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Opinion: Fear and Loathing in  Farmville

Opinion: Fear and Loathing in Farmville Exclusive

March 22, 2010 | By Soren Johnson

[Former Civ IV project lead and Spore designer/programmer Soren Johnson gives an in-depth round-up of social gaming at GDC -- and the complex, often contentious response from developers.]

GDC 2010 is now in the books, and it will be a hard one to forget because the whole conference seemed to be obsessed with one thing, which I summed up in this tweet. Or, as designer David Sirlin puts it here: “Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, Facebook.”

Off the top of my head, here are the highlights and lowlights of this fixation:

-The long-running Casual Games and Virtual Worlds Summits have vanished entirely from the conference, presumably eaten up by the new Social Games Summit.

-Ngmoco’s Neil Young describing the growth of free-to-play online games as “the most significant shift and opportunity for [game developers] since the birth of this business.” This shift fundamentally changes the way game are made because developers can now launch early and adjust based off play patterns and user metrics.

-Zynga’s Mark Skaggs, formerly of EA, praised metrics as the answer to most game design problems. Much has been made about their discovery that pink was the best color for advertising Zynga’s other games, but the telling point was when Skaggs said that “if a player repeats something, it’s fun.”

-My old Spore teammate Chris Hecker railed against external rewards as a true motivator as they can mask an otherwise dull game. Further, focusing primarily on metrics can actually make the game worse because they can overvalue external rewards, which are easier to measure. Chris also leveled this broadside at metrics-focused companies: “If you are intentionally making dull games with variable ratio extrinsic motivators to separate people from their money, you have my pity.”

-Carnegie Mellon’s Jesse Schell walked back from the ledge of his now-infamous DICE talk on pervasive rewards systems, saying that doomsday is not inevitable. He went on to explicitly draw the line in a new war between persuaders (developers who want players’ money) and the rest of us (who want to give the players joy). When addressing persuaders, Schell actually used the phrase “you know who you are.”

-Zynga’s Bill Mooney offended the entire independent games community in his acceptance speech for Farmville at the Choice Award by defining the Facebook game as “just as indie” and then trying to recruit everyone in the audience, many of whom have open disregard for Zynga. Josh Sutphin had a message for him: “Learn some fucking tact.”

-Brian Reynolds, who is now Zynga’s Chief Designer, showed up on no less than three panels to point out repeatedly that social games need to be social first and games second. Farmville’s crop-withering mechanic, in particular, was referenced as a not-fun mechanic that compels people to play out of a sense of shame. (What if my real-life friends see how poorly I am maintaining my own farm?)

-Daniel James of Three Rings puzzled over the phrase “social gaming” as he felt that his old games (such as Puzzle Pirates) were far more social than Farmville, which is a primarily single-player game in which players pass around “tokens.” At multiple times during the conference, James expressed his serious ethical qualms over the path social gaming was laying for the industry. So many of the methods for making money are thinly-veiled scams that simply exploit psychological flaws in the human brain.

-At a panel on why “dinosaur” designers are flocking to social games, Reynolds, Slide’s Brenda Brathwaite, Noah Falstein, and Playdom’s Steve Meretzky all praised social gaming as a new frontier where radical and rapid innovation exists, in contrast to the more conservative world of AAA retail games.

-Sid Meier only briefly touched on Civilization Network, his new Facebook project, in his conference keynote, but what else needs to be said? Sid Meier is making a Facebook game! (Quite literally, in fact, as Sid is doing his usual designer/programmer thing.)

-Further, the three primary designers of the Civilization franchise (Sid, Brian, and myself) are all now making social/online games.

What is to be made of all this? Meretzky made a key point in the dinosaur panel that, with free-to-play games, there is no more separation between game design and game business. Every change to a game’s balance might immediately and significantly affect revenue.

Will it go down because the virtual items for sale are now less desirable compared to the free ones? Or will it go up because the player is now inconvenienced enough to buy a boost? Or will it go down because the inconvenience has driven away enough of the core fanbase? (I made a similar point in my Nov 2008 column on designing for free-to-play games.)

-The question on most developers’ minds is the following: what is the role of the game designer in this new world where business and design mix in such fundamental ways?

The answer to this question drives fear in the heart of the boy and girl beating inside most professional game developers. Brian Reynolds himself often pointed out that the role of Zynga’s chief designer is not actually as important a position as one might imagine. At the VCON Summit, Eric Goldberg of Crossover Technologies suggested that companies “use the tactics that make the most money possible… that your staff can live with.”

At that summit’s keynote, David Perry talked about the morally dubious “treasure chests” of ZT Online, which provoked a visceral response from Sirlin:

"This egregious, unethical practice is the kind of thing he should have presented as extremely dangerous. If you are “playing to win” in business, yeah, you’d do that. But doing so is damaging to the lives of our own customers… I mean personally, I’m embarrassed to be part of an industry that so blatantly manipulates people like rats in a skinner box, and isn’t he embarrassed about that too?"

