It all started with some fairly harmless logic: As a form of play, digital games should be shared with as many people as possible. They should live on the platforms where users already work and socialize, and should have something to add to interactions in those places. They should take every opportunity to reach entirely-new audiences, maybe even those who would never have thought games could be for them.
In the age of metrics, game designers suddenly came into an unprecedented opportunity to gather reams of information about users -- the users they had, as well as the users they wanted. It still sounds like harmless logic, the concept of an organic product that grows and responds to what players do there, designed and tuned for optimal engagement. Features that nobody likes can be adjusted or removed. Popular elements flourish.
It starts to seem less harmless when you realize games can be made to hook players into mundane cycles of reward-oriented clicking. And that designers can use information about engagement to ensure players spend money. Free-to-play social games promised light, friendly distractions from one's workday where spending money was only an optional enhancement, but the reality of social game design on Facebook favored gradually-escalating pinch points, the careful use of friction, a slow, insidious ramp-up where players became accustomed to ease and plentitude that the game gradually pulled away from them.
"If a player repeats something, it's fun," said Zynga's Mark Skaggs in 2010. At DICE that year, Jesse Schell now-infamously made a doomsday prophecy about players desiring rewards for every behavior, a consequence of a design trend that favored Skinner Box mechanics, where users receive gratification, then are forced to wait a requisite amount of time before doing it again.
By the time 2010's Game Developers Conference came around, the spiritual anxiety around social games was palpable. Ian Bogost released Cow Clicker, a satire of hollow social game mechanics that, to his consternation, became his most popular work.
In "Fear and loathing in FarmVille," Soren Johnson delineated the tension: Veteran designers took center stage, excited about a new frontier for games, joining burgeoning social game companies like Zynga and Playdom. Meanwhile, a moral disgust for Zynga and its model for Facebook games radiated from the gaming world's corners.
It seems hard to believe that only two years later the roar of battle has all but died. Most of the designers who left their traditional paths to join social gaming firms -- Frank Lantz, Brian Reynolds, Raph Koster, Brenda Brathwaite, Soren Johnson -- are no longer in Facebook games, casualties of Zynga's shrinking business or other diminishing social opportunities, not long after publicly celebrating the opportunity to make a game their way, outside the traditional grinder of triple-A.
Whatever happened to Facebook as a game platform? Where are the storied designers who believed so much in Facebook now? Even supposing it was the economic-treadmill model of design that was poorly-considered and not the idea of social gaming itself -- a moderate stance endorsed by many who thought there had to be something useful that game design could do with Facebook's nigh-billion eyeballs -- why has "social" itself gone from watchword to bad-word in so little time?