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Meretzky: Facebook Games' 'Skeleton' Isn't Any Less Meaningful
Meretzky: Facebook Games' 'Skeleton' Isn't Any Less Meaningful
October 12, 2010 | By Staff

October 12, 2010 | By Staff
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Playdom's Steve Meretzky suggests that there's plenty of room for Facebook games to make their social elements more genuine and more central -- but ardently disputes the idea that the space isn't evolving, or is evolving too slowly.

"We've certainly gotten better at raising the production values of the games, but where we, as an industry, fall short is not moving the ball forward in terms of really making these games more social and taking advantage of the viral channels that Facebook allows," he concedes.

Design VP Meretzky speaks to Gamasutra as part of today's in-depth feature, which collects thoughts on a much-debated and rapidly-growing industry segment from a few of its brightest minds, designers with traditional backgrounds.

We talk to Zynga chief designer Brian Reynolds, a strategy veteran who's worked on games like Civilization II and Rise Of Nations, and Lolapps creative director Brenda Brathwaite, who's been in game development since 1981 with 22 titles under her belt.

Meretzky has his roots in classic Infocom titles, and his wider perspective on the industry's past transitions comes to bear in his views on the pace of evolution in the social space.

"Heck, three years from the start of electronic gaming, we were still in the Pong era," he recalls. "Sure, in 2007 we started with a much higher level of technical possibilities than existed 30 or 40 years ago. But we've come a long way in three years. Facebook games have become more sophisticated, the gameplay deeper, the production bar is higher. And I certainly predict those trends will continue."

"I don't want to hear that Facebook games are Skinner boxes," he adds. "You know, when you come down to it, basically all games are Skinner boxes -- meaningless activities where you're not getting anything out of it other than enjoyment. But in traditional or more complex video games, the Skinner box core is more buried under a lot of sizzle. In Facebook games, just because they are so stripped down to their simplest, barest elements, the Skinner Box skeleton is just more visible."

Meretzky suspects that criticism will wane as more and more traditional game developers join him -- and Brathwaite and Reynolds -- on the social side.

"It's always easier to criticize what someone else is doing than to criticize what you are doing yourself," says Meretzky.

The full feature, 'Facebook Games Level Up,' is now live at Gamasutra.


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Comments


Michael Joseph
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Clearly there are games that do offer more than mere enjoyment, but skinner box or no skinner box, that's not the primary issue imo.



The issue is how the ever present real time monetization strategy impacts these games' designs. It's like being on a payphone and then without warning being asked to deposit $0.75 for an additional 2 minutes. Years ago they discovered they could make more money by not providing a warning because people would otherwise make sure they say all their important bits before the time expires. There is a clear difference in the process of making a game where users pay all their costs up front and one where users are being constantly manipulated or influenced to pay more and more forever.

Brian Bartram
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I had intended to speak my 2 cents, but Michael put it so succinctly that I'd rather just "me too" his argument. FB games aren't designed to entertain, they're designed to monetize. Once you see this, you can't play them without feeling like an idiot.

Chris Remo
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It's true that games certainly aren't functional in the sense of providing any tangible and productive output, but that's not the same as being "meaningless." Games, like other cultural artifacts, can generate and impart considerable meaning, and I believe that some convey more meaning than others.

Adam Bishop
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I wonder if Steve would similarly argue that books are "meaningless activities where you're not getting anything out of it other than enjoyment" since they aren't capable of providing anything that games aren't. Would he suggest, for example, that 1984 and the Berenstein Bears are equally "meaningless"? I mean, the implication seems to be that the only meaningful acts are those that fulfill a survival requirement, in which case I guess everything is meaningless except breathing, sleeping, and eating (and having sex, depending on how you define "survival"). That's a very nihilistic world view that I certainly don't subscribe to.

Leo Gura
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A hardcore game is, say, Moby Dick. A Facebook game is, say, My Pet Goat. If My Pet Goat rocks your boat, fine, but experienced folk want more meat on the bone. Is the difference between Moby Dick and My Pet Goat sizzle? Not really.

Mark Morrison
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"Facebook games have become more sophisticated" - 'games' should be replaced with the word 'monetization' here IMO.



