For players and game owners alike, one of the benefits of asynchronous mobile games is their tendency to encourage multiple simultaneous sessions. Because moves are finite and not terribly time consuming, and because a player cannot regulate the play schedule of his or her opponents, it's common to start up many games at a time in a title like Words With Friends.
But unlike traditional Scrabble or Boggle, there's no way to distinguish players from one another by ability. When I play Words With Friends with my wife, I can play at the top of my ability; we're well matched competitors. My son is very good but I still beat him every time. But my daughter doesn't stand a chance against me; she just plays the first word she sees.
As with chess, in competitive tournament Scrabble, players are ranked by ability and matched accordingly. Establishing formal rankings and handicaps for Words With Friends might be appropriate if it evolved into a highly competitive quasi-sport, but for now such action would be premature.
In the meantime, there's still considerable opportunity to tune the game to make unmatched matches more enjoyable: the prohibition of two-letter word plays, algorithms more elaborate than mere randomness for letter distribution, play clocks, or any other number of variations that could find their way into individual matches on an ad-hoc basis.
Such additions might increase the satisfaction of individual players or reduce atrophy between partners willing to play but frustrated by a difference in ability or commitment. They might also re-awaken interest in the game among players who had put it down in favor of once-new alternatives.
Opposition to any of these design suggestions would likely appeal to simplicity: Words With Friends is a lithe take on a classic crossword board game, and adding jillions of extra configurable features only muddies the waters and turns players off. But some game design patterns don't evolve through winnowing and refinement, and Words With Friends might be a game whose long-term design evolution arises from complicating rather than simplifying its experience.
After all, people don't still play StarCraft because it reduced the real-time strategy game to wabi-sabi austerity, and they don't still play Madden because it narrowed its design down to local minimum of video game football. There's beauty in elegance and simplicity, but there's also beauty in convolution and elaborateness. Perhaps our industrial obsession with modernist minimalism has blinded us to the equal, if different beauty of the baroque.
Furthermore, what if the apparent market correction in the social games space suggests that a fundamental development pattern of the last half-decade -- fast ramp up, fast cadence, burn and cannibalize -- turned out to be just the pyramid scheme its critics feared? Even if we were to adopt the tech startup ideal of fast growth at all costs, once a product succeeds at establishing traction, doesn't it make sense to dig down deeper and ask how such a success could be made even more successful, rather than chasing ghosts? And doesn't it make even more sense to do so when follow-ups have been proven less successful than the original, as in the case of Zynga With Friends' post-Words asynchronous mobile roster?
There's an anxiety about such an idea. Game design purists privilege design innovation over all else. Technology purists privilege new devices, computational capabilities, and modes of play. Simultaneously, critics within and without the industry mock video games' tendency toward rehashing the same games in the same genres over and over again. What could be worse in the eyes of a novelty-obsessed public than working on a particular title for years, decades, even a lifetime? To make it better, yes, to dig deeper into its design space, sure, but also because it's gratifying and sustaining to work on something with long-term prospects.
As the social game industry "corrects", as the market analysts would put it, some of the hubris, excess, and trespass of social games will slough off like dead skin -- not necessarily because those practices will seem wrong in retrospect, mind you, but because they will no longer sustain the fast growth leveraged speculation demands.
As for Zynga, it seems to be responding by treating its successful games as raw materials best put to use elsewhere. Draw Something was licensed for a television game show, but Words With Friends is becoming a promotional platform. In addition to a deal with Hasbro to create a board game edition of the title (with mobile phone slots in the tile cradles, even), the game's latest digital update adds a complex celebrity tournament with attractive Hollywood stars and corporate sponsors. That's certainly one answer: treat video games as mere kindling for larger transmedia bonfires. Given such an option, the soul-killing grind starts to seem like a downright charming alternative. At least it focuses on making games rather than making fodder.
Still, we ought to be careful not to throw the snakeskin out with the snake, so to speak. In its positive incarnation, cadence might be the best lesson to take away from social game design, even if needs considerable revision to escape its legacy as an entrapment technique. A cadence is a rhythm, a pattern that keeps something going. For runners and cyclists it's a measure of gait, the number of steps or crankset revolutions per minute. A drum cadence or a military cadence keeps time, offering a beat to marching musicians or soldiers.
A cadence isn't just something you can measure because it keeps going, but a practice operating at a pace such that it can be kept going. Cadenced game design can be a type of sustainable game design, one capable of producing and reproducing a particular game by keeping it going, refining it, changing it, updating it. For a long time. Forever, perhaps.
I'm not sure if Newtoy wants to make Words With Friends forever. I'm not sure EA Tiburon wants to make Madden forever, either. But that slow, deliberate exploration of what a game can be, what it can do, and how it can be shaped in the hands of its players and designers over a very long time -- that's a virtue, and an unsung one.