In July, the Walt Disney Company paid up to $763 million for Playdom, the Mountain View, CA-based social game developer, far more than the roughly $400 million Electronic Arts paid for London-based Playfish in 2009. In addition, Google has reportedly invested $100 to $200 million into San Francisco-based Zynga, the developer behind popular social games Farmville and Mafia Wars.
Now that social gaming is attracting big bucks, the trajectory of the industry is a story of PR challenges and opportunity.
From the beginning, the PR battle for social game startups has been one of legitimacy.
"Three years ago, it was pushing the story and concepts," says Dena Cook, managing partner at Brew Media Relations, Zynga's AOR. "In the beginning we were sharp shooters. People were questioning if the model was sustainable."
Zynga's model is to let users play games through a social media network for free, but charge for digital goods and extras. Still, it's always been unclear where casual social games fit in the lucrative on-line and console gaming world, especially among zealous gamers.
"The biggest challenge we've encountered is getting people to understand what social games are," says Tom Sarris, director of global communications at Playfish.
That seems to be fading as social media gains broader acceptance. In fact, a recent study by market research firm NPD Group found 56 million American have played social games at least once.
A key PR goal for social games is to get people who don't view themselves as gamers to play them. It's about "creating a link to the offline and online worlds," says Craig O'Boyle, consumer PR head at Bite Communications, which handles Playfish's UK PR. It's about making games relevant to people's real-life passions.
Last February, Bite launched a campaign ahead of the Oscars to promote Playfish's game Pet Society. Called the "Pet Society Movie Awards" it asked people to recreate their favorite movie scenes using characters of the game, and submit them through the game's Facebook page.
O'Boyle says the competition drove new fans to the Facebook page and received press coverage.
It's logical that a PR strategy for social games would embrace the viral potential of social media, but it works both ways.
"Anyone with a computer is a potential customer," says Cook. But "misinformation can spread quickly. It's important to stem it before it takes on a life of its own."
Even so, it's also about exploiting the very lifeblood of what it means to be an active participant of social media. "Because friends are involved," notes O'Boyle, "people become more emotionally involved in going that extra mile."Broader appeal
Cook says the challenge is to keep telling as broad a story as possible as the industry evolves and more people gain interest, although Playdom and Zynga declined to comment directly for this article.
Experts agree that social gaming within the greater social media movement may be a great opportunity for the PR industry, as it can position itself as indispensable in digital strategy as more clients embrace social media, but struggle with the interplay between ads and PR.
"What starts out as PR creation generates awareness and leads to commercial metrics," O'Boyle explains.
Playfish's Sarris expects more consolidation of social game developers over the next 24 months because social games are viewed as branding vehicles. For example, Playfish launched the Facebook social game FIFA Superstars last May before the World Cup to support Electronic Arts' popular FIFA Soccer console game.
Disney's Playdom purchase is an affirmation and "an opportunity to bring well-known brands into social gaming," he adds.