I'll admit it, I was never one for the social game scene with the launch of Mafia Wars and FarmVille. Truth be told, those games never really held my interest and not for the usual failings that more core gamers foist upon these fantastically successful titles. I've started playing more of CastleVille, and, having bounced back through several Zynga titles, I've started playing the games a bit more critically - playing them "like a designer". I began to understand why earlier social games hadn't "grabbed" me like it did millions of others. It wasn't because of a lack of interactivity, or the art direction, or even the rather limited narrative structure derived by the content. No, the biggest failing from my perspective was a matter of agency.
Agency, as most of you know, is a philisophical tennant that illustrates the amount of change a person can have in the world. This is something that some games to with varying degrees of success, but the illusion of which is core to many games.
CityVille, a SimCity-esque game by Zynga, has a unique take on agency. In CityVille, player agency is both socially-driven monetized. Agency is pretty important in a game like SimCity - building a city how and when you want it is a core gameplay pillar. In CityVille, Agency is, ultimately, limited by either the size of your social circle or the amount of cash you want to pay. If you want to expand your city - altering the game space - the player has to improve the quality of life in his city, he must build certain types of buildings. These buildings are a core aspect of the social-plank of the title. You recruit your friends to fill positions in these buildings, once all the positions are filled, the building opens, your city rating improves and your city can expand.
If you lack the social circle to fill the positions in your city buildings, you can use special in-game currency to "hire" AI profiles to fill the spots. This special currency is derived from levelling, also tied into city expansion, but to accumulate an appreciable amount of currency, the player can purchase more using real-world currency.
Ultimately, CityVille reaches a tipping point where players either need a specific number of friends playing the game to continue their city growth or they need to pay real money to purchase AI surrogates. CityVille isn't exactly subtle about this - in fact, it's pretty explicit and makes a hard sell for either social inclusion or cash infusion.
Recently, Zynga Dallas launched CastleVille. Developed by Bonfire Studios and comprised of former Ensemble Studios veterans, Castleville is filled with many of the same tropes as other Zynga games. This instant familiarity led to nearly 30 million users, but what is the most exciting aspect to the game is the amount of agency the player has on the game world. While the Agency is still tied into socialization and/or monetization, the "sell" is a lot softer. The game does let you advance quickly using real money, but, at the same time, a fairly small social circle is required to expand your domain early on, letting players build their castles freely and with less pressure to pay or lure others into the game.
There are a lot of quests that can be accomplished with little or no social interaction or money spent. Something that is also gleaned from similar Zynga titles, but the polish and depth seems to set the game apart from their earlier works. While the agency is still tied into these two core aspects, dare I say, template, that Zynga has developed and exploited, its more subtle. A player can run through quests and get a sense of accomplishment without feeling like the two-headed monster of social circle and hard cash are lurking behind them.
CastleVille is a social game made for players like me who eschew social gaming. It gives the player a greater sense of agency without feeling hindered by social circle limitations and fiscal considerations. By making these two facets of the game agency more subtle and less explicit, Zynga has opened the market to a broader pool of players, but also pave the way for a broader acceptance of these games by core players who may take the 'elitist' approach to social media and want to feel like their micropayments are less of a requirement and more of an improvement.