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The Social Gaming Surprise: 'FarmVille' Is Blowing 'GTA' Away

Every month, roughly 100 million people log into Facebook to tend their virtual farms in 'FarmVille,' or to wage virtual war against their mob enemies in 'Mafia Wars.' To put things in perspective, those numbers roughly equal the populations of France and Canada combined. Anyone who tells you that social gaming is a flash in the pan is wrong... dead wrong. So now, the video game industry is scrambling to catch up.

Zynga, the company behind 'Ville' and 'Wars' has an estimated market valuation of between $1.5 and $3 billion -- more than twice that of Take Two Interactive Software, the maker of the 'Grand Theft Auto' franchise. If the company decides to go public, as it's rumored to be considering, it will instantly become the industry's third-largest, stand-alone publisher. Not surprisingly, the boom in social gaming has proven irresistible to many developers. Top names from Electronic Arts and Blizzard Entertainment have left the traditional gaming world behind in order to claim footholds in the social world. Now, one of the founding fathers of gaming is taking his turn.

Richard Garriott, the creator of the 'Ultima' series, recently launched Portalarium, a new social gaming company. Its first game, 'Sweet @$! Poker,' became the 12th most popular poker game (out of 47) in just five weeks. "My belief is this [sector's success] is a harbinger of things to come," says Garriott. "Any developer who pooh-poohs it... is underestimating what is about to happen." Will Wright agrees. The man who created 'The Sims' and 'Spore' said, at last week's Game Developer Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, that he expects social gaming to eventually make up one-quarter of the entire market.

The sudden rise in social gaming's popularity caught not only game makers by surprise, but also the gamers, themselves. In fact, many Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 players refuse to acknowledge the category, labeling social gamers as housewives and grandparents. They're not entirely wrong. A study of who plays Facebook games, conducted by PopCap Games and Information Solutions Group, found that the average U.S. player is 48-years-old, and 55-percent of them are women. Only six-percent of fans are under 21-years-old.

Yet, age doesn't make social gamers less devoted than 'Modern Warfare 2' fans. Of the people surveyed, 95-percent play multiple times per week -- and nearly two-thirds play at least once per day. "These people are hardcore gamers," says Garriott. "They're just a new generation of hardcore gamers."

Part of the appeal for those gamers -- and what has kept many console players away -- is the low graphical quality and simplistic nature of social gaming. They are, in other words, very approachable. Though it's possible to play something like FarmVille for hours on end, you'll rarely find anyone who does. The Facebook player likes his or her games in short, "snacky" bites. This gamer is the same type of player who enjoys games on the iPhone (and, to a lesser degree, the Nintendo DS).

Traditional game publishers, sensing a second chance to get a piece of the audience that has made the Nintendo Wii so successful, are moving quickly to enter the field. Last year, Electronic Arts purchased social games maker PlayFish for over $300 million.

Take Two Interactive Software is focusing on the trend with in-house talent; a Facebook version of Sid Meier's hit 'Civilization' franchise is expected to hit in June. At GDC, social gaming was the subject everyone was talking about -- implying that several other producers will explore the space soon.

Despite the number of people playing social games, don't expect EA or Activision to abandon the console world anytime soon. While the audience is substantial -- and is larger than the number of Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Wii owners combined -- the profits are unquestionably lower. Ultimately, shareholders are more interested in the company's bottom line than they are in the avant garde of industry trends.

Tags: Civilization, Electronic-Arts, facebook, farmville, features, gdc, social networking, SocialNetworking, top, video games, VideoGames, web, zynga