Social games... The cause of all doom and gloom in the games industry, right?
Well, I'm here to tell you... No! During this article I will show how social games have evolved, how the industry at large has evolved with them, and how they can be one of the best things that happened in videogames for a long time.
Just a note before starting: I am using Facebook as the example because it's the predominant social games platform.
Once upon a time...
Mid 80's in a small city in the North of Portugal. I had a ZX Spectrum 48K and a Atari 2600. During elementary school I would spend the days eager to arrive home and play on those two wonder machines. In my room I had an old black and white tv and that's where I would play during most of the time. In black and white! Only during weekends I could play in our living room on a glorius colour tv. It was marvelous seeing all those coloured pixels! I would buy several game magazines, mainly magazines imported from Spain (like Micro Hobby) and that arrived in my small city almost 5 or 6 months later after their original release. I would copy and share tapes of the latest great games with a couple of friends at school. Games were our secret. Games were our small and private world. Life was good!
Games have always been my main passion, and during my life I have owned most of the game consoles released. Till today my favourite gaming platforms are ZX Spectrum (I acquired a “new” one recently on eBay that works prefectly), Commodore 64 and Super Nintendo.
Some years ago I was introduced to a new type of games. A new way of playing games. First on MySpace and then on Facebook, I discovered the commonly called social games. I admit I was very sceptic at first. Those games were too simplistic for me as a gamer. They had no appeal at all for me. And I continued working on console titles...
Always following the trends of the gaming industry, I saw that those social games were growing in popularity at an astonishing rate. A whole new type of gamers were discovering games. A lot of them were playing a videogame for the first time! And now... in 2011... you have social games being played by tens of millions of people. Our industry never had such a big audience as it has right now! So, the entire games industry must be extremely proud, right? Right?
Suddenly, we had a huge public outcry against social games. They have been called evil, compared to drugs and prostitution, and blamed for layoffs and studio closures in the AAA development scene!
Ok, nothing new there. There were always people that portrayed videogames (and movies, and comics, etc, etc...) as the root of all evil in the world. But, there was a difference now. It was not outsiders saying that videogames are evil. It was game developers saying that one game genre is evil!
Even today we complain about “walled gardens” like the AppStore, but a lot of gamers (and developers) still see games as their “walled garden”. We shouldn't allow people like soccer moms to play videogames. They are not worthy! Even now in Gamasutra and the other game news sites every time Zynga announces a new game, you have people commenting: “another crappy game for grandmothers to play”. And I ask... So what? Isn't a grandmother allowed to spend some time playing? Who cares if the type of games she plays are about growing a farm, taking care of a small tribe or even a crossword game? You know what? For that grandmother that plays FarmVille, that game will always be more important for her than Gears of War, Deus Ex or any AAA title. Heck, she will have no idea that those titles exist. And you know one thing? GOW 3 has sold more than 3 million copies, and because of that it made headlines in all games press. Well, on FarmVille... You have more than 60 million players!
Now the hardcore gamer will say: “That's not a fair comparison. FarmVille is not a real game”. Well my boy, 60 million players disagree with you. But then the hardcore gamer strikes again: “Millions of people like Britney Spears' music and that doesn't means it's good.” - And then I think: What a pretentious industry we can be! It doesn't matter if YOU like it or not. What matters is there are MILLIONS that like! Period!
But for me the worst is having developers saying that social games are evil and they are all about exploiting gamers. For me the reason for all this hate is only one:
1. a distressing emotion aroused by impending danger, evil, pain, etc., whether the threat is real or imagined; the feeling or condition of being afraid. Synonyms: foreboding, apprehension, consternation, dismay, dread, terror, fright, panic, horror, trepidation, qualm.
I play social games and I am not feeling exploited at all! I spend money on the game if I want! No one is forcing me to buy anything. And yet, if you read some articles, social game companies can almost wire the game directly to your brain and force you to spend money. SPEND! SPEND! SPEND!
When I play a social game, I will spend money in things that will allow me to progress faster or give me new cool stuff. When I decide to spend money on a social game, that means that for me that game is good and I do not mind at all to acquire some stuff in-game.
