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GDC: Facebook hasn't found its Mario

This year's Game Developers Conference has two new tracks for the new kids in town: the Social & Online Games Summit and the iPhone Games Summit. Facebook's Gareth Davis delivered the keynote for the former this morning, titled "How Friends Change Everything." With 400 million users, 200 million of whom are playing games on the service, it's pretty hard to argue with Facebook's bona fides as a seriously huge gaming platform. With components like Facebook Connect, we're even seeing Facebook functionality penetrate the historically isolated game consoles, like Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and even DSi.

While Microsoft trumpets the largely dubious distinction of being the "largest social network on television," it doesn't compare favorably to what most of us consider to be a real "social network." Outside of the Facebook integration, adding friends on Xbox Live is a largely manual process; one obfuscated by aliases instead of real names, the basic litmus test of a social network. Indeed, Davis thinks "real identities" are a major component to Facebook's gaming magic. Playing against real people is "much more compelling than playing against SharkBoy69," says Davis. When it comes to real identity in games, Davis says we're just "scratching the surface."

What will further scratching reveal? The ability to ingest Facebook data – think "name, age, gender, location, friends, interests," even pictures – into a personalized game experience represents an "incredibly new, immersive experience." Davis points to the FlashForward promotional video – make your own here – which pulls in your Facebook data to create a customized experience. Now, imagine that in a video game.

But if there's one takeaway from Davis' panel, it's this: "The Mario of Facebook is out there." Like the early days of film, where a "director" simply plopped down the camera in front of some action – unencumbered by cuts, pans, edits, and the language of cinema we've grown to appreciate – Davis argues that social games are still in their infancy. "Every new platform brings with it a defining new killer game," says Davis. And, Farmville be damned, Facebook doesn't have its Mario yet.

Davis says the "iconic" Facebook game is ahead of us. "It may be just around the corner ... we think this game will change everything." Will it be the Facebook-bound Civilization Network? "We're really excited to see Civilization come to Facebook this year. We think that's going to be a watershed moment." Who knows when (and if!) we'll see this iconic Facebook game, but with the growth of online functionality in console games – Facebook-enhanced or not – it's clear we're entering a new age of social gaming. "Social games are the past, the present, and the future of gaming," Davis says. "We won't call them social games anymore, we'll just call them games."

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