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Google+ worries Facebook with Games launch

Google has declared war on social networking rival Facebook's core revenue stream of casual gaming with the integration of a games platform into its own Google+ service.

The move comes as Google increasingly positions its still-officially-a-test social networking service as a true competitor to Facebook, adding in equivalents to almost every Facebook feature from wall posts to the location-based Places check-in service.

The Google+ Games portal officially launched late last night and, despite an initial hiccough, appears to be going smoothly. "Sharing is about more than just conversations," Google's Vic Gundotra claimed in a blog post on the matter. "The experiences we have together are just as important to our relationships. We want to make playing games online just as fun, and just as meaningful, as playing in real life."

The new Games page tracks achievements, scores, and encourages social gaming through the ability to invite people to play titles with or against you. Google promises that it won't allow Google+ to degenerate into an annoying stream of requests for users to tend their friends' friends' virtual crops or coffee shops, however.

"If you’re not interested in games," Gundotra claims, "it’s easy to ignore them. Your stream will remain focused on conversations with the people you care about."

The initial list of titles, while small, includes some big names: Rovio's hit Angry Birds is included, along with PopCap's Bejeweled Blitz and Zynga's Poker. Role-playing title Dragon Age Legends, which ties in to BioWare's mainstream Dragon Age series of games, is also included in the launch list.

Social gaming is big business. On the back of little more than a basic farming simulator - itself 'inspired' by years of sim-style games for the PC - social gaming giant Zynga has come from nowhere to an industry valuation in the billions of dollars. Much of Facebook's revenue comes from its gaming partners, and the news that some big names are taking Google's entry into the market seriously is causing a few headaches at the social networking giant.

When rumours leaked that Google+ would be getting games, Facebook executives hastily called a press conference which - coincidentally, we're sure - occured at the same time as Google's launch, detailing new features for Facebook's own gaming platform. While they are evolutionary rather than revolutionary - adding features such as a live ticker of friends' gaming activity, a bigger screen for gameplay, and the ability to bookmark favourite apps for quicker access - it's hard to see Facebook's announcement as anything other than a panicked attempt to convince its gaming partners that it's still the horse to back.

At the same time, Google is pushing into other areas: as well as gaming, the company has announced the integration of Google Books into Google+. While that means little for its UK users - who are still locked out of the US-only ebook platform - those with access to the service will be able to share details of books with their Google+ circles in a similar way to Amazon's Kindle service.

While Facebook remains the king of the hill with an estimated 750 million active users, Google is certainly generating enough buzz to get the social networking Goliath distinctly nervous.