Justifying Social Games

I ran across this quote recently, which reflects an opinion I’ve seen frequently online from people in the AAA game space:

Now, for the social game developers out there – let me help. You know that bad feeling you have in your stomach? That’s not embarrassment. That’s not inadequacy.

That’s guilt – it’s what other people feel when they are doing something shitty.

So, if you want to roll that way, fine. Just don’t waste your time justifying it to the rest of us.

Jeff Roberts

Ouch. Before I respond, though, let me tell you about a recent trip I took to PAX in Seattle. It was a lot of fun; I got to hang out with a bunch of friends, play a great game of D&D and go to some awesome panels! However…

The most important thing I saw at PAX was Warren Spector’s keynote. The point that stuck with me comes about 32 minutes in, where Warren says:

When we go outside this room, when we go out the real world, I see people get sort of insecure. It’s almost like we yearn to get accepted by mainstream media and by normal people, you know? And yet, once they start paying attention to us, when casual gamers start flocking into our world, we start complaining about it. They’re diluting the experience. We get upset when developers try to reach a broader audience. Casual is perceived as the opposite, even the enemy, of what we do.

Social games are a billion dollar industry, maybe more. Farmville is played by approximately 1% of the earth’s population and it’s just one game. Farmville is free to play, yet Zynga is doing very well off of it.

Is this due to slimy business practices? Are companies like Zynga using viral marketing to get millions of people interested in a boring, brain-dead experience so they can drain their wallets one micro-transaction at a time? Are their games just vehicles for numbers driven, A/B tuned Skinner box tricks?

In a word: NO!

(At least, no more so than any other genre of game.)

Zynga’s designers have gone on record as saying that “Fun and monetization are synonymous.” Is that self-serving PR bullshit designed to reassure us? I don’t think it is. I worked on Social City, which won the Best Social Network Game at GDC Online. And we had the same experience. We focused on building a fun game, and it did better in the market than other games developed in the same timeframe by talented teams that focused on A/B testing, monetization strategies, or demographics.

Remember where I said that Farmville has been played by 1% of the earth’s population? Most of those people have never played games before. It doesn’t bother them, yet, that these games aren’t very sophisticated. That will come (this is where social devs are saying that “quality will increase”) as they become more educated. The audience will be more discriminating. Some will go on to play hardcore games, and that is cool.

Many will not. But that’s OK. Because the part of working on social games I like best is this: Social City is the only game I’ve worked on that my parents played and liked. I had a thirty minute phone conversation with my mom where she suggested new features! That didn’t happen with the twitch console game I worked on… or the networked PC space shooter I helped build… or even any of the hundreds of titles built on Torque (which I helped maintain). But a simple, engaging, accessible social game hooked her.

On Social City, when we had crunch time, the wives of the team didn’t mind (much). The wives wanted us to get bugs fixed and the new features pushed out so they could enjoy them! Some of the guys on the team had been doing games for twenty years, and this was the first time their wives really cared about the game they were working on.

A brief aside. What do I mean when I call something a game? Most people think of an interactive activity with a clearly defined goal and rules. If you fail the goal, you lose. Often, you accomplish (or fail to accomplish) the goal in one sitting. So, for instance, chess is a game, but painting is not. I think a lot of traditional game people come to the social space and look at the products with this definition in mind. Farmville isn’t a game, because you can never truly lose. Restaurant City doesn’t have a victory condition, so it’s not a game. Sometimes the term “activity” is used. Some people even use it as justification to reject social “games” as entertainment entirely!

But this is bullshit! There are very successful traditional game titles that don’t fit the win-lose model. Will Wright has done a lot of them. SimCity, for instance, only has “goals” if you choose to play a scenario (I never did… did you?). Nintendogs features dogs that will never die or run away. Microsoft Flight Simulator has done pretty well over the years, too. Most games, of course, do have win-lose conditions. But it is silly to view social “games” as an aberration because they often do not allow you to lose. Sometimes I feel like this lack of victory conditions throws people for a loop, though.

OK, enough with definitions. Let’s go back to Warren for a second:

And, you know, I don’t really understand it. As if non-gamers enjoying the things we have all grown up with, and we have all loved for years… As if non-gamers discovering that diminishes us somehow. … We have to get past this not wanting let more people into the club. “We don’t want girls and grandmothers.” “We don’t want normal people hanging with us.” … Basically, it’s as if we don’t know whether to fear or embrace the mainstreaming of gaming. And to my mind we have no choice. We have to embrace the fact that the world is catching up to us. Catching on to us. And starting to love the things that we’ve always loved.

