So it’s been a while, I haven’t read too many major fluff ups between social games creators and indie game creators in the last week or so. So here is my take on social games, my full 360 degree take, the games, the people, the zeitgeist.
!. Have I played Farmville!?
No I haven’t played Farmville. I checked out what I could of the Agency’s marketing game until it fatally bugged out on me, and I played a bit on one of Metaplace’s releases named something to the effect of My Vineyard. Oh and a tiny bit of Vampire Wars. The big thing these games hammered home to me though is how NOT NEW this genre is. It’s a slight variation on the themes of browser based MMOs and web games to better take advantage of flash and the social networks they’re built on. Not to say those changes aren’t significant, but they aren’t an opaque existence which I must wholly dive myself through in order to understand. In fact, having existed on several social networks they’re a fairly transparent lot.
(Web Games are of course an evolution of door games, keeping the relatively asynchronous portions while muds took the other branch and focused more on how they could be with more synchronous connections. Door games were an evolution of mainframe games where everyone had to be physically at the same machine at some point in the day, making them an obvious starting point for games where all the players would connect to the same machine just now over a network. So contrary to hype, social games aren’t the newest multi-player computer game genre EVER, they’re actually a relatively minor evolution on the oldest multi-player computer game genre ever.)
@. Dear Other Developers, This is Why People Find Them Fun
Take a second and think of your favorite PC game. Now ask yourself, at it’s core what are you actually physically doing while playing that game. For most new games that can be summed up as “clicking at a point on a screen”, for fpses it’s “pressing buttons and moving the mouse while clicking at the right time”, for older games it was “pressing buttons on the keyboard or 10-key”. Whatever we might delude ourselves into thinking these basic actions are actually kind of fun in and of themselves, even ye olde hardcore gamers and developers, though you may not remember it now, had a point in your life when you just hit buttons to see what would happen next. Hell, the Diablo 2 ‘Cow Level’ was designed specifically because players tended to click on damn near everything. This is still an important point of game creation, make it juicy.
That’s not all it takes, otherwise the casual gaming revolution would have come so much faster for everything that isn’t solitaire. The difference is not in all the psychobabble inducing game mechanics though, those are just a second order to the metrics they use, and the metrics aren’t the answer either. The most important part is exactly the same as why gamers have been meeting up at QuakeCon, and made PAX the wild success it has been, bringing it up in casual conversation later. That’s the whole secret, it’s something to talk about. It’s so that you can thank a family member for sending you that sheep when you were having a shitty day, so that you have an excuse to friend that exceptionally hot potential love interest sitting next to you on the bus. It’s a part of your life, and all of their lives, and so all told something that helps to make you part of their lives.
Not fired up by that… me either. Still, as far as I can tell that’s how it is whether I much give a damn or not.
#. It’s Not an indictment
Saying that social games tend to be simple, is not really an indictment of them. The only way that the major social games can get the kinds of numbers they do is by NOT being a major part of people’s lives. All of these discussions though are dominated by people for whom gaming is a major part of their life, either their gamers who take their gaming seriously enough to define themselves by it, or developers for whom it’s a matter of basic employment. For most of the people playing Farmville and Mafia Wars, it’s a completely throw away decision, I have a couple minutes to spare, do I spend them on Farmville or Solitaire… decisions… For the most part though, it should be a throw away decision. Gaming for most people should be a distraction, something entertaining and away from their otherwise very busy and high functioning lives, not a life sentence.
Even amongst developers some of these games should be given fair credit, simple is hard. Being able to think of something that is simple and simply fun is one of the hardest things you can do. We WANT to make things overly complicated, to add just one more… feature, and resisting that urge and making something simple and tight is extremely difficult.
