According to Philip Holt, co-founder of the social gaming startup Row Sham Bow, modern social games still have a lot of room to grow. Their biggest problem, he says, is that they are often "highly compulsive, but not all that compelling."
This April, Holt and a handful of other industry veterans left EA Tiburon to found Row Sham Bow
, and just last month the company released its first title: a Facebook strategy title dubbed Woodland Heroes
Previously, Holt worked on Facebook titles for EA such as EA Sports PGA Tour Golf Challenge
and Madden Superstars
, but with Woodland Heroes
, he hopes to introduce some meaningful changes to the social gaming formula, he said in a recent interview with Gamasutra.
"What we want to focus on are things that have frustrated us as gamers on social games, one of which is that they're highly compulsive, but not very compelling. They're just not the kinds of experiences that we long to play on that platform," he said.
"For me, I'd say most social games feel more akin to a slot machine [than a game]," he continued, noting that some social games simply encourage players to put down money on microtransactions, without placing much emphasis on the game mechanics themselves.
Holt says that Row Sham Bow set out to fix this problem with its recently-debuted Woodland Heroes
by creating an experience that gives the player some room for failure. By incorporating a certain degree of risk, Holt says players will begin to care about even the most minute gameplay decisions.
"We want to innovate in gameplay, and one of the key areas we tried to do this in Woodland Heroes
is we wanted the result of a player's decision to matter in the game. There should be a loss state. You should feel that the stakes are high, so you take it more seriously. There's a level of engagement you have when you go, 'Oh crap, what do I do here?' That, I think, is a fundamental tenet of what makes a good game," said Holt. "A lot of games on the platform, in the pursuit of the broad public, have sometimes not delivered those essential elements for us."
He went on to outline the Row Sham Bow's approach to designing Woodland Heroes
, noting that the team's history at EA and other major companies helped provide some important game design fundamentals that significantly informed the studio's approach to its debut title.
"One way in which console development has informed the way we work was that we didn't start by deciding to make a game with raccoons and other animals. Instead, we started with a mechanic, and we asked, 'What is it about this that will be fun?' Once we had that core, we built from the center out. I think that's certainly something I've learned from my last five years at EA -- focus on the core element you're delivering that will make people come and play your game."
Holt later reflected on the evolution of video game distribution models, and urged developers working in the traditional games business to keep an eye on web-based and online games, since they could easily pave the way for the future of the games business. In fact, Holt said this shift in distribution models helped convince him to start Row Sham Bow in the first place.
"I think the games industry is going through similar things that other media that have relied on physical goods have gone through, whether its movies or music, etc. To me, that tells me that it's all going digital, it's all going to the most frictionless way for consumers to consume, regardless of device, regardless of business model, you have to go where consumers are."