GD Column 13: The Social Revolution

The following was published in the June/July 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine…

For the first time in recent memory, the dominant topic at this year’s GDC was not either the current console generation or the one coming over the horizon. Instead, the industry obsessed over the astonishing explosion of Facebook gaming over the last year. In fact, the poster child for the social network’s success – Zynga’s FarmVille, with its 82 million monthly active users – had been out for just a mere nine months.

FarmVille‘s scale is difficult to compare with that of other games. Before plateauing in March, the online game had grown by the size of the entire WoW user-base, every single month. Certainly, FarmVille must also be the first online game that can claim to be actively played by over 1% of the world’s population.

Many traditional game developers have mixed feeling about the rapid growth of these social games. While the huge audience signifies a massive broadening of the worldwide gaming demographic, the games themselves are often simplistic affairs, emphasizing time investment over interesting decisions. Further, certain practices have given the format a bad name, such as monetization through dubious lead generation offers and viral growth from wall post spam or in-game pyramid schemes.

Nonetheless, Facebook gaming does represent a real breakthrough for the industry because the social network combines an enormous audience with four advantages that promise great things for gamers and designers alike:

  • True Social Play: 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. The free-to-play model removes that friction.
  • Metrics-Based Iteration: Retail games are developed in a vacuum, with designers working by gut instinct. Furthermore, games get only one launch, a single chance to succeed. Many developers would love, instead, to iterate quickly on genuine, live feedback.

Developers who master these four characteristics of Facebook gaming stand the best chance to break away from the pack in an increasingly crowded field. To help me understand these dynamics, I interviewed two Zynga developers, Senior Designer Paul Stephanouk and Director of Product Management Siqi Chen, asking them to describe their experiences in this new field.

Social First, Gameplay Second

Brian Reynolds, Zynga’s Chief Designer, often points out that successful social games need to be social first and games second. However, just because a feature is social first doesn’t mean that   it won’t be interesting, as Chen explains:

In a certain context, to certain people, deciding whether to plant the grain or the grapes, whether to buy the chicken or the fruit tree, are all interesting decisions. Letting players gift things to their friends is a good way to build up social currency, but it becomes an interesting choice when the gift itself is scarce, or it costs the players something real. There’s a place for skill and challenge, but skill and challenge in a social game might not be as obviously punishing or competitive as a traditional game. Making your farm in FarmVille look impressive is a real skill, and making it look more impressive than your neighbor can be a real challenge.

Playing within the context of one’s actual friends brings new emotions to the table: pride, obligation, gratitude, desire, even shame. FarmVille‘s wither mechanic – in which crops die out and shrivel if not harvested in time – is an example of a social mechanic designed to shame players into caring for their virtual farm. What will my friends think of me if my poor farm is full of dried-up strawberries?

In fact, some social games have incorrectly copied this dynamic by taking the gameplay of the whithering mechanic while ignoring the social factor. In Ponzi, a social game set in the corporate world, the reward for finishing jobs drops to zero if the player does not return in time to pick up the check. Although this mechanic does encourage players to return regularly, it lacks the social pressure found in FarmVille because the decaying jobs are invisible to one’s friends.

Asynchronous Innovations

Although the social factors are paramount, Facebook titles do pose new, interesting design challenges. More specifically, asynchronous play is still a largely unexplored territory for designers. For example, two distinct mechanics are currently evolving on Facebook to handle offline progress – the energy system and the appointment mechanic. Under the energy system, each action costs a certain amount of energy, which regenerates in real-time; eventually, the player must wait for her energy bar to refill some before continuing play. In contrast, appointment mechanics are free to start, but they lock the player out for a specific period of time; for example, after planting strawberries in FarmVille, the player must return in four hours to harvest them and collect the sale. Stephanouk explains the pros and cons:

Progress-oriented players tend to respond better to the energy approach – Mafia Wars is an excellent example of this. Appointment, or “return”, mechanics are perceived as a softer approach. Return works well in games like FarmVille where players are, as a whole, less competitive and more focused on the social and building components. Overall, it really depends on the game. Both methods can be successful and can even be combined. FarmVille has examples of both models; tractor fuel is an example of energy.

The energy system has the advantage of being a more natural match for profitable virtual items – a booster pack, for example, can allow players to refill their energy and continue playing the game. Appointment mechanics, on the other hand, allow players to strategize around their real-life schedule. Fifteen-minute tasks are useful for players staying online, who know they can tab over to the game at any time. Two-hour or eight-hour tasks, on the other hand, are great for players going to dinner or heading off to bed.

Meet the Mainstream

One big difference between social and core games is the subject matter. Instead of the niche themes usually found in retail games – fantasy, sci-fi, racing, WWII, zombies, etc. – successful social developers choose very mainstream topics. Facebook’s top ten games include titles on farms, restaurants, pets, and aquariums. The format developed so differently because, unlike with consoles, handhelds, or high-end PC’s, the audience started out mainstream, without having to grow from early adopters with more niche tastes.

In many ways, Facebook is the industry’s first “TV of gaming” – the site allows users to flip from game to game in a safe, standardized environment, with the expectations of no barriers-to-entry and that their friends will be playing the same games. By allowing players to advertise their accomplishments and invite their own personal network to play, the site goes beyond TV by letting players exert direct social influence on each other.

