Being an app reviewer, I think that I play more games than the average person. I personally don't have much of a genre preference, although I do enjoy games that let me upgrade my character(s) or towers, and I have no sort of fan-affiliation with any specific game companies. Deep down in my heart, I also really don't understand what the big deal is with these "social game centers."
A friend made a comment to me about an article that I wrote about OpenFeint going multiplatform, and it rung a bell in my head. He said, "Why are people making such a big fuss about GameCenter?" and then looked at me like I should have some sort of profound answer. The answer was a garbled message about the unification of gaming and blah blah blah (I'm letting out my inner Steve Ballmer). Truth be told, I really don't care about GameCenter that much at all. In fact, I think the whole social gaming platform is pretty ridiculous because developers really aren't grasping what social gaming is all about.
The only company, in my opinion, that has really gotten it right is Com2Us with Homerun Battle 3D. If you read my articles and reviews, I talk about this game like it's the next coming of Wonderbread, and it really is that good (and nutritious). I'm not the only one who thinks so either. According to Mobile Entertainment, "players have notched up more than 60 million online match-ups, totalling 480 million minutes spent battering baseballs out of the game's virtual stadium," all without the help of a giant social gaming platform backing. With that game, I genuinely care about the competition and get disappointed when my bitter rivals aren't online. The joy of the system though is that you don't have to go into another bland page to get some simple high score information, it's all integrated into the game.
On a customer level, I really don't think that there is any advantage to using a service like OpenFeint. I don't mean to knock the service, because it does provide an easy to use area to display global high scores, but it doesn't, in my opinion, add anything to the game experience. I've never invited anyone to a game or used the included IM service, and I really don't think that the overall score I have makes me want to play OpenFeint games any more. To me, there's just a bunch of fluff surrounding a game that doesn't really nurture any sort of competitive spirit. It's just a nice place for my high score to be displayed.
The only real advantage that I see, for an average gamer, to a unified GameCenter is that my user name will be the same on all the high score lists, and this really only matters if I get into the top 25 of a specific game. I'm not going to go search through a bunch of lists to find my friends in the top 5,000, I just want to see how high of a score I need to get to enter the top 25.
The key to social gaming success doesn't lie in unifying the platform or stamping your logo on a bunch of games, it's partnering with developers to make the online experience unique. Nothing about GameCenter will stop me from playing ngmoco games that are on the Plus+ Network because my game purchases are all about the games.
If GameCenter really aspires to be anything near what X-Box Live is, it needs to be so much more that it seems to be shaping up into. I need to able to use my phone as an X-Box headset to talk trash to the people I'm playing against. I need to, within the games, see which of my friends are playing ANY game network wide, not just that specific game. Not only that, but I need to be able to send someone a challenge to another for one game, and while they are playing another game, get my challenge request in some kind of instant notification. I'm not going to check my e-mail for game invites, I want to be able to do it all on the fly. I need all the games need to be connected, all the time.
Until then, "social gaming" on the iPhone just seems like blah, blah, blah, blah (my inner Ballmer has me sweating with rage).