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Opinion: The End Of The Beginning
Opinion: The End Of The Beginning Exclusive
December 8, 2011 | By Nicholas Lovell

[Social games may be going through a malaise, many sporting the same feature set and seeing declining user numbers, but Gamasutra contributor Nicholas Lovell says "this is great news for the future of social games."]

"This not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

It's time for Facebook games to level up.

The above quote comes from Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister of Great Britain during the Second World War. He uttered these words as the battle of El Alamein marked Britain's first real victory in the Second World War.

Perhaps it's because I'm British and a history graduate, but these words leaped to mind reading Tami Baribeau's blog post on the end of Facebook gaming (Thanks to Epic's Mark Rein for the tip). You should read the full blog post, but here is the most important section:

"It is too expensive and takes too long to make a high quality Facebook game that compares with the top games now. It costs too much to acquire users. Games peak and start to decline within a few months… I just don't believe that it makes for a sustainable business anymore."

In essence, Baribeau points out that Facebook games have finally become what so many traditional gamers (and Gamasutra commenters) have believed them to be: soulless, metric-driven designs with diminishing returns.

All social games now have the same feature set ("neighbors, and gifting, and daily bonuses, and mystery boxes, and viral buildables, and collections, and visiting, and achievements, and energy mechanics, and shiny pieces of loot that fly out on the screen and require a tap to collect") and are played in exactly the same way, with the only differences being the theme, the graphics and whether you are collecting Simoleons, gold coins or insert-name-here dollars.

(I won't dwell on the irony of people who buy first person shooters in their millions complaining about games with identical feature sets and mechanics with the only differences being the theme, the graphics….)

I think that Baribeau is right. I also think that this is great news for the future of social games.

I attended the Browser Games Forum in Offenbach, Germany in 2010 (I spoke again this year as well), and Professor Richard Bartle prophesied that social games would die. He considered them all to be "operant conditioning chambers" and noted that once humans see an operant conditioning chamber for what it is -- broadly a mechanism for making them behave in a way that is predictably irrational by playing on fundamental weakness in our mental model of the world -- they turn away from them. Worse than that, like a reformed smoker, they become zealous in avoiding other similar experiences and in trying to drag others away from him.

What Bartle and others have failed to see is that social games can evolve. The malaise that Baribeau has identified is one of spreadsheet-driven A/B tested game design where creative sparks have been extinguished to focus on building a game that is "Castles meets Farmville" or "What Zynga did, but with prettier graphics".

That gravy train is coming to an end. We've offered consumers all of those games that they can take. Zynga's DAUs are flat, despite heavily marketed new launches. Facebook is terrified that investors and startups view the platform as "over", a busted flush as the posher of my former investment banker colleagues might have said. Mobile is the new frontier.

Perhaps Bartle was right.

Well, yes and no. Maybe he is right, that the games that behave as operant conditioning chambers have a finite life span. Maybe we are reaching that point.

On the other hand, that means we can innovate. Financiers will no longer expect a game that follows the Zynga playbook to be an automatic success. We can see more games like Triple Town or Gunshine (admittedly not on Facebook, but built with Facebook Connect at its heart) that attempt to move the medium forward.

We will see more games that innovate with gameplay mechanics, with using the social graph, with building on our existing successes and standing on the shoulders of, if not giants, at least people who showed us how make money from free-to-play in a social context.

What I hope we don't get is "Farmville! With guns!"

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E McNeill
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"All social games now have the same feature set ("neighbors, and gifting, and daily bonuses, and mystery boxes, and viral buildables, and collections, and visiting, and achievements, and energy mechanics, and shiny pieces of loot that fly out on the screen and require a tap to collect") and are played in exactly the same way, with the only differences being the theme, the graphics and whether you are collecting Simoleons, gold coins or insert-name-here dollars."

Thanks for articulating this. I thought I was crazy for a while, especially when I eagerly checked out a "hardcore" Facebook game, only to discover that it the exact same game I've seen before, but with a post-apocalyptic theme.

I hope that we return to the earliest days of Facebook, before Farm Town hit. Scott Jon Siegel ranted about this at last year's GDC: there were games that were truly innovating with the unique social elements that Facebook provides. Triple Town and Hero Generations are great games, but Facebook only provides them an easy payment system and convenience for users to access and share the game. That's not trivial, but can't we use the social graph within the game mechanics too?