I love working on social games because I am directly helping to bring millions of people into gaming, into experiencing the joy that games have brought me and that inspired me to get into the game industry in the first place. And I am doing it in a social space, where friends and families can play together. My favorite game experiences have always been social – playing Mario Kart, Quake, Tribes, D&D, or StarCraft with friends have always been joys, not because of the games but because of the way they bring us together. When my mom sends me a gift, or I get to see the cool farm, city, or restaurant my brother built, it is an opportunity for us to connect in a small way, and I value that.

Are social games a fad? I’m not sure. Maybe in five years “social games” won’t exist anymore. People might get bored or companies might get greedy or stupid. But I think that there is a legitimate place for games that are connected and browser based. Maybe it isn’t a $2B/yr space, but I think it is a viable market for at least a few companies to live off of.

Coming back to Jeff’s point: I don’t feel guilty about how social games monetize. Social games are free to play. No one is forcing you to pay. Facebook is very strict about how games can post to your wall or access your friend information. It might not be obvious but companies like Playdom and Zynga have teams of people whose job is to make sure that they conform to Facebook’s terms of service, because if they don’t, they are financially sunk.

Social games do want to spam through you, but at least on Facebook they must have your approval at every step – and they can’t gate the game on whether you allow spam or not. If you are concerned about it, don’t click yes. And if you aren’t having fun, you can disable the app. But millions of people do play, and continue to play, and some even spend modest amounts of money to add to their experience.

Should I feel any more guilt about making money than the guy at the gaming shop selling tabletop miniatures and Magic or Pokemon booster packs? Or the marketing guy at EA who sends ads to all the poor schmucks who filled out the registration form in their copy of The Sims? At least anyone who spends money on a social game has played it first, maybe for months, without paying.Doesn’t that put me in a better position, ethically, than the guys pushing box titles where you pay $60 up front to play what might be a crappy game?

Personally, I am grateful to work on products where I can build smaller scale, fun experiences and push them out to a huge audience. I am glad that it is a financially viable market where I can make a comfortable living. I love that I can be at a party and say I work on Facebook games and people have a clue what I’m talking about. I love that I don’t have to worry about licensing character animation, sound, or video libraries (although I have always been a huge fan of RAD’s products and highly recommend Telemetry :)). And it’s fantastic that I can get realtime feedback on how people like new game features, pricing changes, and added content.

Are social games designed to keep you playing? Certainly. Do we tune them to try to make you want to spend money? Of course. Do we want to use your social graph to grow our market? Definitely. But the fact of the matter is that people are smart enough to identify and dislike games that take advantage of them. You have to give people experiences that make them want to come back, not ticking timers. You can’t force people to spend money right away and not lose your audience. And the thing that will make your game spread fastest is making a remarkable experience that people want to share with their friends.

Social games are taking their place along side many other successful kinds of games. Not every gaming experience needs to be a high-end single-player console experience or a twitch multiplayer FPS. Not every game player wants that. There is a place for accessible, people-oriented games in the world, too. No matter what type of game you are building, it’s a good thing for more people to be introduced to computer games. I’m pretty sure that people aren’t going to ditch God of War or Mass Effect in favor of Farmville or Social City – if anything, they’ll probably play both!

Author: Ben Garney

See https://bengarney.com/ and @bengarney for details.

20 thoughts on “Justifying Social Games”

  1. I have no problem believing that social games can be good/great, while still having viral and monetization elements that’re only minor detriments to the experience.

    I can also easily believe many social game devs are passionate about what they do, innovative, and excited to be reaching out to a broader audience. That you and your colleagues/competitors are smart people (likely smarter than me), ones who’re seeking to use your powers for good.

    I’m just not sure, on a case by case basis, that this is what’s actually happening. That the games you see as a Good Thing are adding something to the lives of those who play it, rather than just taking something away.

    More precisely, what disturbs me is that the impression that so many social games seem to focus on providing is an artificial sense of accomplishment. Yes, Diablo and Torchlight also have this as their primary “gameplay”; frankly, I despise both of them. It reminds me of the japanese “dating sim” genre- sometimes those games provide fascinating stories and engaging gameplay that centers around interacting with well-realized NPCs. But many others are primarily meant as an artificial substitute for a relationship with an actual human being.

