This week, for some reason I still can't quite fathom, I was asked to moderate a panel at the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco. The topic was "Social Games: something, something" and the goal was to bring four pieces of games industry flair to a conference that is otherwise more about tactical solutions and data mining and other stuff that I have absolutely no business talking about. Joining me for this little adventure were ngmoco's Simon Jeffery, Playdom's Eric Todd, and Ubisoft's Omar Abdelwahed; handsome and charming gentlemen, all of whom are on the very pointy end of the spear of social gaming.

Typically when I speak at these kinds of things, I have a pretty good read on the audience before I get started. Whether it's PAX or the Game Developer's Conference or CES or the Ypulse Mashup or whatever, it's usually pretty easy to know what the audience wants, and how they'll respond to the banter playing out in front of them. A good panel usually has a little bit of theatre to it, and when you know who you're talking to it's not too hard to find a sweet spot. This one was a bit of a mystery though, and the whole thing was compounded by the fact that as we neared our kick off time, there were just a handful of people sat out on the furthest extremities of our enormous room. The area directly in front of us? Completely empty.

We laughed, we joked, we indulged in some nervous self deprecation, and then we dug in and just got started. As it turns out, it actually went pretty well. Word somehow got out that we were being reasonably entertaining (I guess) and after about 10 or 15 minutes we'd actually drawn a fairly healthy crowd. There was a point where Omar talked about the huge popularity of Just Dance for a few minutes and he actually danced momentarily. Maybe that was the big draw. The boy's got some moves.

In the ensuing hour of on stage tomfoolery, and the discussion it provoked afterward in the hallways of San Francisco's Moscone Centre, we actually managed to tackle a number of subjects about the social gaming space, and explored their impact on the broader games market. In a week where we learned that Battle.net was going to implement Facebook Connect, some of this will be of particular note to many, especially those that felt the need to rail against the pervasiveness of Facebook when that announcement was made.

So, in no particular order, here's the general gist of what I learned while moderating this whole thing.

The Talent is Moving

More and more "traditional" game designers and games industry executives are making the move from large, slow-moving corporations to social games studios like Playdom, Zynga, or Crowdstar because the environment is far more conducive to creativity. Games can be developed quickly and relatively cheaply, and they are all so deeply connected to the audience that they can be tuned, adapted, and updated extremely quickly. All that stuff I talked about last week with in-game telemetry and adaptive updates? Social games have that baked in from day one. It's part of the culture, and one of the reasons that so many developers are excited about the space.

Mobile Intimacy

It's always interesting to note at conferences where social play or casual games are discussed that there's a tangible shift in energy from the audience when the topic turns to mobile experiences. The iPhone in particular, but also Android devices have quietly nurtured a level of intimacy that games are really benefiting from. Bejeweled was cited as the best example of this. Everyone loves Bejeweled Blitz on Facebook, but isn't it so much better when you play it from a connected, portable device? Whether you self-identify as a gamer or not, mobile experiences are breaking down cultural barriers faster than anything else right now.

Older Lady Gamers

Whereas console games tend to be both targeted at and consumed by guys in their late teens to early 30s, online social games and mobile games are more likely to be played by women over 30. According to Playdom's Eric Todd, the split is approximately 60/40, and the vasty majority are "well over" 25. These same people rarely self-identify as gamers in any way. Surprise.

No Star Wars, Thanks

Interestingly, if you want to make a really huge online or mobile social game you're better off steering clear of licensed properties, or the usual genre-based gaming fare. Sci-fi and fantasy were both deemed subjects to be avoided if you want something that's going to be played by eleventy squillion people. The reason that Farmville has performed so unbelievably well, to the point that 30 million people are playing it every day (that's 0.5 percent of the population of the planet, for perspective) is that it's a universally acceptable premise. Anyone can relate to growing vegetables. I guess. We did challenge this with the notion that hey, maybe Star Wars could transcend that? But it was quickly shot down with some fairly clear evidence.

From a mobile perspective, Simon noted, Star Wars hasn't really done very well. The last couple of games in the App store haven't performed at all. The Cantina game that came out a few weeks ago is a great example. It's based on an accepted and highly successful casual/social game premise (Sally's Spa, and other similar time management games) but it completely failed to enter the top 100.

Playing Together is the Future

The vast majority of the most successful social games have essentially been single player games that require the assistance of friends. The future of social games is in more collaborative experiences - whether playing together at the same time, or in an asynchronous way. Farmville, we all agreed, is not the be-all and end-all model for social gameplay. D'uh. Nor is We Rule, though the music is so infectious that we all started humming it when we were prepping for the panel.

Toy Soldiers Lead The Way Forward

Though there's a good chance that those of you who turn your nose up at social games may have already turned your back on this column, here's where it gets interesting for more "traditional" gamers. It was pretty broadly acknowledged by everyone on the panel that one of the smartest moves anyone's made from the console side of the business lately was Match Defence, the Facebook game that's tightly integrated with the XBLA game Toy Soldiers. Performance in this nicely presented match-three game had a direct impact on the economy of the core game. Where Microsoft slipped up was that they didn't push the social game out further. Though it lived on Facebook, it could have been even more successful if they'd taken a progressive approach to mobile too. Doing something for Windows Mobile is a no-brainer, of course - but imagine how significant it could have been if they have hit iPhone and Android too?

While he didn't say anything specific, it was interesting to watch Omar's enthusiasm during this part of the on-stage discussion. As a publisher that makes "traditional" boxed games for all platforms, as well as web games and mobile titles, Ubisoft is uniquely positioned to do some very clever stuff in this space. I can only imagine the potential of a mobile game that lets you build up your town in Assassin's Creed, or work on your loadout for Ghost Recon. This is the stuff that Microsoft was talking about with Live Anywhere years ago. Remember? All that crap they talked about customising your Forza paint job on your phone. Yeah, that worked out beautifully, didn't it? It's all starting to happen now. And where is Live in all of this? Still stuck behind its ridiculous walled garden of proprietary nonsense.

The Walled Garden Effect

On that subject, it was widely agreed that one of the greatest impediments for the "big three" right now is their "walled garden" approach to networking, digital content, and social play. I've written about this in the past, but the apparent reluctance of all three first parties to integrate the most popular networks properly is in danger of slowing them all down considerably. As iDevices and Android handsets continue to flourish worldwide, it won't be long before the tide will turn on where developers' emphasis is placed. The approval process for downloadable content was noted too; games and audiences adapt so quickly now that the antiquated, unpredictable, and slow-moving process employed at all three companies means that more and more talent will start trying to work on other things.

What this means for 3DS, PSP2, and My Beard

This last point led to a final thought regarding the inevitable mobile moves that will happen at E3 a month from now. We already know that Nintendo is going to show the 3DS, and it's highly likely that Sony will at least hint at PSP2, but the success of both will very much depend on both companies' willingness to fully embrace the 21st century and open things up. Both devices need to be connected (as their forebears already are, only moreso) but in such a way that it's completely integrated into the overall experience.

Sony, particularly, has a huge opportunity to reinvent itself with a connected and progressive mobile gaming platform that fully integrates existing social networks and modern microtransaction systems from day one. Sadly, they are about as likely to do that as I am to shave my beard off, which means they're doomed before they even announce it.

Tell you what... if they do announce a connected and social-friendly handset at E3, I'll shave my beard off and you can all laugh at what a weak-chinned girl I look like without it.