25 March, 2010
The big discussion the last several weeks has been about social gaming. A big tipping point was the GDC earlier this week; social games, as personified by Zynga, came to the forefront and became the poster- and whipping-boy for different people in the game industry.
So, are social games the future of the industry? Are good old MMOs done for?
If you've been relying on my infrequent posting to keep you up-to-date on game industry news, here are a few references for you to get caught up and understand things from the point of view of traditional game developers. This has been an issue brewing for a while, but the topic has exploded across many news sites and blogs recently.
Soren Johnson, a designer on Spore, wrote a pretty good summary. It seems that social games have supplanted casual games at the conference. A lot of traditional developers are looking askance at these upstart games.
The infamous Dave Sirlin posted a piece showing the contrast between social gaming and indie gaming. An interesting read showing the two sides, and why Zynga's "dis" during the Developer's Choice Awards struck so deep later in the conference.
My own perspective
I'm coming into this as a very experienced game developer. For many people in this situation, their biases are going to be along the status quo. I'm also an indie at heart, so I will also tend to be on that side of the split that erupted at the GDC.
However, I have spent a fair amount of time looking into social games. The only reason I have a Facebook account was to check out games. (Note: if you need to get in touch with me, Facebook is the worst way possible besides using a dead email address.) I have actually wanted to make a game for Facebook, but it's a stalled side project. So, I'm not completely ignorant about social games.
I've also been supportive of microtransactions, but understand that this business model isn't the only solution, and that it's easy to abuse this business model. (To be fair, however, you can abuse any business model. This is a problem with the developer, not the business model.)
So, given this perspective...
Fashion in the Game Industry
No, I'm not talking about jeans and T-shirts, also called "the game developer's uniform."
The more I work in the industry the more I realize that the industry works along the lines of fashionable trends. Something comes along with the potential to disrupt the old ways and someone latches onto it as a competitive advantage. Examples include shareware, FPSes, MMOs, Asian (Korean) games, mobile games, user generated content, and now social gaming. Something shows that this new disruption is popular and/or profitable. People who identify the trend early talk about how great it is, usually to convince someone to give them money. As investors give money to people, others start jumping on the bandwagon: VCs don't want to be left behind in the hot new field, and other developers will use the right buzzwords to secure funding. Often there will be a breakaway hit that people hold up as the standard, and others rush to copy. Large companies might feel the need to become a major player to not appear outdated, so the acquire a related company for a lot of money which ends up chumming the waters for further investment. Eventually the dust settles and trend is either accepted or rejected, and is no longer seen as something unusual that needs to be emphasized. Then the process starts up again with the next hot trend.
There are three twists to consider: First, by the time big money starts flying, it's usually too late for most people to capitalize on a trend. Think social games are the future? It's too late for your little rag-tag group of garage developers to carve out a large niche, although if your game idea fits within the field it might be easier for you to find money. The second issue is that the best ideas don't always win; it's often the people with better PR, name recognition, or VC connections who cash in big on the latest game fashion. Third, the trend becomes self-perpetuating. If you just took a few millions from investors to follow the latest trend, you're going to be talking up that trend to put your current investors at ease and help you land future investment if/when needed. Even if someone privately has doubts about the future of social games, they're going to tell you that social games are cooler than zombie pirate ninja cowboys if they took money to build a social game back when it seemed like a good idea. This is simply protecting the value of his or her company and is important if that person want to see a big payday or even get investment for the next crazy venture.
That passed, and so may this
It's also important to understand that a lot of these trends aren't new by the time someone starts talking about it. Even though some people think that MMOs started with WoW, or EQ, or UO, or even M59, most informed people know that online games had a long and glorious history before them: text MUDs, PLATO, games on proprietary networks, etc. The big graphical games didn't "invent" online multiplayer games, but they are what got people interested in talking about them. People always talk about a specific game being the first "real" or "mainstream" or "widely-accepted" game even if it wasn't the first in a particular area because it resonates with them and their ideas, whereas they didn't notice previous examples.
In the specific case of social games, we've had these types of games around for a very long time. The type of gameplay you see in Farmville is the same as what we've seen in a lot of what used to be called browser games in the past. There have been a lot of games on Facebook that used similar gameplay systems as well. We just now have a company with superior PR skills able to brag effectively about numbers and get noticed.
(As an aside, this is one of the problems I have with identifying trends and getting investment. My long view of history lets me see patterns. I've been terrible at anticipating how people without the perspective of history will react and am taken by surprise when big checks start being written.)
But, as I pointed out, social games aren't the first type of game to do this. At one point everyone was sure MMOs were the absolute future of gaming. EA even went so far as to turn Origin into an online-only studio, despite having some beloved single-player franchises there. I'll let the story of what happened to Origin speak for itself about how trends don't always pan out as people expect.
I think another problem is that people focus too much on big numbers. An insightful post about the Tamagochi craze over at Kill Ten Rats puts things in perspective. Tamagochi sold more than Gameboy at the time, but which has been more enduring? As I've said many times before, the focus on bigger numbers means that sometimes we lose the real perspective. Being popular isn't the same as being good or being right.