What I worry is that Facebook gamers have become too accustomed to a certain style of game. I worry that a great, innovative, truly social game will have to copy the interface and feel of the current crop of games in order to succeed. I'm not sure how easy that would be.

Alice Rendell
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I agree with your last statement. I currently work in FB games as a designer and as much as I would love to change the layout of the interface I know that there is a huge probability that it would create an extra barrier for FB players to learn where everythign is. FB players are so fickle and get bored easy, if you don't hook them in the first 5-10 mins it's game over for good! So asking them to learn where things are on an interface they are unfamiliar with means it is pretty much game over. The demographic of FB players we target are mainly people who are not familiar with other games and can't read a screen easily. This is the only interface they know and that is comforting to them. I think (I hope) it can be changed eventually, but it would have to be gradually over time.

Jason Lee
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Heh, first of all I think I know the game you're talking about because I'm a FB game designer for a post-apocalyptic themed FB game, and there aren't too many of them out there. And my main initial frustration with the project is exactly what you said: we had a lot of innovative, great, ideas but we had to follow a lot of what we know works, which is neighbors, item requests, and invites.

But I do see this as the beginning of the end, and the current paradigm of Neighbors, Virals, Infinite Collection, and Monetization is that people are getting smarter and more literate about it. The consistent feedback I get from every player at any level from an FB game is that they feel like features are invasive, not supportive. As a designer, I think our next step is rather have the game sell us virtual goods, help the virtual goods sell the game experience.

Another huge issue is that there are just tons of games out there, and each one has to monetize off less users. This means games will probably have to start selling more and more specialized experiences; you can't cast general appeal games like Cityville and expect the same results from them as you could 2-3 years ago. Instead, by focusing on a game experience that is more fulfilling to less users will probably end up being the way this industry goes.

Matthew Downey
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The following quote feels out of place and maybe even spiteful, even if the irony is there:

"(I won't dwell on the irony of people who buy first person shooters in their millions complaining about games with identical feature sets and mechanics with the only differ being the theme, the graphics….)"

I see where the parallelism goes with the previous paragraph: "All social games... are played in exactly the same way, with the only differences being the theme, the graphics," and I also see the tie-in of guns towards the end about "Gunshine" and "Farmville! With Guns," but it still seems out of place because of the reading time before the idea was introduced and the relatively-small overlap between social and first-person shooter markets (Call of Duty vs. social aside).

I am a proponent of indie game design over large teams, so even if your average FPS innovates minimally, there will always be a prototype that will wow audiences (like how DigiPen's Tag had concepts used in Portal 2). There is plenty of room for innovation, you just have to try to solve the classic problem of repetition and disruptive player behavior, which usually means rooting out unwanted behaviors.

I definitely agree social gaming isn't going to die out because some analytics say social gaming is no longer expanding its market. Sure social games may dwindle, but they are here to stay.

Michael Joseph
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Social games have always felt like so many little emperors with no clothes.

So now they're ready to get dressed?

It'll be interesting to see how that goes. There is a culture within social gaming companies like Zynga that likes to mock it's own users. When you have so little respect for your users, it must be hard to turn that around and start creating worthy games for them.

I think the easier design evolution is to add more community features to "real" games rather than the other way around. This has been happening already. One nice feature that could be implemented (Steam, Apple are you listening?) is a way for users to obtain statistics about the games their friends (opt in only) are playing and how frequently. So one of your friends downloads a new game and has been playing the heck out of it, this shows up on your friend notification log page as a graph and you notice. You also see that 8 of your other friends have been playing this and rating it 8/10 stars. You decide to check the game out yourself. In fact, you could do a product review system like this for just about anything where the ratings for a product are tuned by the friends you know who have rated that product as opposed to a bunch of random people on the internet. This is afterall the fundamental breakthrough of facebook... bringing the people who know each other closer together making it easier to get to know them better.

You could even do this in an automated way for music and videos. You start playing a song or video, that gets automatically "tweeted" (so to speak) to all your friends. "Arnold is watching 'Die Hard' starring Bruce Willis and Severus Snape." "Sue is listening to 'Small Day Tomorrow' sung by Nellie McKay." "Bill is reading the biography 'Steve Jobs', by Walter Isaacson." You can track the types of book, games, movies, music your friend or family member has been into over the last 11 months to help decide on that perfect Christmas gift...