$. Zynga is Not Indie
Having said all of that, it’s gotten really annoying. It may be true that Zynga is not funded by one of the major publishers, but that doesn’t make them part of the indie games movement. Even if the word technically fits, it doesn’t matter because the movement is not tied to the pedantic definition of the word. That’s also part of why a shortened or slang version of the word is used rather than a dictionary word. Just not being published isn’t what it’s about, you can’t be part of a movement by default. Indie is about not wanting to be beholden to publishers, to their way of doing things and their priorities. Zynga is the EPITOMY of their priorities. They are about wringing money from customers no matter the methods, and placing financial gain above any desire to make good games. Even on the outside issues they are opposite, the use of player metrics as a concept of a game’s worth does nothing to address problems of local peaks, and their clone everyone else strategy is antithetical to the creativity first games-as-art ideals. Don’t even get me started on where they don’t fit with games-for-change.
I get how that can come across as elitist, but that’s just too damn bad. People have been making games on their own for forever, it only became a movement because some of those people decided that just ignoring the problems wasn’t enough they needed to be fixed. Trying to say that people who have done jack all to fix those problems, people who have embraced the very core of those problems, are the best of the movement is insulting… VERY FUCKING INSULTING! Want me to stop bitching about Zynga, okay, it’s real fucking easy, STOP TELLING ME TO BE THEM! STOP TELLING ME I SHOULD WANT TO BE PART OF THEM! STOP TELLING ME THAT I SHOULD HAVE ANY GOD DAMN MOTHER FUCKING THING TO DO WITH THEM… AT ALL! God fucking shit but that does get me frothing. I’m not really all that annoyed with Zynga’s existence, obviously some of the things they did are completely unethical and I don’t like that, but the mere mention of their name didn’t used to send me into a frothing rage. It’s their god damn apologists that are driving me nuts. I think a lot of indie devs out there had much the same view, not us so not something to care about, but then there was this whole thing about how we should be them… and that… well I’m ending this topic here before I turn into the hulk.
%. Social Games Don’t Have to Be Farmville
One of the web games I played back in the day was Neveron. If you compared it to the last web game I’d played before it, it was like night and day… like comparing some silly soccer minigame with Football Manager 2010. There isn’t anything inherent to social games that says they can’t be deeper and more complicated, and I’m sure if I spent lots of times playing all the social games I could get my hands on I’d find some that already are like that. The problem is, if you’re entire sorting functions for viewing them are by popularity and by date added, then there really isn’t any way to separate out those niches and see what they have to offer. By definition then, the most findable games are the most popular, the rest is always going to sit at the bottom. Also as I pointed out recently, 5 people’s 5th favorite is always more popular than 2 people’s most favorite. Getting anywhere near the top of a list where the highest end are in the tens of millions means designing for an audience in the millions at least, which makes for a certain amount of unnecessary homogeneity and designing to be lots of people’s less favorites. Now obviously this is mostly about Facebook, but as they are the big name for the moment, it’s their rules that you’re really going to be playing by in the end.
You can still use word of mouth, obviously, but the simple fact is that, if you’re going to design those more complicated games, Facebook is a poor portal to open on. Combine that with the fact that most times it’s the only portal you can really open on and I think it starts to become fairly obvious why we aren’t being bombarded by news of crazy new social games.
^. Wrapping it up.
And there you have it, social games are not Jesus Christ, nor Lucifer. They aren’t out to steal your lunch… and they won’t on accident either. It’s good that we have more selection, more job opportunities, and more design opportunities, they are not going to single handedly save the industry from itself though. If you are a designer who has decided to stick to more traditional venues, you haven’t made an irrevocable mistake that will result in drowning under a new tide ushered in by social games. If you’ve decided to make social games, it’s okay, we’re not going to burn you at the stake, really. (At least I’m not…) Neither group has some monopoly on rightness though, and neither group should really be as insulting to the other as they have been.
Maybe this is just me since I can’t pull up any corroborating posts at the moment… but to an extent, throughout the volleys back and forth I’ve always felt like there was some intent in every post to force people into the discussion. Those kind of hyperbolic, “not with me, well then you are just a(n) (unethical bastard/dinosaur in a tar pit) and are completely and unequivocally wrong. Your silence is merely proof of how right I am.” I don’t know about anyone else, but even if I don’t feel particularly strongly about something, seeing that attitude makes it hard for me resist blasting them into a new dimension for sheer arrogance.
P.S. I still think vapid is a perfect descriptor, it should only be insulting though if you think they aren’t supposed to be.