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Opinion: Players Versus Users - Social And Traditional Devs Butt Heads
Opinion: Players Versus Users - Social And Traditional Devs Butt Heads Exclusive
June 22, 2010 | By Brandon Sheffield

[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.

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Juan Fdez. de Simon
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Unfortunately, I think the primary design goal for most of these games is not creating a fun, memorable experience for the "player", but acquistion and retention of "users" (after retention, monetization will follow).

What's interesting to me is that, as greedy/evil as this attitude may sound, Zynga et al are actually responding to the demands of the Facebook userbase; there are lots of examples of Facebook games that tried to offer more gameplay depth or break away from current gameplay trends (farming/fishing/city building) and failed miserably.

However, we are seeing more and more how small increments in complexity pop up in games from the main players (Zynga, Playfish, etc). If you look at the recently released FrontierVille there are a lot more RPG elements, things like a quest system, loot drops, more complex resource management, separate levelling for social interaction, and more.

These are baby steps after all and, although the core gameplay remains the same, I think it will be interesting to see how the platform evolves over time, and maybe *maybe* there'll be one day a game that appeals more to traditional gamers and is not built on the premise of "doing anything possible to get revenues" (I'm looking at you Civilization Network).

Drew Lesicko
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This article, while raising some very interesting points, is extremely short sided and fails to tell the whole story. I'm not sure see the point in distinguishing between the money making practices of social game developers like Zynga and what a company like Activision does to make money. Zynga has simply created a series of games which can be played for free or with a very small, monetary commitment. Yes, the games are designed to influence the player to spend money, but how is this different from release $15 map packs or even releasing a game annually with only a small amount of changes, and charging an additional $60?

I think we would all like to think that people have our best interests in mind, but no business has ever survived without thinking about their revenue stream.

BTW, please do some more research before calling a company nefarious or evil. The Zwinky toolbar is in no way adware. It makes it's revenue off of search, and search alone. It is no different than offering the google or yahoo toolbar, but provides the value add of a suite of products. I'm sure the hard working people of the creators of all of these products would appreciate a fair shake.

Simon Carless
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Fair comment on Zwinky, Drew - we've rephrased the reference a little to make it clear that the company has been controversial at times (Pincus himself joked that he couldn't work out how to remove the toolbar).

While I appreciate Brandon's sentiments here in many ways, I do feel like he's missing the big upside of these direct monetization and microtransaction trends. There are now so many ways that developers can weave their business model and their gameplay together.

Although many may think it breaks the 'purity' of classic game design, if you design in a model that players like and you're directly interacting with them, it gives the developer himself all the power in the world - he can control his own destiny without these weird developer/publisher interactions that often change the game's intent.

(Obviously, you can argue that having to design $$ into the model also changes the game's intent - but I think we're just at the start of what can be done with games using alternative ways of making money. After all, arcade machines had monetization directly designed in, and they worked it out just fine.)

Luis Blondet
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Farmville has depth? Battle Stations has depth. Nanostar Siege has depth. But Farmville? Seriously?

Stephen Chin
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@Juan, I agree, it'll be interesting to see how they evolve. I think on some level, because of the extreme newness of the players involved, there just isn't that video game language we take for granted. In some ways, social developers have to learn a new language from their players and their players the same. In some ways, they have to ease concepts on to them... but also develop their own concepts.

Brice Morrison
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"Games are a business, but ultimately they must entertain."

This statement is false. Games are often entertaining, but they ultimately must make money. If a company makes a critically acclaimed game that fails to pull in revenue, then that company is a failure. The purpose of a business is to make a profit. If they wanted to make games for art and entertainment's sake, then they should have formed as a non-profit.

The perception that some much loved companies (Nintendo, Valve, Blizzard) make games with the #1 purpose being to help people have fun is also completely false. They make games that are fun because that is their business model. They have found that there is a high correlation between how "fun" the game is and how many units they sell. So being entertaining is a means to an end; it is not the end of itself. If that means was no longer profitable, then our most beloved companies cease to use that means. Fitness games, for example, aren't necessarily entertaining, but they make you healthy, which is another means to profits. If you are Nintendo, Valve, Blizzard, or Zynga, and you find that making products with attribute X results in sales and revenue, then you are going to make products with attribute X, provided that it is legal and within your company's abilities. This is the purpose of all businesses in the world.

This loss of innocence in how companies work may be disturbing to some people, but having the purpose of making money be a company's #1 goal is not evil. It's capitalism. Any company in the world who has a purpose other than making profits is misguided or a non-profit. The greatest companies are ones who create a good enough product or service that people will praise them AND pay them. Just because some traditional gamers don't enjoy many of these social games doesn't make them any more evil or less talented. It just means that they aren't their customers.

Adam Miller
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Profit vs. Enrichment seems to be a problem for all media businesses. I don't think the issue is all that complicated though.

You write, "It’s a complicated issue, because after all 80 million people aren’t playing FarmVille because they hate it."

To which I reply, "People enjoy slot machines and cigarettes, too."

I don't think that all "addictive" games are bad -- people get addicted to Bridge, Chess, FPS games, etc. People become addicted to mowing their lawn. Whatever. That said, games like Farmville have no depth, play to our baser desires to encourage addiction, and worst of all, are designed to PROFIT from addiction. A game like Farmville can financially cripple a person (same with MMOs).

On the other hand, take Nintendo. Realizing the number of children who play their games, they actually instruct players to take breaks. They push exercise products in addition to traditional games. The point is, for better or worse, they are socially conscious. They do not pretend their games exist in a vacuum.

No form of game is inherently bad, but the attitude of the company making it does matter -- they are participating in our social discourse, after all.

Sebastion Williams
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The essence of a game is "an activity providing entertainment or amusement" according to the Whether or not games make money is irrelevant to its nature. Companies that distribute and sell games as products and services need to be profitable in order to exist. Now, I am no economist or business whiz but I am a consumer and gamer. So, yes, if what you sell is games, then you must make money. Many social games exist to gather your demographics for advertising and to sell other products and games are used for promotions and enticements. But let us not change the definition of games for the sake of capitalism.

Chris Remo
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Games are not inherently a business. Many people make games that are 100% free, simply because they enjoy making them and they want to give people games. Commerical games are developed at businesses that must make money, but it's completely false to say "games ultimately must make money." A game can be good or bad whether it makes money or not. It is the BUSINESS whose quality is judged based on financial success. They are absolutely not one and the same.

It may even be true that MOST games are developed commercially, but again--that's not inherent to the form. Financial success is a property of a business which may fund or publish a game, but it is not necessarily a property of the game itself.

Brice Morrison
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@Chris, yes, of course, not everything is a business. People are free to make whatever they want for whatever reasons as a hobby, student project, or what have you.

But the article was discussing console games, PC games, and social games, which are all products created by for-profit businesses, including Nintendo and Zynga. Companies are designed to be driven by profit incentive as their #1 priority.