    Put differently: My untested suspicion is that most social games are like mental junk food. I’m not about to call a bag of cheetos “evil”. But if both the people making cheetos and the people consuming them didn’t see a difference between their chosen food product and some fresh fruits and vegetables, would you start to feel concerned?

    1. So, your metaphor is that traditional games (let’s say Civ 5, Madden, and Braid for example) are wholesome and filling, while social games are junk food?

      1. Precisely, except that I’d insert a “many” in before “social games”. Nothing says they have to be that way, and I’m heartened that you’re seeing a trend towards deeper gameplay.

        A more on-target way to put it might be that incentive systems (gold, leveling up) are like sugar and salt. A potent way to enhance a substantive core product, but make them the core and you’re left with something of a much shallower value. Is Farmville a game? Is a candy cane food?

        1. That brings us to the core of the issue. I agree – most social games are really light on the gameplay. But that doesn’t makes them evil – it’s just a sign of an immature market. Little kids will take sweets over a fine steak dinner. But as they grow up and their palates mature, they begin to appreciate the finer things in life. We will see the same in the social space.

          Of course, some people prefer candy canes to steak their whole life. I think some gamers come from a place where they are used to fine steak and can’t understand why anyone is interested in McDonalds…

  2. Just another developer passing by who has seriously enjoyed getting his wife involved with casual game development. It’s nice to have my wife making levels in my simple-to-use level editor while I can code in more features! She’s not a gamer…YET. Hopefully we can get closer together with gaming through casual game development. It also helps pay the bills!

  3. Ben, I think you (and maybe Warren) are missing the primary point that the naysayers of “social” are trying to make. Many of these social games focus primarily on virality and monetization before fun or gameplay. That’s the important difference.

    To understand the complaint a core game such as myself has, picture this: I play Left 4 Dead 1/2 a LOT, and my experience couldn’t be more “social” — I play directly with friends, and constantly meet new ones bonded by intense joy, satisfaction and fun. It’s cooperative, realtime play. We’re chatting with our actual voices, working together, depending on each other to survive the zombie apocalypse. We’re in total control of deep characters with real personalities in a polished, wonderfully built, amazingly faithful real-world environment. We have fights of utter frustration accompanied by moments of pure victory so satisfying that the neighbors complain about our shouts of happiness.

    You cannot find that in the social games that these core gamers complain about. The focus is on inane clicking (horrible gameplay), harassing your friends, and getting money to the game’s creators. I’m sure there are exceptions, but that is the norm. Games should be fun, and they should focus on gameplay. And many of these social games do not.

    1. I think that part of what Warren is saying is that people ARE having fun in new ways that don’t necessarily fit with what “core” gamers expect, and that it’s valid for them to do this, not an aberration perpetrated on them by evil corporations.

      Well, even if Warren isn’t saying that, I am. 😛

      L4D is an awesome experience. But look what goes into it. At least when I play it, you’re talking about 4 people who have put at least $1000 into hardware (possibly 2-3x more). We’re all online at the same time with fast connections. We all have microphones and headphones. It’s a fast twitch game that’s only accessible to some players.

      Is it really that surprising that something with a much much lower barrier to entry would garner a much much larger audience? The requirements for Farmville (for instance) are something like: access to any computer from the last 5-10 years with a web browser, the ability to click stationary objects, and understand simple concepts.

      Yes, the gameplay is shallow compared to what we’re used to. But a lot of people are getting a lot of enjoyment out of it. Just because I am a game snob (and I am, and you are, too, compared to these people) does not mean they aren’t having a good time. It’s like you’re saying that no one can legitimately enjoy a soap opera, because you personally only like Shakespeare.

  4. Great writeup Ben. I too like the fact we can develop games on a smaller scale and get real-time feedback from our followers. When Facebook games were first introduced, I was stunned at the lack of quality. Now that Disney has purchased Playdom, we are going to see an increase in the quality of the games Playdom produces; it’s about time and I embrace the challenge. Fun and monetization being synonymous is a great model: make a fun game, make money; make it more fun, make more money. It’s a win-win for gamers and game developers.

  5. I think you’re comparing casual games and social games as if they’re the exact same. I don’t think the vast majority of devs have any problem with casual games and with more “normal” people getting into games. That’s fantastic, obviously, but that’s not what most people I talk to have a problem with… The issues I have with social games are just based around things like the “appointment dynamic” and other techniques that take advantage of certain elements of human behaviour in a skinner box fashion. That stuff is just plain abusive.

