[Some "best practices" are undermining the evolution of Facebook game design -- Gamasutra editor-at-large Leigh Alexander looks at the worst carryover adopted in The Sims Social.]
Games on Facebook are often subject to a breed of blanket disdain, a sort of universal condescension which was several years ago reserved for so-called "casual" games. These days, people closely entrenched in the gaming universe generally agree there's no inherent quality compromise necessary in the casual space -- most of us even feel that "casual" isn't a relevant term anymore in the modern landscape.
Will the word "social" follow the same arc? It seems likely, given the explosion of networking tools and advanced social features around popular core franchises. When everything's online and requires multiplayer functionality, what does "social" even mean when used to qualify games?
For the moment, though, games referred to as "social games" are mostly Facebook titles -- and for the most part, they sit largely in a cultural ghetto. At best, they're perceived to be too shallow and simple to be respectable entertainment, and at worst, they can be seen as deceptive, insidious, not much better than computer viruses.
But when Electronic Arts announced it would bring an edition of its beloved The Sims brand to Facebook, it seemed to suggest some promise for social games.
Here was a popular brand with a history of respect among an unusually wide audience, and moreover, it appeared a perfect fit: The Sims as a game relies on a number of traits quintessential to Facebook gaming: Expressing individual identity, visiting and socializing with other characters, managing daily tasks and earning rewards for attentive upkeep.
Armed with those common factors and with its proven appeal, The Sims Social should be expected to raise the Facebook gaming bar at least a little -- and it does, clearly developed with a hand and eye toward subtle, tough-to-define elements of user experience that feel more welcoming, more polished, even if (gasp!) those elements appear unlikely to immediately affect virality.
And it helps that more of one's friends are likely to be attracted to the game: It's new and it's a well-liked brand, versus if you're into FarmVille or something that carries a higher degree of negative stigma.
But EA's The Sims Social on Facebook seems to have taken a surprising number of design lessons from Zynga, the mother of negative stigma on Facebook. To some extent it's all best practices as established by the market leader: Zynga's shown that having rewards springing out of every action, scattering everywhere to be clicked -- an alluring "pop" that draws players' attention even in spite of themselves -- is strangely compelling, and Sims Social uses this tactic.
So is the "energy" principle, used to limit the amount of actions a player can accomplish in one play session. It seems the thinking is that a user frustrated by the need to manage time and resources in order to keep having fun would be more willing to impose on friends with irritant notifications, or to buy points, to alleviate the frustration.
But unfortunately, The Sims Social takes the absolute worst trait of Zynga's established games and emulates it -- even though it's not obvious that it needs to.
One of the common social mechanics on Facebook is to create tasks that have multiple parts, and require participation from friends to complete each step. For example, if a player wants a certain kind of building in their city, or decorative item in their home, a player will have to ask friends for items, parts or labor. These generally don't rely on actual inventory; whether a friend "has" said item or not, they need only to receive and accept a "help" request from their friend in order to complete it. What's required isn't actually an object, it's an interaction.
This creates conditions where many game objectives -- often those framed as "key" -- aren't achievable without sending notifications to friends or making advertisement-style wall posts about what they need. And generally, as a game progresses, achievements and objectives that rely on asking for help multiply. This seems designed to keep players reliant on one another, employing them to keep one another active, once players have invested enough time to care about the game world but after the novelty has begun fading.
Designers of these games may argue that the standard "ask for help" mechanic helps games be more "social," encouraging people to play together, but they actually limit socialization somewhat. Because generally the number of wall posts and notification messages required to achieve important objectives increases, any socially-conscious player will begin to become mindful of the number of requests they're sending. Some games limit the number of requests you can send to a single person per day, but rather than preventing the types of missives that could be perceived as "spam", it probably increases them.
This is because players generally feel comfortable messaging others who also message them often -- but when those are exhausted and the game still forces them to ask for resources, players often find themselves sending notifications to people they aren't so sure will appreciate or answer them.
The end result is negative reinforcement. In order to progress in the game, players need to shout simplistic requests into the aether, and eventually will need to impose on those who aren't guaranteed to be equally invested in progressing. It's better just to stick with the small handful of players who are equally as active as you; it feels embarrassing, to be that person sending daily requests.
And in the case of Zynga's games, it's even more embarrassing -- the child-like, cartoonish art and the basic tasks demanded by Cityville can make things downright awkward. Can you imagine going to an adult's Facebook page and seeing post after post about how your friend needs extra Fairy Wands to make magic on their farm? Respected Colleague needs more seashells to complete his aquarium! Admired Employer is helping a skunk get his stink back! Prospective Partner has extra fertilizer to share!! I mean, honestly?
When people say that Facebook games aren't actually social, these antisocial mechanics are precisely what they're referring to. They trivialize engagement and discourage further networking through play. But The Sims Social shouldn't need to rely on them; after all, visiting friends' houses is core to the mechanics of the original game. Half the fun of making your own little person and building them a little life is who they get to talk to and share it with -- the idea of being able to play with your friends using comical, familiar fantasy avatars is compelling enough by itself.
And since every action one can undertake in The Sims Social yields a reward, it seems possible that players will be already encouraged to invite their friends, seek out neighbors and interact with as many people as possible. Even sharing, via Wall posts, funny occurrences among Sims in the game seems a lot more interesting than just declaring that you have Mystery Eggs to offer. It doesn't seem that the game should have to force players to advertise for simple objects on their personal walls or to send notifications to their friends.
That players can earn points by socializing and then later use them to buy decorations to their houses (versus real money transaction, or even versus in-game currency) is a cool touch. And yet, like in all The Sims Social's irritating, embarrassing predecessors, that players have to solicit assistance every time they want to add a room or purchase certain types of household items seems like backward logic in a game like this one.
If gaming on Facebook is ever going to escape its cumbersome reputation, it needs to stop forcing players to beg in public. At early blush, The Sims Social seems promisingly fun, exciting and actually social relative to other choices. But the multi-stage "help" projects are not a welcome carryover from other games.