Wherein our brave hero reaches the edge of a chasm and considers how best to get across.
If we look out at the current landscape of social gaming, we see a number of large companies who dominate the horizon due to their ability to outspend everyone else.
In the shadows of these giants are small upstarts who find themselves struggling as the common path to getting a game discovered, much less profitable, involves astronomical investments in time and cash - something few small studios have available.
To compound the challenge, the very idea of social gaming has become something other than actually social.
Most games are derivative of one another. They are increasingly insular experiences that seek to implement a fast feedback loop and 'twitch' gameplay mechanics. The only social aspects involve bragging about an accomplishment, hitting up friends for "help" or being pan-handled by the game operator to spend more money.
Social gaming, in its current context, is akin to strolling down Avenida de la Revolucion in Tijuana - you will get lots of interaction but it's all about someone trying to sell you something you really don't want.
Social gaming, as we know it today, isn't really social but then neither is it anti-social.
There is a place for anti-social gaming. One of my favorite 'anti-social' games of the past ten years is Portal, from Valve, you might have heard of it. It is a game which allows me to put on my headphones, lean forward, and get lost for an hour and half while I play through the game. During that entertainment experience, I am not interrupted with ads, flash sales or pop-ups. It is a near-perfect insular game experience because I am fully-engaged for a significant period of time.
If Portal were the typical social game we see today, my experience would be regularly interrupted. These interruptions cause the player to switch from creative problem-solving to deciding whether they want the $5 basic package, $10 power-up or the $20 super-deal. These changes in context induce player fatigue and for many people, cause them to lose interest in the experience.
There is a well-known analog of this -- broadcast television. If you are really into a show, you will put up with the commercial breaks. If a show fails to catch and hold your attention, the interruptions will become unbearable.
"But what about monetization?" You might ask. We all know that monetization is critical. Without revenue, why would we bother making games in the first place? The irony is that when our goal is to make successful social games, we go about it in absolutely the wrong way.
In terms of real social gaming, we only need to look at World of Warcraft as an example of a successful social game. WoW has built a society, both by it's designers and its players. This is what makes social, 'social.' Players interact and affect the game environment, rather than use social media for brags and buys. Actual interaction is what drives social game growth in games like WoW and EVE. Even non-game experiences like Snapchat are driven by social interactions that involve actual communication between participants, rather than "Likes" or canned "Events" that are broadcast to a player's Facebook feed.
So here we stand, at the edge of this chasm with many other game developers and off in the distance we can barely see the other side. The billion dollar question is, "How do we get there from here?"
Spoiler Alert, We can't, at least not by continuing to do things the same way as before.
On narrowing the gap between annoyance and entertainment.
Let's look at what makes this chasm so difficult to cross.
If we place social games on a spectrum, we can reduce them to a pair of extremes: Entertainment and Annoyance.
The majority of social games would fall well within the "Annoyance" quartile of this spectrum. Why is this?
We value entertainment experiences more when we can indulge them with a minimum of interruption.
Movies, Netflix, Albums, Playlists,and 'anti-social' games allow us to remain in the context of the experience without frequent interruptions. In the case of my example with Portal, the fact that one can play through the entire game in a respectable amount of time sans interruption is akin to watching a movie, listening to an entire album, or playing a game of Backgammon with a friend. When these enjoyment-states are interrupted by an ad, a crabby toddler, or a telemarketer calling your cell phone at eight in the evening, we are required to perform a context switch in order to deal with this interruption. This wakes us from the enjoyment-state much like the alarm clock that wakes you at 7:30 on Sunday morning. It is a harsh transition and as such, we tend to react unfavorably.
In terms of creating a label for the value of an entertainment experience, we could refer to the two ends of our spectrum as High-E and Low-E. High-E experiences provide uninterrupted entertainment-states where Low-E experiences are rife with interruptions.
In short, games which provide High-E experiences will draw and retain exponentially higher players than those which are Low-E.
The chasm which we must cross in order to move beyond this cliff upon which we all stand is to create High-E experiences which will cause players to remain engaged as well as tolerate monetizing interruptions.
On what constitutes a valid entertainment experience.
I believe it to be important to define what constitutes a valid entertainment experience.