A common complain is that social games are all about creating addicts, and therefore they are evil. Social games are like a drug. Well, if a player becoming addict is evil, then the entire games industry is malefic. If you look at the video game addiction page on Wikipedia (take a closer look to the References section), you will see people that got addicted and died because of that addiction. Now take a look to the section Notable Deaths. What you see there is former addicts of games like Halo 3, Call of Duty 3, Starcraft and of platforms like Nintendo 64, Playstation and Xbox360! Yes, you see one reference to a death caused by a Facebook game, in this case by FarmVille. One! To wave the addiction flag when criticizing social games is hypocrite.
I am not going to talk about the psychology of play. That has already been covered extensively on this site. I will just give you a quote by psychologist Nick Green:
"For example, WoW-style raids are incredibly repetitive. Repeating the same piece of content over and over and over and over should not appeal to anyone. But the variable ratio reinforcement schedule with loot drops is incredibly effective at keeping players repeating these few pieces of content ad infinitum. This is psychology at its diabolical best."
Now, allow me to write the supreme heresy:
How FarmVille can be compared to Minecraft
I'm sure almost all of you have played, or at least heard, about Minecraft. It's the biggest sensation of the indie game development scene, and it's a game that I personally love. Such as FarmVille, Minecraft takes advantage of one very important thing:
If there's something that human beings like to do is create, build. Just watch small children playing with Lego blocks. One thing about FarmVille (and similar games) that critics tend to forget is the customization part. A power FarmVille player is not only harvesting crops. He is building his farm, he is shaping it according to his own imagination. People spend hours customizing their farm. They want it to look great. Plus, they want the other players to look at his farm and go WOW! They are proud of how their farm looks like. You have countless sites devoted to people sharing images of their farms. They even customize their sheeps! And that's where I compare FarmVille with Minecraft. Of course the customization and building systems of Minecraft are far more complex than the ones found on FarmVille, but that doesn't matters on this case. Like on FarmVille, Minecraft players are also proud of their creations. They share them with the world. They post images and videos of their creations. They are proud of what they have created.
It's about being Creative!
Look at the recent The Sims Social. Players spend huge amounts of time customizing their avatar and their house. They take pleasure from that. You can say that social games “force” the players to spend money on new assets for their farms or their houses. First, they don't force you. You spend if you want. Second, players don't mind to spend money acquiring new stuff for their farm. For them is also a question of status. It's the WOW! factor I talked about previously. Third, spending money on a social game is not a sin. If you want to play Minecraft or other similar games like Little Big Planet, you have to pay for the game. Social game development companies need to make money to pay salaries too, you know?
This love of gamers for customization is not something new. In fact, it's a major factor to attract female gamers.
Take the example of Ultima Online. There's full websites created by female gamers dedicated to this game. Probably more important for this article is that those sites, with the example of one called Castles and Courtyards, are resources to those seeking information on design and decorating in Ultima Online! Sites created for the enjoyment of designers and decorators.
A quote from one of Castles and Courtyards founders, Melph Minos, is extremely revealing about how for this type of gamers the act of decoration is closely linked to the main game experience.
“What got me into decor, was my roleplaying style. Most of my characters live in houses that would reflect their background or profession. My houses are an extention of the roleplay of my characters.”
Why we need choice outside the AAA realm...
In October 9, indie developer Tale of Tales wrote the following on their twitter account:
“Playing Ico HD. It feels like a relic from another time. A time of hope and ambition. Games industry, what happened?”
Ico was a fantastic, inspiring game that gave us a glimpse of how the future of videogames could be something great. One of the reviewers at the time said: "The visuals, sound, and original puzzle design come together to make something that is almost, if not quite, completely unlike anything else on the market, and feels wonderful because of it."
Ico is considered one of the greatest games of all time. It's widely used as an example of games as art.
Then what happened?
Ico sold 700,000 copies worldwide. That happened!
Whether gamers want it, or not, the sales of a title matter. And they matter a lot. When the gamer audience consistently rewards games that follow the same old formulas without bringing nothing new to the table, and when marketing is more important (or in the same level) than the game, we see good titles underperform and (let's call it by the name) crap rewarded, then that matters for the publishers. Do you want to know something? The big corporations that run the studios aren't in it for the art or groudbreaking titles. They look at the numbers. They have shareholders to please. And that's the ugly truth. And you want to know other thing? You can't blame them. Every major publisher is playing the same game. They are latching to safe choices and sticking to that. They are sticking to the formula that “It worked before”, “There is an audience”. And unless you are a studio with a huge track record you will have almost no chance of convincing a publisher to finance your new mega cool AAA title, specially if you are proposing a new IP. Combine all that with a global financial crisis, and you will understand why big publishers are in panic mode. They have to be. Closing studios and firing people is not fun for anyone.
