With the luster of social games gone, what now?
November 4, 2013 Page 3 of 7
"It's not hard to see how the bubble burst"
Veteran designer Raph Koster, known for his leading work on Star Wars Galaxies and Ultima Online, as well as his influential book A Theory of Fun, had been committed to the utopic goal of user-led social game design since founding the Metaplace platform in 2007. Metaplace aimed to democratize virtual worlds development by letting players make and own their own spaces, and part of that vision of ownership involved showing and sharing on social networks like MySpace and Facebook.
"That didn’t click, and then we also tried putting a social world on Facebook," Koster recalls. "At that point, it was becoming clear that we needed to pivot away from our original goals, because we simply weren’t getting traction with virtual worlds. It was a very painful decision, but we decided to instead use the technology to make social games. We were running out of money and had to find an approach that would work."
In that respect, Koster's embrace of the supposed social potential on Facebook was partially a business necessity, although the company had been exploring social network integration since long before the boom. While Koster and his company focused on their own site, Facebook games marched ahead. Zynga bought one of Metaplace's competitors, MyMiniLife, and integrated its technology ("their tech became a foundational part of Zynga's success," Koster says).
Metaplace closed in 2010, and Koster joined Disney's Playdom shortly thereafter. "One of the things that was attractive about Playdom was that they had made a point of bringing on a lot of creative talent from the traditional games industry, and tried to find a balance between those approaches," he says.
Even before that, Koster had tried to bridge the philosophical anxiety between triple-A and social games, and the rampant cynicism about Facebook. "There was a lot of lack of understanding on both sides, I thought," he says. "Over in the MMO community, I had people calling me a sell-out for doing Facebook games. I also saw plenty of social game people come at things from what I would term an arrogant place, saying that they had solved all aspects of the game business."
Part of his mission became evangelizing the genuine joy and potential in this opportunity to reach a brand-new audience. Many game designers, like Infocom veteran-turned Playdom VP Steve Meretzky, talked about the beauty in games for everyone ("people in retirement homes playing Wii Sports and everyone's parents and grandparents getting DSes and playing Brain Age"). Others, like Bogost, worried about assigning an inherent moral supremacy to something just because "your mom likes it."
"I suppose the one true value of the whole 'social gaming' thing is that it really expanded the audience for games in a big way," says Siegel. "I've always loved the ability to put something out there and have millions of people try it and see it."
"Speaking personally, at the height of the bubble, all the talk about 'games for moms' began to grate a bit," recalls Area/code's Cancienne. "After a while, it was hard for me not to hear 'but a middle-aged woman in Ohio won't understand that' as a dismissive, reductive, and small-minded excuse to dumb down gameplay and hew to established conventions."
In Cancienne's view, in fact, the laser-focus on an imagined, mass-market "moms and middle-aged women" demographic might have been where the Facebook boom began to waver: "You had a huge population of product managers, game designers, and developers making games that they themselves didn't like," he says.
"What's worse, they were supposedly making them for this cohort that existed as a cartoon -- the middle aged mom sitting at home, bored with her life," he adds. "Given this mostly male, mostly disinterested group of people cynically making games for this other group that existed primarily as a stereotype, it's not hard to see how the bubble burst."
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