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Gamelab 2011: MUD Creator Bartle: 'Current Social Games Are Not Fun'

Gamelab 2011: MUD Creator Bartle: 'Current Social Games Are Not Fun'

June 30, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield

June 30, 2011 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Social/Online, Design, Production

"Today, 20 million people will play CityVille," said Richard Bartle, co-creator of the MUD, and father of the MMO at a Gamasutra-attended Gamelab 2011 talk in Barcelona. "And 100 million will play it this month. My question is, what will these people be playing five years from now?"

"The big thing about social games that they don't like to tell you, is they're not actually social," he says. "Games played on social network sites is what we mean by social games ... These games are categorized more by the platform than that they are social themselves."

Most games on Facebook, "despite being called social, are basically solo games, with a veneer, just a simple layer on top where you ask your friends to do something for you in the game," says Bartle. "You're not going to make new friends, you're not going to form alliances, or do anything like that playing FarmVille."

The social aspect of it gives validity, he says, to let you know other people are playing it, so "it proves you're not absolutely mad." Most games get their players now from having advertised to players of previous games.

"The way they engage their players is not through interesting gameplay, it's done through extrinsic rewards - basically bribes." These are badges, pats on the back, and so forth. As he explains; "I'm level two! That person over there, who started playing five minutes ago, is level one! I'm better!"

Sometimes these games do have things mixed in which are actually fun to play. "The difference is, social games rely on the extrinsic rewards so as to be compelling," he says. "People keep playing the game because it keeps giving them things - rewards." This has led to gamification.

"In the hands of designers, this has a great deal of potential, but unfortunately it's not in the hands of designers, it's in the hands of marketers. I mention this because my player types have been used in gamification in spite of my never having touched it."

"Most game designers are not a fan of social games, and indeed, I as a game designer am not a fan. Surely, if you play a game, you must be able to lose somehow." Bartle says the backlash against social games comes "because they lack gameplay, which leaves this impression that people like games, but these aren't really like games. And they're called social but they're not actually social, so why do people play these games? Because of the rewards."

Human beings are actually pretty smart, Bartle asserts, saying we're good at data processing and pattern matching. "People who play games will notice patterns in those games. The problem with social games is people will recognize those more."

By way of example, he pointed to children. "When you're a small child and you're given a star, you think it's pretty good." But then when you start realizing you get stars for things that aren't that good, your friends no longer value it, and then you subsequently don't value it, and then you start to actually not want stars. "The bad aspect is when people realize, 'this game is boring,'" he says. "You do one task, you finish it, and you're given another task. You're just making more work for yourself."

"What will people be playing in five years? Not CityVille," he said. "They'll be playing something else. Not only will they not be playing CityVille, they won't be playing a game that's like CityVille, because they'll recognize why they stopped playing it."

So what will they be playing? People understand if something's fun to play versus just rewarding them. Unless it's actually fun to collect the things you're collecting in games, even in MMOs, they'll be worthless as soon as expansions come out, and you have to do it all over again. It becomes work.

People will want something "better," which means different things to different people, he said. "Today's players of social games will not want to play more social games," Bartle asserts. "There's no gameplay to them, they rely on extrinsic rewards. So what we have to give them is more games."

"The reason I like [social games] is that I see it as a way to make non-gamers become game-literate," he says. "There will have to be a way to migrate from extrinsic rewards to intrinsic rewards, because that's what makes games fun. ... Social games are beginning the education of people who started with small games, and are turning into people who actually want real games. Games that have gameplay."

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