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Persuasive Games: Words With Friends Forever
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Persuasive Games: Words With Friends Forever

October 2, 2012 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Games Without Game Design

Newtoy's games haven't really been game designed games. The developer started with Chess With Friends, adding appeal to a classic by offering an effective matchmaking mechanism for asynchronous games in the early days of the iPhone. Chess is popular but not as accessible as crossword games, and Words With Friends offered both increased reach and a refinement of asynchronous play on mobile devices and eventually on the web as well. Newtoy changed some of the details from Scrabble, but nothing substantial enough to qualify as design innovation.

Zynga has received a lot of flack for antipathy toward game design, favoring the "borrowing" of existing designs, to put it kindly. Indeed, the company's overall corporate strategy has been one of trying to outrace itself, launching new games or acquiring new game studios and shifting players to new games as old ones atrophy.

Still, Zynga allows its studios to operate relatively independently, and the design of Words With Friends predates Newtoy's Zyngaficiation. It's possible that Newtoy just prefers a more conservative approach to design, one focused on the re-packaging of classic designs rather than the invention of new genres.

Design innovation purists might scoff, but such a reaction is unfair: after all, there are lots of ways to do game design. And admittedly, Matching With Friends, released only a few months ago, does offer some design novelty, even if it does so within the proven match-three genre.

But Matching hasn't taken off nearly as much as Newtoy's other games anyway. Given the evidence, why not stick with what works -- presenting familiar designs in fresh packaging?

Deep Design

The changing marketplace might offer one reason. It's still too early to tell if the social game trend was just a bomb with a fuse long enough to help a few companies sell or go public, and sustainable enough only for their senior-most management to cash out big. But no matter the answer, things seem to be changing.

Perhaps one of those changes will be a return to deeper game design. Not just deeper in systems design -- finding truly novel designs even in a familiar design space -- but deeper in long-term preoccupation, like making the same sushi every day for 75 years. Rather than see a crossword game as a trifle, a distraction that will be replaced soon enough by a letter game or a colored tile game or a cow clicking game, what if we assumed just the opposite: that any particular game is worth playing for a lifetime, at least in principle, and therefore that every game is also worthy of infinite design refinement?

When we talk about game design like this, mathematically deep games come to mind first, games whose naturally designed properties result in an enormous solution spaces. Games like go, chess, and StarCraft. These games are sublime, but they are also scarce -- as perhaps they should be. Everyone should not be fated to search for the unicorn.

It's a less exotic but perhaps a nobler task to pursue a better and better take on a proven idea. Games like chess and go persist because they are old and mysterious enough to have hypostatized into legend. Games like Scrabble are a little different: invented in the modern era, they have identifiable designers and defensible copyrights. They've been commercialized and licensed within an inch of their lives, and as a result they're household names.

They're also static. Dead, almost. Scrabble doesn't change much, even when it gets adapted for computer. It can't: to do so would be to give up the stability that protects it. But digital games have a natural excuse to exceed their original boundaries, especially in today's era of digital downloads and constantly recycling hardware.

The materials from which computer games are made have always been pliable, but the products themselves have been fixed for physical distribution. Consoles, computers, screens, and handheld devices once remained relatively stable for long periods, whereas now they change their internal and external features and abilities almost too often.

Normally, these infrastructures underwrite a designerly attitude of short-term techno-fetishism: do what's necessary to exploit whatever's new while biding time until something else is new. But perhaps when pushed to extremes, obsolescence flips into commitment: when things change fast enough, there's no choice left but to eschew blind novelty in favor of incremental refinement.


This isn't anything new, really -- some games already live long through constant change and update, social games among them. Zynga even has a term for it: "cadence", the process of continually adding new features and mechanics to a game. FarmVille has cadence, and so does Madden NFL, albeit of different sorts.

At its worst, cadence means the soul-killing grind of a new feature a week, and that's mostly what we find in today's social game design practices. But at its best, a cadenced approach to design works slowly and deliberately over the long haul, rather than hot and fast for a short sprint, before the next thing offers new distraction.

Words With Friends is a good candidate for such treatment because it has a foot in both worlds: a digital game drawing from board game traditions but translating them into the weird, uncertain waters of Facebook, mobile, and whatever might emerge next to and beyond it.

The first step would be easy: remedying the obvious flaws and foibles in the current game. For example, the onboarding and app launch/restore process is far less elegant than it once was. The need for proper account registration was probably inevitable, but until recently Words With Friends would freeze on launch or reactivation to communicate with the network, undoing some of its earlier convenience as a pick-up game given a few minutes' distraction.

And there's no excuse for the game's ongoing unwillingness to preview the score of a placed word -- computers are pretty good at adding, after all.

Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

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