27 July, 2010
A quote I particularly like is attributed to William R. Inge: There are two kinds of fools: One says, “This is old therefore it is good.” The other one says, “This is new therefore it is better.”
I can’t help but think about this quote often in the game industry as new fashions are introduced. There tend to be two camps: one that clings to the old ways while fearing the new, and one that rushes to the new claiming it will wipe away the old. The truth, as usual, is somewhere in between, but the game industry sure does like its extremes.
So, with this in mind, I want to take a look at social games and metrics-based game design, two more recent fashions to hit the game industry.
This look was inspired by an article by Erin Hoffman on The Escapist entitled, “How Social Games Ate Our Lunch”. She rightfully points out that the industry has a habit of ignoring things that don’t originate within the industry itself. We’ve seen this many times: traditional developers thought MMO games were a fad. Western MMO developers ignored Asian MMOs because they couldn’t be measured in the same way. And, yes, many game developers ignored social games and wrote them off, too.
(A digression: it also cuts the other way, however, as the game industry also picks up on some poor choices. For example, how many terrible FMV games were released in the 1990s? for something more modern, does anyone think 3D gaming is going to have staying power? Personally, I doubt it; I accept that I may be hoisted by my own petard in the future….)
The problem is that Erin’s article then goes into the other realm of foolishness, where the new has to be better. (Now, I’ve met Erin in person at a few conferences and know she’s a smart game designer, so I expect that some of this is exaggeration to draw attention to the problem from people who are still too dense to notice the change. Or, perhaps to draw interest in hiring her services for lucrative social gaming companies. ;) Her article is a breathless exultation of the virtues of social gaming and one game design change it has made higher profile: metric-based game design.
Now, I’ve written about “social games” before. My current assessment is that this is mostly just the continuation of trends we’ve seen before, not some kind of completely new and unexpected form of gameplay, which is why I said that social games are mostly “hot air” at this point. The real innovation here has been the medium of delivery: social networks. The ability to spam…. I mean, offer nice gifts to your friends, has encouraged people to play these games. And, I suspect Erin is right, in that these games have helped some people reconnect, giving them a reason to chat with each other about something other than the banalities of daily life or the local weather. I’m not sure, since social networks don’t do it for me, so I haven’t been very “social” when trying out “social games”. Ultimately, I’m not sure that “social games” will survive what the social networks are trying to do to the games. As I wrote in my previous article, the nature of publishers is to squeeze the margins for themselves and make themselves the gatekeepers of to the audience; it’s the same thing we saw with portals and casual games and there’s no reason we won’t see the same thing with social networks and the way they treat social games. So, eventually, the unbound creativity and newness of the experience will wear off, giant corporations will just acquire large companies who acquired smaller companies, and the same old system will be in force. (But, hey, congrats to all the people I know who had the foresight and commitment to profit from “social games” so far!)
But, let’s look at the other element covered in the article: metrics-based design. This is something that MMO developers have been doing for a while, but it’s come to greater attention since Zynga started championing it as part of their design process. There was some backlash. Erin dismisses the critics as people who are only looking out for the job security, those who believe that humans are still important to the design process. Well, sure, nobody enjoys automation that pushes them out of their job. But, is there more to it?
Let’s take a little test. There are two design options presented to you with some metrics. Which do you choose?
Option A: Players spend an average of $3 per month.
Option B: Players spend an average of $4 per month.
If you said either, you’re wrong, because you don’t know the whole story. What if option A increases player retention by 30%? What if implementing option B on a wider scale would cause a major PR problem? One problem with metrics is that it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you have enough information when you don’t. Not to say that game designers are infallible and always right, especially when they work on “gut feeling” instead of data, but sometimes they can see flaws that your collected data may not demonstrate immediately. At worst, it can lead to some wrong-headed thinking; As reported by Soren Johnson:
Zynga’s Mark Skaggs, formerly of EA, praised metrics as the answer to most game design problems. Much has been made about their discovery that pink was the best color for advertising Zynga’s other games, but the telling point was when Skaggs said that “if a player repeats something, it’s fun.”
(Any MMO designer or player can debunk that last statement easily enough.)
The other question is: what is the ultimate purpose of collecting metrics? The trend recently has been to focus on generating income, of course, as that’s how you keep the investment money flowing. Now, I’m not exactly an anti-capitalist and I did help write a book about business issues in the game industry, but I’d like to think there’s more to games than extracting the maximum amount of money out of players. (This likely explains why I’m rapidly approaching middle age with no retirement savings, of course.) There’s the element of fun that can be important for games. And, while we can try to quantify fun in different ways, I’m not sure that counting clicks is necessarily the most effective way of measuring if a player is having fun. Not to say that you shouldn’t create metrics, but keep in mind what the limitations are. I worry that the goal has been merely to get the games to become habit-forming rather than really providing a great experience for the player.
Let me share a bit of Babylon 5 to demonstrate the problem with metrics. (Special thanks to Sara Pickell for reminding me of this scene.)
In other words, be careful not to confuse the tools you use to search for fun for what creates the fun.
What do you think? Are social games the bright new star that people are overlooking? Are they the doom of the game industry? Or are they just a different expression of games on a new platform? What about metrics? Bane, boon, or just another tool?