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What's Next? The evolution of 'social games'

What's Next? The evolution of 'social games' Exclusive

October 1, 2013 | By Patrick Miller

[In advance of November's GDC Next, GDC's Director of Online Community Patrick Miller reached out to many games industry luminaries to see where they think the future of video games is headed. This interview is the latest installment of a multi-part series that will run up until shortly before the 'future of games' conference, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA from November 5-7, co-located with the App Developers Conference.]

Between his work at Zynga engineering CityVille and FarmVille 2, and his current work as founder of indie mobile sim studio SomaSim Games, it's safe to say that Robert Zubek has a good handle on what's coming up next on the tech side of the games industry. I spoke to him about how social games will change and evolve in the next era of social networks -- and why Minecraft really might just be emblematic of the most important emerging trends in games.

Patrick Miller: Much of your work has been in social games, which have as a genre been commended for successfully attracting a new-to-games, non-traditional audience, and criticized for relying on a rather "shallow" definition of "social" compared to, say, multiplayer games for core audiences. How do you think future social games will change the way players engage with their friends in-game? Do you think it'll still make sense to talk about "social" games ten years from now?

Robert Zubek: It's been wonderful to play CityVille with old friends and family who don't typically play games, or identify as gamers. It reminded me of the awesome experience of playing cards at the kitchen table, and all the chatting and bickering -- which we can't do anymore, because we live thousands of miles apart. But when we play a game of Uno or Risk with family members, the game artifact itself is only a part of the experience. There's another piece of the experience that you get by sticking that "draw-two" to your mother, or teaming up your armies with your cousin to make sure that your overly confident sibling goes down in flames. Fun in those games comes from these social interactions, and I think the same goes for social games online.

Multiplayer games for "core audiences" don't come anywhere close to this kind of an experience, especially when you play against complete strangers. And maybe it's a matter of age, because when I was in my twenties I didn't care about reconnecting with old friends and family. But now I do. And it's surprisingly fun to keep in touch through games.

This is where I think games will continue to thrive. For computer games, it's a new way of thinking about them that is just catching on, not wrapping up. We might not call them "social games" ten years from now, but they will continue to be, in fact, quintessentially social.

PM: What you said about playing social games with old friends and family struck me; I rarely play video games with my family, but whenever I'm in a relatively casual game session (think family Monopoly or something) I'm always surprised by how hyper-competitive the people who don't play video games get, and balancing competition with maintaining goodwill (and making a game playable for everyone at the table, without making the losers feel like, well, losers) ends up being part of a fascinating meta-game layer. Do you see social games changing or evolving in terms of how they engage players at different ranges of the emotional spectrum? Do you think they're doing work now that the rest of the industry ought to emulate or take inspiration from?

RZ: This kind of "friendly competitiveness" that you mention, such as the family Monopoly night, is incredibly fun, and incredibly difficult to pull off. Some games like Words with Friends are going in that direction, and doing it very well. But it's harder when it's all mediated over the Internet -- there is all this out-of-band communication, like trash talking and one-upsmanship, that's absolutely crucial to the enjoyment, but hard to convey in an asynchronous game. This is one area that will definitely see a lot of experimentation.

In addition, social games have been very successful at engaging players in a cooperative and collaborative way, where players help each other out and work together. Games like CityVille or FarmVille 2 are full of these kinds of mechanics: visiting your friend's city or farm, helping them out, growing something on the board together. This didn't come from an a priori design, either, but was arrived at iteratively, because players really responded to these gameplay elements. This is one thing I can see spreading more through the industry: as the "core gamer" segment shrinks proportionally in the overall gamer population, we'll find that there's more to multiplayer games than competition.

PM: Social games are named thus because they're tied to social networking services -- services that are constantly changing and evolving to stay relevant amid an also-changing tech ecosystem. Do you see the relationship between social networking services and their games changing in the future?

RZ: In the longer term, what I think will happen is that social games are going to migrate off of Facebook as a destination site, and will instead use different parts of a social network API, such as identity management and matchmaking. Identity is important, because if you want to invite your aunt to a poker game, the game has to be able to find her somehow and let her know, which is where a big identity and social graph providers comes in. But games will no longer focus on the social network as a destination.

Also, I think our definition of a social network will change. Facebook and MySpace as websites were products of their time, of a web-centric view of interaction. But now we have other technologies: our phones have one view of our social life, Facebook has another, LinkedIn has another, not to mention Twitter, and Pinterest, and so on. It no longer makes sense to make games for a particular social networking website, but it will always make sense to make games you can play with people who matter in your life.

PM: It seems to me that online games evolve alongside major changes in our Internet infrastructure. Do you see another major change in network tech on the horizon? If so, how do you think it'll affect the development of online games?

RZ: There is great opportunity for innovation on the server side. Development on the server is still a fairly labor-intensive affair, and many teams build their game servers and infrastructure essentially from the ground up. Making and running multiplayer games is expensive, and small teams are hit especially hard.

In comparison, client-side development has gotten much faster and easier, thanks to middleware like Unity that solves a lot of the common problems. Server side development hasn't matured enough, for us to know what those common problems are just yet, but it's maturing. One day someone will make the equivalent of Unity for servers, hitting the sweet spot of solving common problems without constraining the games. And then we'll see multiplayer games really take off.

PM: Sometimes it seems like the best ideas in tech and games simply didn't happen at the right time. Is there anything you think will come back once the time is right?

RZ: Creativity-oriented online worlds are due for a comeback. There were some examples of these in the past, like The Sims Online from EA or YoVille from Zynga, not to mention the various MUDs and MOOs from the hobbyist community. I think that with the advent of phone and tablet gaming, we might see a new generation of these, reimagined for a less computer-centric audience.

PM: You've mentioned both procedural content generation and creative online spaces as important trends for the future of games -- I imagine that Minecraft is certainly up your alley, then! What other works do you see (either in games or elsewhere) that will inform future video games?

Yes, yes, Minecraft certainly is!

I think there's a larger trend here. Players are showing us that they're comfortable with simulation-based approaches, like procedural world generation or sandbox gameplay. Definitely much more comfortable than many devs gave them credit for! It also crosses genre boundaries, from action games like FTL and roguelikes, to open-ended creative ones like The Sims, to adventure and exploration like Minecraft, and so on. Apparently even the upcoming EverQuest Next is going in this direction. I'd expect this trend to only strengthen in the near future.

This is also important from a more theoretical design perspective, because simulation is a really good fit for computers and the medium of computation, much better than trying to tell hand-crafted stories through games. I think this renewed interest in procedural generation and simulations is a sign of games coming to terms with the strengths and weaknesses of the medium, and starting to use them to their advantage. It's a sign of our art form maturing and coming into its own.

Registration is now open for GDC Next and the co-located ADC. The first 500 attendees who sign up can save over 30% on ADC, GDC Next, or a combined VIP Pass -- but reduced-price passes are selling fast, so register soon! For all the latest news on GDC Next, subscribe for updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. Also, check out the previous 'What's Next' interviews with Chris Crawford, Starr Long, Thomas Bidaux, Teut Weidemann, David Cage, Warren Spector, Sunni Pavlovic, James Paul Gee, Raph Koster and Chris Pruett.

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