When you have generic FPS's selling millions, then of course all the publishers will follow with that same safe choice. And in the end, they are not creating new great games. They are creating games that are reactions to other titles that made money.
And this is the reason why AAA games are killing innovation and access to creative content. This is the reason why whe need a strong indie development scene more than ever before. Even Ninja Theory's boss Tameem Antoniades agrees with that and he's not the only one.
Just look at the latest Worldwide top 10 chart below. All of them are safe choices. What you see is new games based in old formulas or sequels and more sequels. On a personal note, it warms my heart to see Dark Souls on the list :)
And it's because of all this that for me is so exciting the social, indie and mobile gaming space. We are seeing great titles being developed by small teams. And they are making money. In the case of Minecraft, very good money! The iPhone has been called the ZX Spectrum of this generation and I have to agree. The concept of the bedroom coder is back again! Of course you have a lot of shovelware on that platform, but you also have great titles with great new mechanics. Hey, just like on Spectrum :) And for me one of the coolest things is that you had a lot of developers that quit the industry in the early 90's and now they are coming back to the scene because of the iPhone. The AAA market is also bleeding game design veterans that are now working on Facebook games, whether for companies like Zynga or Playdom, or creating their own studios like LootDrop or Portalarium.
Now, take a look at the image below...
The image shows three very different type of movies and games. All of them achieved success at the box-office or in the case of the games in retail (or Facebook), although the ones on the top (The Tree of Life and Ico) on a lesser degree. Now, take a close attention to the movie 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'. I have no idea if you watched it or not. It's your typical Sunday afternoon romantic comedy. It's like a big television sitcom episode. A movie created with a relatively modest budget of $5 million. But, you want to know why this movie is here? This romantic comedy grossed over $368.7 million in the box-office worldwide! A 6150% return on an inflation adjusted cost of $6 million to produce, making it one of the most profitable movies of all time. It has an audience!
Compare it with the brilliant 'The Tree of Life' from Terrence Malick. It had a budget of $32 million and grossed $54,246,069 worldwide.
If you ask me what is my favourite movie from those three, I will say 'The Tree of Life'. Do I consider it better than 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'? For sure I do! Does that make the romantic comedy a lesser movie? No! In this case is a matter of personal taste, and millions would not agree with my judgement, specially because 'The Tree of Life' is a highly controversial movie.
But there's other thing too. My choice also depends on my mood. If it's raining outside and my mood is down, most probably I will go to my dvd shelf and pick up a comedy to watch. Just like when sometimes at night I am in the mood to watch horror movies. Or drama. Or Matrix followed by Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back!
I do the same with games. If my mood is down I will not play Bioshock or Limbo. I don't want to get depressed :) I will play Super Mario. Or Bastion.
Our medium is growing. We have power. Millions and millions of gamers are enjoying the products we develop. But our medium is growing because countless people (that don't have the typical gamer references) are now playing games. It's the type of people to whom a PS3 controller is daunting. If we really want to succeed on a mainstream level, we need to develop games that will target children, hardcore gamers, teenagers, males, females, soccer moms, elders... Everyone! That's our challenge right now. Of course you can choose the option of being against social games and labelling them as the scorn of the earth. But I would challenge you to do something different. I would challenge you to improve social games. Let's use and treat Facebook (and other social networks) as pure game platforms. Let's help bring the quality we want to social gaming!
Compare Facebook games from a couple of years ago with the ones that you have now. They have grown in terms of overall quality. Better graphics, more solid gameplay mechanics and new ways of dealing with the viral channel and monetization.
One of my favourite game genres is Adventure titles. One of my favourite childhood heroes was Indiana Jones. And it's with great pleasure that right now I can play quality games in several platforms where I can be some type of Indiana Jones, a pulp action heroe. Below you can find three adventure titles that I spend a lot of time playing with. The first is Zynga's Adventure World (Facebook), next is Hamilton's Great Adventure (PSN and PC), and finalyUncharted 2 (PS3).
