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!