The problems with social games
So, let's dig into the meat of the matter, shall we? What's wrong with social games?
The first problem is reflected in the name. The "social" part of the name comes from the fact that these games are generally available on social networks, like Facebook. But, there's very little real socialization as Dr. Bartle describes Socializers. (Again, imprecise terminology muddies the waters in game development.) Some people wave this complaint off claiming that these games focus on "asychronous multiplayer" experiences. I have to wonder if you can really call a game "social" if most of the social elements are incidental to the gameplay. Some people have commented that most of the games tend to be single-player games, with a few social "tokens" to pass around.
But, it's these "tokens" that bring up the next problem. These games encourage you to recruit your friends to get in-game bonuses, which is really just spamming. When Facebook first opened up their API to allow developers to create applications, the developers took advantage of this by making players (sometimes unwillingly) spam their friends. As people got tired of seeing a huge number of "vampire bite" messages waiting for them, Facebook slowly restricted access. If you were to start a new social game now, you would not be on an equal playing field to the existing games that took advantage of more liberal policies in the past.
The other big problem is the hyper-focus on money to the exclusion of all other concerns. Now, I am one of the first of the "creative types" to understand that games are a business and need to make money. I did help edit a book on that very topic, after all. But, one just has to read about the "suggestions" being offered to maximize profits, as reported by Dave Sirlin's post I liked above, and you can see that the focus is on profit first. I think it's important to understand psychology for game design to help people enjoy themselves and to watch out for harmful manipulation, not as a how-to guide to get players "addicted". While people may complain about MMORPGs exploiting similar psychological weaknesses, at least there's the social elements to consider. After all, throwing back shots of hard alcohol alone at home is considered harmful; doing the same at a bar with friends, on the other hand, is an acceptable social activity if not taken to excess.
It's the economics, stupid...
As I said above, I'm a fan of the microtransaction business model. Actually, I'm actually a fan of any business model that allows more people to participate in our games so that we can have a wider variety of games. I believe it's not the business model that is harmful here. 3DO showed it's just as easy to squeeze more money out of people with a subscription-type game that charges based on daily usage with Meridian 59. And, we've seen the trend of subscription-based games starting to add more "value-add services" to squeeze more money out of players. Again, it's not the business model that screws people over, it's the company behind the business model.
If you want to point a finger at the economic problem, I'd say one should start with the "offers" that were highlighted in the "Scamville" article. What made this work was making people think they were getting something for nothing. It was a surprise when they found themselves getting billed via their cell phone for something they didn't know they were signing up for. (To be fair, this is hardly unique to the offers mentioned in the article; many of the "get a cute wallpaper" or "download a farting elephant!" ads you see will actually sign you up for a subscription, too.)
Is Zynga is an innocent party here? Perhaps, but some quotes on record by the CEO, Mark Pincus, don't indicate that. As he said, "...I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I dont know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it." (Transcription errors in the original source linked.) While I can certainly sympathize with needing revenues fast for your small company, I also know it is possible to get revenue without forcing your users to download malware.
It's also telling if you ignore the fluff and start looking at what really matters for businesses: money. A lot of people throw around the fact that Farmville has 60 millions players whereas World of Warcraft "only" has 11.5 million. But, only 3-5% of those 60 million (that is, 1.8 to 3.0 million) players are actually paying anything. Compare this to 100% of WoW's players. Looking at revenue, things are even more stark. According to Blizzard Activision's 10-Q filing, MMORPGs (that would primarily be WoW) earned the company $1.233 billion (with a B) in 2009. Compare this to Zynga who has a wide variety of games but according to one analyst looking at payment processing made $250 million (or $0.250 billion to use similar units) in 2009. Put in that perspective, one can see that people are getting carried away with the wrong big numbers.
(Thanks to Spinks for the link about the number of people who pay. Read her insight on Why I hate Farmville, and where is social gaming taking us?)
So, what does it all mean?
Ultimately, I see social games being yet another fashion for the game industry. Yes, people are talking about it as the future, but as I pointed out, most of these people have a vested interest in this being true. Once we peel back the layers, it's easy to see that a lot of the noise is actually PR bluster.
What lessons do we take away from this? First of all, I don't think we should ignore social gaming and social networks just because it's mostly hot air at this point. There might be a real future for social games, but I suspect they're going to be a separate thing. From the looks of it, social gaming seems to be absorbing what we called "casual gaming" in the past. I'm fine with that, because casual games didn't kill off all other sorts of games.
And, even though I don't use Facebook, it is an important part of a lot of other people's lives. Adding "social features" might be a good idea for some games, particularly online ones, that can use the features to give players a better experience. Plus, allowing them to advertise to their friends might be a good idea, too. :) Just as long as we keep in mind that some of the more exploitative features, such as making friends "sign up" just to open up features is not good design.
In the end, we'll keep seeing games we like being made. Again, I put my faith in the independent developers. They've been keeping "dead genres" like adventure games and epic RPGs alive for a long time, even when publishers don't see the profit in making more of these types of games. Given that we've already seen indie MMOs by passionate people, I don't doubt we'll continue to see MMOs come out for years to come.