"basically all games are Skinner boxes -- meaningless activities where you're not getting anything out of it other than enjoyment". I totally disagree. This sounds like an attempt at validating FB cow clicker flash games.



And Chris, "It's true that games certainly aren't functional in the sense of providing any tangible and productive output". You might not be aware that the NYC and Baltimore school systems have officially added interactive media and games to their future teaching methods and curriculums.

Michael Joseph
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"Meretzky suspects that criticism will wane as more and more traditional game developers join him -- and Brathwaite and Reynolds -- on the social side."



You think the authors of the article were intentionally going for the Star Wars "dark side" reference here?

Ara Shirinian
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The most frustrating thing about discussing so-called 'social games' is that most defenders of that style of play do not appear to even recognize or understand some of the most powerful and compelling qualities of 'traditional' video games, qualities that are largely absent in 'social games.'



What are some examples of these powerful and compelling qualities? Mastery of a skill, learning new things (not just factual knowledge but procedural knowledge), and improving one's own abilities. Not incrementing a number that represents a simulation of your skill, but actual real, material self-improvement in this small way. It's the reason why games like Street Fighter are so compelling, and incidentally Street Fighter games don't have any skinner-box components either. They don't need them.



I feel like i'm getting better when I practice Street Fighter, and that feeling is intensely and intrinsically motivating when I beat a well-matched player. No amount of clicking on cows and pastures lest they die is going to produce that quality of experience.



Games at their best are profound teaching devices. Games at their worst extract time and money from the player without giving the player anything lasting in return.



I'm getting tired of the inane rhetoric that denies what is arguably the greatest potential of games. Here we are with a medium with incredible potential to inspire and improve peoples' lives in personally meaningful ways, and some very loud voices in the community either just ignore or strawman the crap out of that side of it. For what? To get as many people into addict-hamster mode as possible?

Tim Carter
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Meaning is a tricky thing to understand.

Jed Hubic
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This man speaks the truth. I don't play Facebook games because I don't enjoy them, not because they're less meaningful. Even on here, I'm reading people talk about the opposite of what this article is stating, but in the end it's still just them stating their interpretation on what gives games meaning. Who's to say that I'm more understanding of gaming because I like the ending of Ico, where as someone else gets more enjoyment making crops look like a flower in Farmville. Sure I think social games are crap but that's just an opinion. They're all games.

Michael Joseph
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You say he speaks truth and everyone else is just speaking an opinion? :D Maybe now we're all in agreement. He's speaking an opinion, you're speaking an opinion, I'm speaking an opinion, we're all speaking opinions. o/

Jed Hubic
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Well I meant speaking the truth more or less as a common saying, of course it's an opinion. I really don't want to get into semantics or logic but if we're saying all opinions are valid, then technically me saying he speaks the truth is a valid statement, but that's another story. I just meant I'm glad someone in the industry spoke about the otherside of the coin as opposed to always reading x amount of blogs about games as art bashing Zynga. Once again an opinion...

Leo Gura
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Everything someone says is their opinion. That's a given. And there's nothing normative about taste in the end. People are free to like whatever they want for whatever reason.



That said, it's still fun to ridicule people for their opinions. Example: Reality TV is entertaining, but we still make fun of some of the stupid shows that people LOVE to watch. It's a guilty pleasure. And even though the masses love them, I would hesitate to equate a reality TV show with an Oscar-caliber movie -- the difference there is substantial.

Jeremy Reaban
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To extend that analogy though, it's a case of two Oscar Winning directors moving to reality TV where the money is, then trying to justify their moving to it.

Adam Bishop
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What people like or don't like is of course a matter of taste, but I think there's something more substantial at play here than just taste in entertainment. If there are two products on the marketplace, and one of them makes money by exploiting psychology in a manner that resembles addiction, and one of them makes money by providing players something that they consciously seek out as meaningful, then those two products are very, very different. One is worthy of praise and one is not, not because of their relative artistic merit, but because one seeks to abuse players and one seeks to enrich their lives.



I also don't think that "enjoyment" and "meaning" are the same thing (though a hedonist would surely disagree), and we shouldn't confuse the two.


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