You play a game on Facebook. I'll play one on Xbox 360. Our winnings will contribute to the same side of a virtual re-enactment of World War I. Behold, the first Facebook-360 gaming link, launching this week. More are coming.
So far only about 11,000 people are in on what could be one of the biggest changes to the way we play console games - and the way others among us play games on Facebook.
Those 11,000 Facebook users are playing Match Defense Toy Soldiers, a Microsoft Games Studios game quietly launched a couple of weeks ago. The game will link to Toy Soldiers (pictured up top), an Xbox Live Arcade game launching Wednesday.
Though they are linked, the two games are different. Match defence is a single-player 2D gem-matching game, a descendant of Tetris Attack and Bejeweled draped in a World War I theme. Toy Soldiers is a 3D real-time strategy game pitting a player's collection of vintage war toys against either a computer-controlled enemy force or against other players over Xbox Live.
This pair of World War I games establishes what may be the first connection ever between a Facebook game and a console game.
Players of either game are contributors to a massive virtual war effort, the game's Microsoft producer Justin Robey explained to Kotaku today. Those who play the Facebook game can choose a side for the war - Central forces or Allies - and contribute their score totals for every three rounds of the game they play to their side of the war. Players of the Xbox 360 game, whether competing in solo missions or against friends in multiplayer, will also contribute points to their respective side. All those points will determine which countries the competing forces take.
Today, for example, via Facebook, I contributed to the Allied effort to take Austria-Hungary. My side is winning, and the fate of that country will be determined about three hours after this story goes live. The first side to take eight countries wins the war. Those who play the Xbox 360 game when it launches tomorrow may be able to sway the fortunes of another battle in the war, but, from my office via Facebook, I'll either be able to join them or help push them back.
Connectivity between game systems is not a new idea. Nintendo has long tried to sell gamers on the idea of games that link GameBoy or Nintendo DS play to play on Nintendo consoles. The PlayStation 3 supports a technology that allows people to play some PS3 games remotely via their PSP. But this idea of pooling Facebook and Xbox 360 gamers into one grand competition has not been executed before. Nor has a console gamer ever been given the opportunity to - sort of - keep playing an Xbox 360 game even when they're sitting at their computer at work.
"This is the next big thing in terms of how we can have three screens in a cloud," Robey told Kotaku. He was referring to the technology goal of enabling a person to access programs - games, in this case - from any screen, be it TV, phone or computer, all linked together.
The integration between Facebook and Xbox 360 gaming is going to get even tighter. In about a week, Microsoft will add a feature to Match Defense that will let people connect the game to their Xbox Live accounts. If they own Toy Soldiers, the 360 game, their point totals in the Facebook game will be multiplied, making their contributions to the war effort even more valuable. Those who forge that link will have the points they generate on the 360 version of the game contribute to the side of the war they choose on Facebook — regardless of which side they play on the 360 game.
Robey discouraged me from thinking of the connection between Match Defense and Toy Soldiers as Microsoft's delivery of the company's undelivered promise of Xbox Live Anywhere. He said that the Live Anywhere idea involved access to one's Xbox Live friends across devices. This link, he said, is more about designing "game experiences that are screen-relevant" and connecting them.
The foundation has been laid. When I ran into Match Defense's lead designer, Ken Lobb, at the DICE gaming summit a couple of weeks ago, we began discussing where this could all go. Imagine extending one's experience of playing a console game by playing more of it - or a version of it - on Facebook. Imagine where Microsoft could go with Achievements and expansions, with making it so that we would always have some way of playing a game we liked - or of beating up on gamers we don't. How about a Facebook gamers war vs Xbox gamers? Lobb said this kind of stuff is possible.
Facebook games and console games have linked together this week. Sign of a big change in game development? If nothing else, Robey said, look for more of this from Microsoft in the future.