Not surprisingly, for the past several months there has been a lot of buzz in the tech world over "social gaming." FarmVille, for example, potentially has over 80 million active users on Facebook. Zynga, the online gaming company that markets FarmVille, generated revenues of over $150 million this year. At the recent Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, social gaming was a central topic of discussion - and more than a few independent game developers were offended by having their creative products compared to the FarmVilles and Mafia Wars of the world.
Soren Johnson, the lead designer for Civilization IV and a highly intelligent and astute game designer, offers the following thoughts on social gaming: "Fear and Loathing in Farmville."
It's a good read, for a number of reasons. One of Johnson's biggest fears is that social gaming removes too much creative power from the designer, and places it either in the hands of a "suit" (more concerned with maximizing the bottom-line versus entertainment value) or the player-base. This latter point is interesting. Reiterative design, whereby the structure of a game is steadily and rapidly changed based on player feedback, has the potential to be a powerful force in shaping games to suit players' entertainment desires. But it also caters to the lowest common denominator, and it makes the concept of a "game designer" (someone with a special creative talent in game design) less meaningful.
I have to admit my own reservations about this transformation; game design itself simply might be not as much fun as it used to be. I cannot easily sum up how enjoyable brainstorming a game is during the early, heady days of blue skies and distant deadlines. With a release-early-and-iterate mentality, these days are now over, for good. Games will no longer be a manifestation of an individual’s (or a team’s) pure imagination and, instead, will grow out of the murky grey area between developers and players. The designer-as-auteur ideal is perhaps incompatible with this model, but I believe the best game designers are the ones willing to “get dirty” – to engage fully with a community to discover which ideas actually work and which ones were simply wishful thinking. Loss of control is never fun, but as Sid is fond of saying, the player should be the one having the fun, after all, not the designer.
Most gamers' and designers' primary concern with social gaming, as it stands now, is how these products are built, from the ground up, to abuse and exploit the customer. Social games typically utilize a partial reinforcement schedule to keep players coming back, much like slot machines in casinos. The hope of the company is that their customer will become behaviorally addicted to the product and a regular subscriber. If they can cajole/convince their friends to sign up too, their experience will improve (for example, they might receive some bonus content). It is also common to sabotage the functionality of the product, requiring payment to improve performance, open up options which are usually standard, etc.
Now, there's a danger here of over-reaction. After all, these games are free to play. If you're careful, they are free to play forever. Ultimately, it is your choice whether you want to invest any money in furthering your gaming experience. The business model demands that there be some mechanism of generating revenue to cover the cost of development and distribution of a free-to-play model. Advertising is one possibility. Micro-transactions is another. In and of themselves, there are not necessarily evil things (well, maybe advertising is, but not micro-transactions).
Furthermore, there is definitely something to be gleaned from the popularity of these games. Johnson delineates 4 attributes of social games that "promise great things for both gamers and designers":
And when viewed in this context, one can certainly begin to see why everyone's buzzing about the potential of social gaming - and not just as a money-generating cash-cow, which it surely is. In particular, #3 (persistent, asynchronous play) appeals to me. As one grows older and accumulates more life responsibilities, it becomes harder and harder to justify (although I remain capable of doing so) spending 3 hours straight in front of the computer playing with pixels and polygons. But what if those 3 hours were distributed across a week, in 10-15 minute bites, and you were still able to get a fulfilling strategic gaming experience? As a related model, consider how much time/energy/enjoyment people get from "playing" fantasy football and its ilk, which are based upon persistent, asynchronous, social interaction.
- True friends list: Gaming can now happen exclusively within the context of one’s actual friends. Multiplayer games no longer suffer from the Catch-22 of requiring friends to be fun while new players always start the game without friends.
- Free-to-play business model: New players need not shell out $60 to join the crowd. Consumers don’t like buying multiplayer games unless they know that their friends are all going to buy the game as well. Free-to-play removes that friction.
- Persistent, asynchronous play: Finding time to play with one’s real friends is difficult, especially for working, adult gamers. Asynchronous mechanics, however, let gamers play at their own pace and with their own friends, not strangers who happen to be online at the same time.
- Metrics-based iteration: Retail games are developed in a vacuum, with designers working by gut instinct. Further, games get only one launch, a single chance to succeed. Most developers would love, instead, to iterate quickly on genuine, live feedback.
Personally, I've never been attracted to casual social games because stuff that appeals to the lowest common denominator is likely to be uninteresting to my refined and spoiled palate (snooty, I know). After all, I've been a gamer for near-on 30 years and I'm particularly drawn to niche markets that don't have mass appeal. Furthermore, I'm used to playing my games with complete strangers online - and in some ways, I prefer that. But I can read the tea leaves as well as anyone else, and the fact of the matter is that when it comes to the bottom line, I'm less relevant to the CEO's and business graduates of the world than the ~400 million Facebook users who aren't willing to slap down $50 for the latest and greatest in video-game technowizardry.
I'm not going to play Chicken Little here and say the sky is falling, but casual games, and especially social games, are going to have a major impact of what video games 10 years from now look like. And it might not necessarily be all bad.
Although if you want to scare yourself, watch this video from DICE 2010, where Carnegie Mellon University professor, Jesse Schell, tries to give us a glimpse into our awesome future. He's not a great speaker, but it gets very interesting (in a "holy shit, I need to kill myself now" way) around the 20 min mark.