    With regards to how social games make money, I really don’t have a big problem with it… but on the iPhone specifically, there are way too many stories of kids accidentally buying hundreds of dollars worth of IAP content, mostly because of how Apple only requires users to enter their credentials once for an entire session.

    1. Don’t casual games take advantage of certain elements of human behavior as well? People love Pop Cap games because they are rewarded with flashing lights, particle effects, and exciting sounds to create a euphoric slot machine type effect. How come this isn’t considered abusive by devs?

      1. Those things are quite different though. They serve the purpose of making the user enjoy the game more, making them happy and releasing dopamine.

        That’s way different than the appointment dynamic, which – in Farmville, for example – forces users have to come back to the game at a specific time or their crops will die. Or what about the crop planting mechanic itself? Forcing users to click on hundreds of digital fields one-by-one every single day *unless* they pay money for tractor fuel. That’s abusive.

        1. By this metric, Diablo and Torchlight are very abusive. I’m not convinced. People aren’t forcing themselves to click one more time… fingers cramping… tears streaming down their faces… desperate to save their poor settler, farm, or restaurant.

          I think if it was really that onerous, players would just play something else.

          Is it abusive that Hulu offers you the chance to pay a nominal fee to not be faced with ads? Or that I can buy a new weapon (on the black market) to make WoW easier to play?

          Heck – there are plenty of non-pay ways to harvest more efficiently, too: http://www.howtofarmville.com/auto-harvest-plow-seed-farmville/ mentions a few. And there are definitely pay options but it would be easy to write a macro to do it. The developers don’t really care; it doesn’t affect monetization.

          1. In Diablo, there’s some strategy involved with how and where you click, and with what weapons, etc. It may be a small distinction, but an important one. The timing of your attacks, and which ones you choose to attack first, is also critical. There’s a lot more depth to it than just clicking blindly on enemies. Even more importantly, you don’t just kill all the monsters, then have to wait 24 hours before coming back to kill more.

            Players don’t have to be in actual physical agony for the game to be abusive. As game developers and designers, we hold a massive amount of psychological power over our users, just like slot machines do. I firmly believe that things like forcing the user to click ever single individual field are done to increase “time spent in farmville” metrics and get them to buy fuel, more than anything else. They’re certainly not done to make the game more fun or enjoyable.

            I’m not saying there’s no value to Farmville, I played it for over a month so I could learn how it works and why people like it. It has some redeeming qualities, which are easy to appreciate if you’re willing to ignore the fact that it’s a direct ripoff of Farm Town which itself ripped off Happy Farm.

            I don’t think the argument about non-pay ways to harvest more efficiently holds water. If these really are casual players (and I agree 100% that they are), then they’re not going to have any clue that services like auto-harvest exist.

            On the dopamine topic, that’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately… I recently heard an argument made (by Shawn of ][), that forcing “fun” into games just to release dopamine can actually be a bad thing over time. He argued that it’s much better to create games that trigger dopamine through natural “internal” factors, like the joy of learning something new, or the joy of solving a tricky puzzle.

            I definitely wouldn’t say that “all fun is bad” or anything like that, but I think it’s something that the games industry as a whole, and especially the social games industry, should consider. As users get more and more used to these games, developers are going to have to keep one-upping each other in “fun-ness” until users just get burnt out.

            1. (I think your link tags might have gotten imbalanced.)

              I think that people play social games for more reasons than the dopamine rush. (And bear in mind most people only play AAA box titles for 40 hours _at most_! Most games, even AAA games, do burn out players over time.)

              If you look at the trends in the market, there is a trend towards deeper gameplay. This is the path away from dopamine based games. Each big hit game has more gameplay than the last. It’s gradual but there.

              A further consideration is this: WoW and most other MMOs are very guilt driven. If you don’t play your clan and/or friends get angry with you. There’s not necessarily an in-game penalty but there’s a high social cost if you don’t make the raid. Social games in contrast don’t have this, because gameplay isn’t synchronous. As long as you show up once every few days you’re set (and even then if you drop off entirely no one will really care).

        2. To touch on the dopamine comment, I think the purpose in both cases is very simple: it is to keep people playing the game. I don’t think there is any difference, except perhaps on time scale.

  6. Great article Ben. Have to second David’s words as well. Keep up the good work on PBE as well 🙂

  7. Well done, thanks for writing this! Social games get so much hate from the AAA community, it’s more than a little ridiculous. Glad to see a reasoned response from a developer.

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