I love those three titles and all of them provide me with the exact same things: Adventure, quests, solve crafty puzzles and challenges! But there is a difference to when I play them. I play Adventure World when I am working and make a 15/20 minutes stop. I play Hamiltons's Great Adventure when I'm scrolling my list of titles on PS3 and usually spend around 1 hour playing it. Now, Uncharted 2 is another story... To play it I sit very confortably in my sofa in front of my tv and with the sound volume very high. With Uncharted I want a full scale epic experience when I play it. And that takes a lot of time from my day, so it's not something I do very frequently.
Adventure World is one of my favourite games on Facebook and I congratulate Zynga for it. It's no doubt that the company has been training its audience to appreciate deeper experiences.
One of the companies that is inovating is Idle Games with their first title, Idle Worship. Idle Worship is a Black & White-esque game for Facebook. You play the role of a god, controlling villagers on an island to do certain tasks for you. While that may sound ominous, you can choose to be either good or bad in your actions. In terms of game design, one thing that for me is awesome is that they removed the “friends bar”!
OMG, how am I going to exploit my friends now??
The way that Idle Games is dealing with the social graph and the design decisions around it are very interesting. Click here to see the video of their presentation at Techcrunch Disrupt when they announced the game.
Here is is a quote from Idle Games chief executive Jeffrey Hyman:
“The only sustainable business plan in the entertainment industry is quality, and you need to have a social game with the ability to play synchronously. It creates one of the first truly social games on Facebook — it was created to be a casual game with all the benefit of a massive world.”
"The only sustainable business plan in the entertainment industry is quality..." - That doesn't sounds to you the talk of a social game developer, right? A social game developer focused on quality? Yes, they exist! Idle Games are not the only ones. Several developers around the World are working hard to leverage the quality of social games.
I know that for a lot of developers monetization (on social games, DLC, etc...), metrics and viral channel are like dirty words. I love when a company like Valve says that "The primary focus for us at this point is not worrying about monetization, and it's instead worrying about getting the game right". I really do. But then he says "Premature monetization is the root of all evil". I love Valve and (almost) all their products, but that type of concept is something that only a big established company like Valve or Blizzard can have. The “it's done when it's done” concept is something that small-to-mid sized companies can't afford. They need to worry about their revenue stream and how they are going to pay salaries.
As someone said:
“You either open your eyes and recognize change, adapt, and innovate to create even bigger disruptions in the social space or you just put your head in the sand and hope all this goes away one day.”
And guess what? This is not going away. Social gaming is here to stay. It's another evolution in the games industry. Do not look at social games as an enemy but as a new opportunity. I love the choice we have in games right now and I am excited with the future. Console, PC, AAA, indie, mobile, social... All of them deserve their space and are creating fantastic stuff. I firmly believe in games, and that they can make this a better world. I am happy that a lot of new social game companies are opening, creating new job opportunities that are so important in this economic climate.
Does Facebook has bad games? Of course it has. There are some atrocious social games out there. But that also happens in every game platform that exists. You have some atrocious games on PlayStation 3 and Xbox360 too.
Do we have social game developers that don't care about quality, don't care about the game and just care about how to monetize to the maximum their players? Of course we do. And it's not those ones I am defending. I care about those social developers who have the flame of passion for videogames burning in their hearts. Yes, they exist.
Freemium is just another business model like shareware, freeware and trials. Perhaps one scary thing for traditional developers is that with the freemium model the price decision is in the players hands. With monetization based around micropayments, it’s the player that controls pricing power and pays to his satisfaction. It's a paradigm shift from the old models and it's our duty as developers to develop titles that players will want to play over and over again.
Do not worry. Console and hardcore titles will not cease to exist because of social games. The casual gamer that started playing on Facebook will not suddenly start playing Unreal Tournament. There is room for everyone and we, as one of the biggest media industries in the World, must provide entertainment to all demographics.
Developers who attack social games publicly using arguments like they are evil are doing a disservice to the entire games industry. We should have discussions and criticism regarding how they can improve, because part of the art of criticism is trying to be positive. But discussions with substance, not brainless quotes. Because in the end the market for social games is out there. It exists! And it's a market of tens of millions of players. You can't argue with that. It's not me saying it. It's not me agreeing or disagreeing. It's a fact!