Again opt in only... we don't need to know about _all_ the videos or songs you are watching. Going even more crazy, you could find your friends by their location "tweets" that occurs when they walk around with their cell phones. "Hey, Jim and Mary are almost here... quick, turn off the lights and be ready to yell SURPRISE!" Again, opt in only and perhaps with ways to have temporary "track me" access to someone for a set period of time with an expiration. Say 6hour access granted to friends and family as I travel home after a business trip so they can easily guage my ETA.

during the early days of id software, a "social graph" was exploited by making a good game and allowing people to duplicate a shareware version and pass it along to their friends. It would start something like "OMG, you have to try this game called Doom! I downloaded it last night. It took 6 hours because the download kept hanging and I had to start over 7 times! But I've made a legal copy you can try. Let me know what you think."

EDIT: im not a big user of social networking sites so i'm sure various aspects of everything i mentioned is being done somewhere on some platform.

Nicholas Lovell
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Youu are basically describing how social networks currently work with apps.

Joshua Dallman
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For a time, all casual download hidden object games had the same feature set and were played in exactly the same way, with the only differences being the theme, the graphics, and whether you were collecting butterflies or bloody axes. Then the medium evolved from pure hidden object into adventure style games with puzzles, voice acted story, item inventory, and deeper player interaction. Same thing happened with Match 3's and Diner Dash clones, and those mediums evolved (and simultaneously died off) too. I do believe the evolution of social games is already underway, but the featureset of the future will transcend but include the current featureset, disappointing those expecting such hallmarks as gifting and daily bonuses to go away. They'll never go away - they'll just become more interesting.

Carlo Delallana
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They are simply systems, I think it's the context that people really have an issue with. I would gladly ignore the fact that i'm knee deep operant conditioning (which has been part of games before facebook) if i'm truly engaged and find intrinsic value in the game experience.

Jeremy Reaban
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(I won't dwell on the irony of people who buy first person shooters in their millions complaining about games with identical feature sets and mechanics with the only differences being the theme, the graphics….)

Of course, that's not even remotely the difference. Level design, game mechanics (like classes and weapons) and even story are all huge factors in why people continue to buy new FPSes

Matt Mihaly
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"All social games now have the same feature set ("neighbors, and gifting, and daily bonuses, and mystery boxes, and viral buildables, and collections, and visiting, and achievements, and energy mechanics, and shiny pieces of loot that fly out on the screen and require a tap to collect") and are played in exactly the same way, with the only differences being the theme, the graphics and whether you are collecting Simoleons, gold coins or insert-name-here dollars."

Nonsense. Are you seriously trying to tell us that you think Cityville, Zynga Poker, Words with Friends, and Bejeweled Blitz are the same game? Have you actually played social games at all?

They're not.

Michael Gribbin
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Agreed! Social games is too broad of a term to define an entire genre. Especially one which is often not about socialization. Social games REALLY means games on social networks. Social network games have several genres, but in light of the success of Zynga's sim games -- that is what is commonly associated with them.

It would be as if to say that everything on the SNES was a platformer, and that people were sick of the SNES because they were sick of sub-par platformers that couldn't live up to Super Mario World. It completely ignores the other genres of games that succeed on that platform.

Nicholas Lovell
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I tried to get people to agree on a definition of social games. I failed

Larry Li
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Very well written Nicholas! I completely agree.

The fact is the platform is still very young and developers are still testing the water. But it won't be long to see the next wave of innovative titles emerge. People are starting to see the real potential of Facebook or any other social network as gaming platform, and in my opinion it's the perfect place for gamers to connect and compete.

In fact, we have been creating a game just like it. A 3D social MMO, with a new combat mechanic designed to avoid lag in an environment such as Facebook. We believe the hard core audience is definitely there, we'll just have to build the game they'll like.

Nicolas Godement-Berline
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Currently social games are a meta-genre broadly regrouping farming and arcade. It does not have to be this way. Social games should be a set of mechanics that can be applied to many and new genres.

I think it's the end of the beginning.

Nicholas Lovell
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I agree. My title for the piece was "The end of the beginning". Gamasutra changed it a bit.

