of today’s most popular games titles are ones that enable both. These games have played an important role in helping people to connect with others during the coronavirus pandemic and many have found themselves playing in virtual worlds for the first time.
Games that are already social networks
Fortnite is a survival game where players fight against each other to be the last one standing. Despite its main objective, it acts as a central social gathering space and messaging service for its audience of teens (ages 10-17) who play at least once a week. The National Research Group describes Fortnite as a “competitive game that serves up community” and says “many young Fortnite players use the game as a place to socialise with others and to express their authentic selves, purchasing ‘skins’ to customize the look of their in-game avatars.”
Since entering the market, Fortnite has significantly changed the way consumers spend their free time, occupying 21% of total free time among weekly players across all ages.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released in March of this year as lockdowns were imposed worldwide – and it couldn’t have launched at a better time. The game tasks players with building a community on a deserted island by farming for materials and using them to create homes, shops, libraries and more.
The flexibility of what you can build in the game has given players the opportunity to create their own unique virtual social spaces. Rogue One screenwriter, Gary Whitta, built a TV set in-game which became a virtual talk show called Animal Talking, which was then streamed on his Twitch account. It features all of the familiar aspects of a late-night talk show such as a live band, celebrity guests, theme music and comedy.
Similarly, a New York developer launched Deserted Island DevOps, a developer conference that took place entirely in Animal Crossing, complete with sessions, workshops, panel discussions and streamed live on Twitch. Players have also been using the game in lockdown to celebrate special occasions with friends and family such as Ramadan.
Social networks that are becoming games
As games increasingly resemble social networks, the reverse is also true. Facebook Horizon is a multiplayer virtual reality social space by Facebook, currently in public beta. It lets users build their own environments and games, play and socialise with friends and explore user-generated worlds. What seemed like something of a novelty when announced last September, may actually serve a genuine purpose in today’s world where face-to-face social interaction is limited and has the potential to become a new destination for people to connect at home and at work. However, it requires users to own a VR headset which may prevent mainstream adoption.
Why aren’t game worlds already replacing social media?
Fundamentally, it is down to connectivity and accessibility. Social networks can support billions of users; with 2.3 billion monthly active users, Facebook is the most popular social media platform today, followed by YouTube, Instagram and WeChat, with more than a billion users. Currently, it is not possible to have this many users in a virtual world as outdated architectural design restricts the number of connected clients. Current game engines restrict connected users to 100-200 – any more and the server is likely to crash.
Limited player counts are to some extent addressed through the use of asynchronous architectures where multiple connections are handled simultaneously at a low latency. However, running a single shard game with unlimited player counts also requires computing power that scales to meet demand. Furthermore, players might swarm a region putting undue load on particular servers which are unable handle the increased demand.
Nonetheless, spatial load balancing partitions physical simulations, providing additional computing power to complex regions – which means unprecedented levels of fidelity can be achieved. The game world is mapped to computing resources which are then designated according to the need of the simulation, allocating more power when hundreds of players are located in the same area. It enables anyone and everyone to play and interact together, at an unrestricted scale.
This is the basis of our spatial simulation library, Aether Engine which dynamically allocates resources to complex and intensive CPU regions for unprecedented performance and scale. We put it to the test last year in partnership with CCP Games, creators of EVE Online. Aether Engine was integrated into their architecture for a series of scale tests entitled EVE Aether Wars. It ran a total of 10k concurrent players at 30hz and players enjoyed a smooth gameplay experience without interruption.
Virtual experiences have shown huge potential this year and many sceptics have been converted. If creators can harness new technologies, immersive experiences with millions of users might not be an impossibility.