Developers of traditional games often dismiss titles on Facebook as mere "Skinner boxes" -- devices that use scheduled reinforcement to reward repetitive actions. They are activities, not games, say critics, who call them too simplistic, too repetitive, too "grindy." And they are driven by the business model -- not by the fun.
But it may be time for naysayers to take another peek. Facebook games have grown increasingly sophisticated and could become the equivalent of "real games," leaving critical developers in the dust.
At least that's what three high-profile Facebook game developers predict.
Take Brenda Brathwaite, who has been creative director at Lolapps -- a developer of 11 Facebook games -- for five months now, but who has been in game development since 1981, during which time she was credited on 22 game titles.
"The main difference is that the typical hardcore game is designed for synchronous play -- for instance, you could easily take the next week off and do nothing but play Civ V," she says.
"But so-called Facebook -- or social -- titles are designed for asynchronous, scheduled, or appointment gaming that is conducive to a little play here, a little there. They are for people with, say, five minutes of game time, five times a day."
However, the rule sets are frequently not all that different, she says.
"In a Facebook game, people basically go in, they click, click, click, click, click, and they get out, hopefully with some kind of a reward. But it's easy to say that about any kind of game. Take Doom. You click, click, click, click, click and blow shit up. In our game Critter Island, you need to collect hundreds of stars. I find it endlessly amusing picking those things up. Why? I don't know. And I don't care.
"Likewise, I find it endlessly amusing to beat on creatures in World of Warcraft. Why? Who knows? In all these examples, it's just something relaxing and enjoyable for me to do. I don't look at the 20 minutes I've blown and say, 'Damn! I could have been reading Ulysses! I don't necessarily think games must have some higher social purpose. As long as they are fun, I'm okay with that... and so are many gamers out there for whom casual clicking is exactly what they want."
But others crave something beyond mindless clicking, which is the reason some Facebook developers are creating alternate choices.
"That's why games like FarmVille and YoVille are increasingly adding new mechanics to keep the user base interested," Brathwaite explains. "The designs are becoming more complex and giving players more and more to do -- like recruitment mechanics, for example. Not only do I get to help my friend and my friend gets to help me, but we get to work together toward some greater goal.
"And these ideas that are proliferating in some of the older games are spreading out to new games. That's what happened when we released Critter Island. I know we don't have the world's sexiest graphics -- we haven't entered the 3D arms race yet because there's only so much you can push across a pipe like Facebook. But we have certainly entered the 2D arms race."
Brathwaite calls the additional complexity "retention features" -- regardless whether it is additional social interaction, "more opportunities for the players to make decisions or do things or feel they've been super-rewarded.
"The bottom line is that you want people to keep coming back to play your game, and so it needs to keep evolving," she says. "If the player feels they've completed all the game has to offer, that there's nothing else to do, they'll get bored and move on. You need to keep them intrigued."