[In this editorial, originally printed in Game Developer magazine's June-July 2010 issue, EIC Brandon Sheffield considers 'intent' in social and console games, suggesting why he wants to start hearing "less talk of users... and a much greater focus on player enjoyment."]
The main buzz at this year’s Game Developers Conference Canada surrounded social games. That’s not too surprising when you look at where all the venture capital is going these days, and social games like FarmVille and Pet Society have done a lot to broaden the market, bringing in groups that never thought they would play video games.
I’m always in favor of broadening the market, but I worry that some of these companies are more interested in players as revenue streams than as people to entertain.
Intent is very important to me in any media product, just as important as execution. The much-discussed “No Russian” scene in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, during which the player can gun down innocent people in an airport, changes a lot depending on the intent of the developer.
If the intent is for you to have fun slaughtering innocents, the scene becomes pretty negative on a meta level. If the intent is to make you uncomfortable and question your actions as a participant in electronic slaughter, it may be more progressive.
Can Money Buy Happiness??
Games are a business, but ultimately they must entertain. This is universal. I am concerned by the disconnect I’m seeing between the potential of this broadened market and the attitude of the major principals. There is a lot of talk about money in social games, one might argue too much. Nintendo makes money hand over fist by broadening the market, but the company talks about players, and about bringing the fun of games to new people.
It may simply be rhetoric or a question of semantics, but most social game companies are talking money first, and player enjoyment second.
Zynga started out, as CEO Mark Pincus said in a well-publicized lecture, doing “every horrible thing in the book, just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this Zwinky toolbar which was like, I don't know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it. We did anything possible just to get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business.”
Pincus refocused this in a subsequent blog post, saying, “The primary reason I pointed to is that entrepreneurs should push to control their own destinies, and being profitable was the best path,” adding that the company had not yet tried Zwinky's MyWeb Searchbar (a browser plugin that McAfee says sometimes prompts spyware downloads) before offering it as an incentive, and that you should not ultimately disrupt the user experience.
He recanted to some degree, but that drive for money above all else is what bothers me, and I don’t think it’s viewed as a bad thing in the space. I want to hear a whole lot more talk about “players” of social games, and a whole lot less about “users.”
I don’t want to single out Zynga here, and in fact the company is among our top 30 developers as cited in the June/July issue of Game Developer magazine, primarily for growing the market and proving a new platform.
Everyone from Playfish to Sony Online Entertainment knows that online games are a service, and that “average revenue per user” is the most important thing to keeping afloat. But the faster these companies grow, the more I worry they are becoming disconnected from the idea that the players on the other side of their games are real people, not number generators.
One talk I attended at GDC Canada got me thinking more about this. Executives from several social game-oriented companies got together to discuss their businesses and how they work, and the cynicism was palpable. Jason Bailey of monetization company Super Rewards said of more complex Facebook games that, “If I’m a user, I don’t want to see your stupid cutscene, I just want to click and level up.”
Referring to console games, Russel Ovans of early social game company Backstage said, “They’re immersive cinema. They’re pornography for 18 year old males. What do pornography and console games have in common? The demographic.”
There is a clear gap here between the social and traditional game markets, and I would love to feel like that gap had more to do with market expansion and low barriers to entry, and less to do with money, but every discussion I get into about the subject with social game execs points me to the contrary. The folks I talk to recognize that they are expanding the market, and that low barriers to entry and stickiness are the key, but to them it’s the key to more money, not necessarily to user happiness.
It’s a complicated issue, because after all 80 million people aren’t playing FarmVille because they hate it. The same metrics that executives use to drive revenue are also used to increase ease of use for players. Well, to some degree anyway – it’s part user enjoyment, and part revenue generation. And I think that’s where my appreciation breaks down. As a player first and a developer second, I want more decisions to be driven by entertainment value and risk, and fewer to be driven expressly by revenue.
I know that there are a lot of good people that care about the players in these companies, but I’m not convinced they’re the folks running the companies (which is just about as true of major publishers, honestly). If I want people to talk about development, not numbers, or players rather than users, perhaps I need to pay more attention to developers like Paul Stephanouk, and less to Mark Pincus. But when Pincus talks about implementing Trojan-style ad schemes, it’s hard to ignore.
Us Versus Them
Where does the antagonism between traditional and social games come from? I think it might be coming from the intent on both sides. The developers of console games and traditional standalone PC games are almost always thinking about what will be fun -- money comes second. Money is the purview of the marketing and business guys, not the developers themselves.
But the developers of social games must necessarily think about money and fun together, whether they be executive or otherwise. They have access to insanely detailed information about what players do, like, and want to pay for. Why not use it? What would console developers do with the same information? Not ignore is surely. Is it simply a question of information, then?
It may also be a matter of ego. Console developers often view social games as lesser, in spite of how complex they have become (again, just look at the current depth of FarmVille), because with accessibility comes simplicity. Social game execs and developers, for all their money, still seem to feel they’re the younger sibling of console games, and must rail against them whenever possible.
There is room for all of us in this industry, though the dollars may flow one way or another depending on the climate. It’s important to learn what each side has to offer the other –- and then eventually there may not be sides at all. But for my part, I want to hear a lot less talk of users, and start hearing a much greater focus on player enjoyment.