(Originally posted at Pixel-Love, Pixel-Lab's company blog)†
A couple of years ago you couldn't turn a corner at GDC without hearing about casual games. This year, the term was "social games", and they seem to have set off some major jitters.
Firstly, we have a panel, in which VCs talked about developers being "in denial" and the future of the games industry being social games. I first spotted it because of this Tweet from Brian Baglow of Denki Games:
when VCs start saying they won't fund console titles, it's time for devs to have a long hard think
There are a lot of defensive comments with unfair arguments in them below the article, but it's quite possibly true. The market for the bombastic experiences you get from big-budget console titles is not going to disappear and be replaced by Facebook games, but with certain social games raking in such huge amounts of cash and users, there's a fight brewing to see, from a cultural perspective as well as a financial one, exactly what will be regarded as the games industry in future.
At the moment, if you introduce yourself to someone at a party and tell them you work in the games industry, their first assumptions generally include consoles or joypads. I think some developers are scared that those assumptions are going to be replaced.
For years, the mainstream games industry has been largely console dev, and just as games are climbing out of the same cultural ghetto that has beset comics for so long, something like Farmville comes along, makes an absurd amount of money, claims 83M monthly users, and gets a Game Developers Choice award. Zynga is not a threat to traditional videogame development, but it is most definitely a threat to developers' sense of identity.
As if to exacerbate it, Bill Mooney from Zynga to stood up at the GDC awards to accept theirs for "Best New Social Game" and effectively said "Hey guys! We're indie, just like you!". His comments were not well received by an audience who are at the pinnacle of their craft. Whether his words were borne from temerity or naivety, they certainly betray a scant awareness of game design dialogue from the past few years.
World of Warcraft's treadmill, grinding game design is sinister and unhealthy to quite a few game designers, such as Jon Blow and Chris Hecker, and they want to make more nourishing games for people. Farmville seems like a massive threat to that, but think about it with a little perspective from the last half decade or so. WoW triggered everyone to talk about MMOs for several years, to the point where Richard Garriott stood up at the Develop Conference to talk about Tabula Rasa, and basically said "MMOs are like money printers! AAA development is for chumps".
Look what happened: MMOs have cemented as a sector with many failures and a few really big successes, console development has rumbled on with plenty of fans remaining, and casual games have metamorphosed into social games, finding a larger user-base than ever along the way.
To any developers concerned about Zynga, I'd first like to point to the fact that most Facebook apps, pages, and games get very little traction. Zynga is exceptional, but others such as GameLayers have tried Facebook games and not done nearly so well. Secondly, Zynga have a "fuck the users" approach to game development. Their games extract revenue and multiply users in every way possible. Mark Pincus himself is on record saying "I did every horrible thing in the book to, just to get revenues right away". They ran offer scams, and, while it was misreported as far more scandalous than it actually was, they nonetheless piggy-backed some very lucrative business on people's charity.
"Fuck the users, we want revenue" is hardly a German board game design manifesto, but it's more or less exactly what you'll hear from a lot of VCs and other investors. That doesn't mean that attitude, or soul destroying treadmills of games, are the future of the games industry, just that they're the latest thing someone made a very large amount of money from.
VCs don't necessarily make great decisions, incoming models are not necessarily the best things to invest in, screwing your players isn't the only way to make money, and just because there's a market for Dizzy Dizzy Dinosaur, that doesn't mean there's no market for Carcassone or Power Grid. MMOs and casual games both seemed like the future at various points, but they turned out to just be parts of it. The business du jour is never a license to print money, nor is it the existential threat a lot of passionate developers perceive it to be.
Look down this list and you'll see a virtual world company or two that have gained investment then failed, or at least failed to turn any kind of profit yet. Areae closed down recently. Three Rings described Whirled as "an abject failure". These were virtual worlds projects initiated by well respected and well motivated developers. The same kind of things are going to happen to plenty of social games companies.
This thread on A Quarter To Three describes GDC as feeling like "there's a war going on". Given the amount of bickering and scenesterism I saw among indie developers at GDC09, maybe this is a good thing. There's a Sauron figure for everyone to unite against now. This is not Evony or ZT Online, but it works in a similar way and is right in our back yard: a living, breathing, nigh-ubiquitous Western example of worst practice to wean players away from.
It's not all bad news with regard to investment either. A group of very successful indie developers announced Indie Fund recently, and the founders (listed on the site) have a very wide array of backgrounds, from close relationships with platform holders and publishers to striking out successfully by themselves and even founding successful portals. Ron Carmel went into their plans in more detail here.
Will they make good investors? I hope so, but even if it goes the same way as Gathering of Developers, the rancor towards Farmville at GDC is a testament that there's enough interest in game design to ensure that the craft of game development has a future. That's a culture, and it's what you find in its highest concentration at GDC, expressing and swapping its research and expertise. What do Zynga have to contribute to that?