This debate over business-vs-design spawned a thread at Quarter to Three in which game developers and other industry observers are expressing their feelings over Farmville and its ilk:

"It’s not social games as a threat to game design, it’s money-driven treadmill games that [are] a threat to game design. A coworker identified a similar problem with a money-driven free-to-play social game, in which they specifically destroyed the balance in key ways at times in order to persuade the players to pay money to fix their own game balance. It is a war. It’s suits versus the creative people." (link)

"I can’t believe one of the most important figures in strategy gaming [Brian Reynolds], the guy who had a major hand in bringing us absolute classics like Civ 2, Alpha Centauri, Rise of Nations, and Rise of Legends is now chief designer for those creeps at Zynga." (link)

"I don’t like that at all. It turns my art into a business intent only on making as much money as possible. And while making money is the goal for the large industry, the fact is that we’re still as much about creating great experiences first and foremost, and the money is a happy second. With Farmville and such, the premise is to make a lot of money, and that is the drive that informs every single decision." (link)

"Making the game worse can make it generate more revenue. The lesson is to focus on generating fast bucks over improving the artistic quality of your game. Enjoyment isn’t as important as long as they keep paying and playing. The dividing line flaring up is an old one; are games an artistic endeavor furthering culture or are they just slot machines to be designed for revenue maximization?" (link)

"Farmville makes overt use of known psychological techniques to influence and control behaviour and ties that directly into revenue generation... When you have games industry professionals from large companies arguing that we shouldn’t worry about making a game less enjoyable as long as it generates more revenue " to me that is something to be concerned about." (link)

"Farmville’s formula is simple. Make it easy to scream forward to the point where you can’t properly spend your coins anymore without spending real money... Do not misunderstand me, I am saying, without any ambiguity, that doing this is wrong. I see very little difference between this and tactics at stores such as raising the price of something, removing functionality, and slapping a “On Sale 40% Off!” sign on it." (link)

"The question will be, when it comes to tuning Brian Reynolds' Facebook game, will the guiding principle be increasing Zynga's revenue or making the game more fulfilling?" (link)

"The Zynga guy said you need to identify what people are doing most often in a game, because that’ll be the most fun activity. If that were true, the funnest activity in Starcraft is building Zerglings and the funnest in late-game Civ IV is clicking END TURN." (link)

Obviously, developers are wary of how Facebook gaming will change the industry in the years ahead. (Compare the importance of business metrics now with 1997’s Ultima Online, which lead designer Raph Koster points out “wasn’t designed around any business model in particular.”) The irony is that Facebook games typically share four characteristics that really do promise great things for both gamers and designers:

-True friends list: Gaming can now happen exclusively within the context of one’s actual friends. Multiplayer games no longer suffer from the catch-22 of requiring friends to be fun while new players always start the game without friends.

-Free-to-play business model: New players need not shell out $60 to join the crowd. Consumers don’t like buying multiplayer games unless they know that their friends are all going to buy the game as well. Free-to-play removes that friction.

-Persistent, asynchronous play: Finding time to play with one’s real friends is difficult, especially for working, adult gamers. Asynchronous mechanics, however, let gamers play at their own pace and with their own friends, not strangers who happen to be online at the same time.

-Metrics-based iteration: Retail games are developed in a vacuum, with designers working by gut instinct. Further, games get only one launch, a single chance to succeed. Most developers would love, instead, to iterate quickly on genuine, live feedback.

These four pillars are the reason why many game developers are flocking to Facebook. (Of course, many of these characteristics are not exclusive to Facebook, but combining them together with such a large audience makes Facebook the obvious choice right now.) However, Jesse Schell is right; a war is brewing over who will call the shots.

The question is not simply one of suits-vs-creatives. The question is will designers take the time to learn the business, to learn how to pay the bills while also delivering a fantastic game experience? As BioWare’s Ray Muzyka put it during a panel on connected gaming, ultimately all decisions are made with a goal to make money, but the goal may be short-term revenue (“can we sell more blue hats tomorrow?”) or long-term growth (“does our community believe in what we are doing? are we creating life-long fans?”).

The successes will not come from open conflict between design and business but from developers who internalize the tension and attack the problem holistically.

I have to admit my own reservations about this transformation; game design itself simply might be not as much fun as it used to be. I cannot easily sum up how enjoyable brainstorming a game is during the early, heady days of blue skies and distant deadlines.

With a release-early-and-iterate mentality, these days are now over, for good. Games will no longer be a manifestation of an individual’s (or a team’s) pure imagination and, instead, will grow out of the murky grey area between developers and players.

The designer-as-auteur ideal is perhaps incompatible with this model, but I believe the best game designers are the ones willing to “get dirty” " to engage fully with a community to discover which ideas actually work and which ones were simply wishful thinking. Loss of control is never fun, but as Sid is fond of saying, the player should be the one having the fun, after all, not the designer.

[Soren Johnson is the former project lead of Civilization IV and a designer/programmer on Spore, a columnist at Game Developer magazine, and is currently working on browser-based titles at EA2D. This post originally appeared as part of Soren's Designer Notes weblog.]

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