In "The Games People Play" Eric Berne defines games as a human behavioral issue. Games are only satisfying when the player receives a payoff.
With games and other forms of entertainment, the viewer or player wants, scratch that, requires a satisfying outcome. This can be in the form of a dramatic resolution to a story, or a victory in a short game or level of a longer game. We crave these payoffs in our entertainment primarily due to the fact that real life is often so stingy with them.
In short, a valid entertainment experience is a stand-alone experience of sufficient length which provides an introduction, an escalating series of challenges and a final resolution.
For aspiring sucessful developers, I might recommend reading "The Hero's Journey" By Joseph Campbell as a how-to guide for crafting stories which appeal to the soul, which results in more open wallets.
In which we examine the difference between that which is truly social and the lie.
At the start of this series, I made the brash statement that "social" is a lie. In this bit I will provide the justification.
Many idiomatic expressions have lost their actual meaning and replaced with a perceived one. One of my favorites is "three sheets to the wind" which many use to describe that friend we all know after a night at the pub. If you ask most people about the origins of this phrase, they would suggest that it had something to do with being as drunk as sailor, and they would be partially right.
A sheet is a length of rope, but with a purpose. In the days of square-rigged sailing vessels, a sail had four sheets which were used to control it. WIth four sheets total, three sheets coming loose in a stiff breeze is a possibly dangerous situation and results in the ship, or sailor, jostling along like a rudderless galleon..
I could go on about ancient sea-faring for days but that's not why we're here so I will leave it at this - when the perceived meaning of a phrase runs counter to its actual meaning, the words lose their power.
Today, the social aspect of many social games are mostly comprised of hooks into social media where the only socializing involves posting updates and likes on Facebook and being presented with purchase opportunities.
This is a perfect example of Low-E gaming. A Low-E game requires the publisher to spend enough to attract and retain players and when that investment stops, KPIs drop. I won't mention any names, but I suspect you know of at least one game which looks suspiciously like a bunch of others and seems to be designed to increase the difficulty of a repetitive action until you can no longer play without buying something. These sorts of games have about as much appeal as working the register at a fast food shop during the lunch rush.
If we look at games which are truly social we can cite titles such as: World of Warcraft, DOTA, and Clash of Clans to name but a few. These are not limited to console, PC or mobile as they provide a High-E, truly social gaming experience.
In short, a truly social game allows socialization to occur organically, rather than using social media to temporarily improve KPIs.
In which our protagonist achieves a resolution and is bestowed with new knowledge.
Before we wrap up, let's quickly review some key items from this series.
Social gaming is a term that has been redefined counter to it's actual meaning. Today's social games are only so by virtue of using social media to post achievements, recruit friends. and communicate new purchase opportunities. Truly social games are those in which the players take an active role in defining the reality of the game.
Most social games today are more diversion than entertainment. Games are tuned to repetitive actions and pushed along a steep difficulty curve to quickly drive players to purchase. This eliminates high order thinking in players and replaces it with a busy mind that is often-interrupted by calls to purchase.
Using our spectrum of Low-E to High-E, most social games are Low-E because in order to retain and grow players (and revenue) the operator must spend to acquire players. High-E games will find their titles to grow virally as players will voluntarily recruit others to enjoy a High-E experience.
At the beginning of this post, I suggested that the social gaming industry is standing at the edge of a chasm that we must cross in order to grow, instead of tumble over the edge.
I have borrowed the chasm from Geoffrey A. Moore's book "Crossing the Chasm" as a sallient example of where the industry is at this time. We have built something with promise but it has reached the end of where it can go in it's current mode.
As the big game shops compete to outspend each other for players in an attempt to increase their market share, most seem to iterate on tired themes, rather than creating truly innovative games.
Players are also waking up to the fact that they have been operationally conditioned to engage in these games and spend money with the only payoff being that they get to continue doing the same thing over, and over, and over again. The success horizon for this model has been reached and very soon, the wave of players who have buoyed some game companies to amazing heights are going to be left on the sand as that same wave rolls back out.
In short, we are at a point of no return. For those who choose to do things differently, the future awaits.
Hope to see you there. Thanks for reading.