Tadhg Kelly
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Plus it would sound eerily like the post I wrote about social games' future 2 years ago:

Zynga and the End of the Beginning

Nicholas Lovell
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@taghg There's no prizes for being too early in this game :-)

james sadler
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Thanks for the bit about comparing modern FPS games and social games. This is one of the reason's I have really not liked most AAA FPS games in a really long time. But I think this is just the standard ebb and flow of genre popularity we've seen for a long time. One form of gaming becomes very popular so people copy it to death. The market gets flooded so it gets harder to grab the audience's attention. Eventually the audience moves onto a different type of game and the industry has to shift gears to compensate. We saw this with platformers, JRPG's, FPS's, MMORPG's, and now the cliche social game.

I personally don't like social games, and I am trying to take that element out of my thoughts on this article. I agree that the genre needs to evolve and give the players more for their time then just clicking boxes and waiting to be allowed to click more boxes. The problem is that the audience isn't generally one that we as an industry have really dealt with before and so it becomes hard to understand what kind of elements they want. These aren't the normal "gamers" the industry has been peddling to for the last 30 years, but people from many walks of life that wouldn't normally play many of the games of old. Sure there are "gamers" in there, but the focus needs to be on those that 's aren't in that category or the genre will alienate them.

Brian Tsukerman
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Bartle's correct that social games will die. Lovell and Baribeau are correct in seeing this as a turning point, and that this stagnation will result in more adventurous/risky choices in terms of mechanics and style.

There do exist games outside of the paradigm, like Brave Arms and Godswar, but one rarely hears a whisper about 3d games in social networks because of how much quality people already expect from a 3d game. So shooters and MMO's are out I guess. Plus, any game that actually has an established ending fails by definition, since "successful" games need to keep everyone playing them indefinitely. This means the game has to either be built with no actual end or it has to be supported through updates. The latter is much harder to sustain, so most end up like the former.

That being said, how much should we truly expect and how soon? Do we simply need to change any of the more ubiquitous of these shared qualities, such as the ones mentioned in the article? Or does the issue stem from the limitations imposed by the social networks themselves and/or the requirements for making a game that can work on such a site?

And honestly, why doesn't the Monopoly game actually play like Monopoly between friends?

Tami Baribeau
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Thanks for linking and mentioning me! I actually just wrote the second part of this, and it's up on my blog now.

Richard Bartle
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I did foresee that social games would evolve, as my penultimate slide at the Browser Games Forum made clear ( However, that wasn't really the thrust of my argument, you're right; I was establishing that there was evolutionary pressure, but not saying much about where it would lead - just that things as they stood were unsustainable.

As for where I do think it will lead, well I discussed that in more detail in Barcelona at the Gamelab conference ( Probably not Farmville with guns; hopefully not Halo with farms!


Nicholas Lovell
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Thank you for answering, Richard. I'll check out your future of games. I hope that you are optimistic!

Bob Johnson
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This is all much ado about nothing.

Chris Jackson
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It's just the inevitable culling of the herd. Every game and genre' go through it. It's the nature of something new. People check it out, then they start to drift off to the next new thing, leaving behind a core group that stays awhile. That's the nature of humans, socially. Ultimately, there is a percentage that will leave, no matter what new thing you add in the next release.

I have a feeling that Facebook knew up front that their social games had a relatively short shelf life, and they have done what they were intended to do, which is to draw people in. The whole idea of social gaming is to get people to gather and do stuff, which their games have done just that, preferablly buying somebody's stuff that's being spammed, while they are gathered. It's not complicated really. The trick seems to be in staying relevant as humans tend to be restless, looking for new things to do.

"Social gaming" is new and still has that showroom shine, but it won't last as any kind of genre', as gaming socially is not a genre', it's what people do while playing basic games. But those games offered are such only because of the limitations of the devices they are played on. Now it's smartphones, that are basically small tablets, but it's still simple games for the most part that people play on them as the devices are just now getting fast enough technologically to run more resource-hungry games.

I have looked at those type games offered as a type of bait and switch marketing. Now that people have basically been switched and shown what the real deal is, some are walking away. How many are left once the dust settles determines what's next.

Barring implants, the smartphone is the final device. All that's left really is how fast can they make them as a mini-pc, and how much can they get out of the limited screen size.

"The end of the beginning"? Yeah, I'd go with that. And like then, it's all about the hardware used.