However, the mainstream audience affects not just the distribution or the themes of social games but their underlying mechanics as well. Stephanouk describes what he had to unlearn when transitioning from real-time games like Rise of Nations to social gaming:

One of the things I had to come around on was the importance of zero-sum conflict. Coming from strategy games as I did, I was very focused on the competitive aspect of games. I was aware of players wanting to build or explore, but I always saw that as serving a conflict-driven goal. I have learned that, for many people, the conflict-driven nature of traditional games is a major detraction. I’m not saying that overall conflict is bad or that you can’t have conflict-driven action in social games – both of these things are very much not the case. What I am saying is that there are a lot of players out there, far more than I understood, that really want a game experience that isn’t driven by the need to compete against another person.

Zero-sum conflict is indeed one mechanic core game developers usually do take for granted. Although cooperative gaming has grown in popularity in recent years, judging by the popularity of Left4Dead or the auto-grouping feature in WoW, competitive play usually means that one side triumphs and another is destroyed. Social games, however, can still be competitive without being destructive; the answer is parallel competition, the race to grow and improve one’s restaurant, for instance, faster than one’s friends.

Who is the Designer?

One final area social games differ from traditional game is the pervasive use of metrics to inform rapid iteration, often on a weekly or even daily schedule. The ability to test design hypotheses by split-testing can revolutionize development. Chen provides one simple example:

Back when I was running Serious Business [a social game company Chen founded which was later bought by Zynga], Facebook allowed applications to access the notification channel, and we wanted to find out whether longer notifications performed better, or shorter ones. I guessed that it was probably a wash – the shorter ones are more concise, but the longer ones were probably more noticeable since they were physically larger.

We ran a 30-way split test where we asked our team to come up with a bunch of different copy. As it turns out, there was a roughly linear correlation between how short the notification was and how often players would click through it. The shorter it was, the better the performance. The difference in performance was up to 300%. That’s a huge impact for basically writing a few lines of copy.

The question on many minds is what is the role of the designer in this new environment, with virtually real-time feedback for development decisions. Is the designer still the primary “author” of the game experience, or do designers now fill a new role, surfing the incoming data while sitting in the murky middle ground between the community and the company. Indeed, Reynolds admits that his role as Zynga’s “Chief Designer” is not nearly as important as one might imagine. Stephanouk says the following about the role of metrics in his current job:

Metrics are everything I thought they might be – or at least what I hoped they would be every time I found myself sitting in a room of designers fighting over if a player would rather press one button over another. Why would a designer want to remain in the dark on something that has a clear, knowable answer? Undersanding how players play doesn’t stifle creatitivity in game design any more than understanding how people live stifles creativity in architecture. I think it’s the other way around – knowledge helps us understand constraints, and constraints are usually the building blocks of good design. Do I feel less like an “author”? That depends, fiction or non-fiction?

The designer-as-auteur ideal is perhaps incompatible with this model, but the best game makers are usually the ones willing to “get dirty” – to engage fully with the audience to discover which ideas actually work and which ones were simply wishful thinking. Social game development simply accelerates this process to new extremes.

11 thoughts on “GD Column 13: The Social Revolution

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention DESIGNER NOTES » Blog Archive » Game Developer Column 13: The Social Revolution --

  2. Despite their criticism, massively popular social games like Farmville are doing for web games what the Wii did for consoles: expanding the game-playing demographic. This is a critical step in breaking away from the pervasive misconception that games are just for kids, and represents a clear shift in the popular perception of games at large.

    Within our lifetimes, games will be as widely received and as respected as books, film, and television are today.

    Ebyan “Nolithius” Alvarez-Buylla

  3. “Within our lifetimes, games will be as widely received and as respected as books, film, and television are today.”

    Sorry to burst your bubble but only gamers think of such things.

    No matter how many bells & whistles you add or how you repackage it, to most people games are what they are, a game.

  4. The hurdle games need to cross before they receive the same “respect” as the other media you list is not becoming relics when they are no longer timely.

    Aristotle’s “Nichomachean Ethics” remains relevant in philosophy because it is timeless. Even as scientific knowledge and philosophical discourse has evolved beyond where Aristotle was at that time, any serious philosopher is still going to need and treasure that book.

    Whitman’s “Blades of Grass” is powerful, beautiful poetry that moves and grabs us today as well as it ever did. Time has not made it obsolete.

    Similarly Welles’ “Citizen Kane”, Kurosawa’s “Ikura” (more relevant than ever!) and many others may look antequated but they are deep, gripping and great experiences today as ever.

    (Video) games don’t age well. Pong, Pitfall and Donkey Kong are ridiculous in comparison to the games being made today. Their inferior technology reduces them to relics, quaint signposts of a time gone by. Indeed, even a game like “Doom” is unplayable now, to the point of being unappreciable to those who weren’t there. Unlike other media it does not retain its experiential quality for a contemporary consumer. It is obsolete.

    I think the question really becomes, to what degree and in what ways must games evolve so that the games of today remain relevant and joyous to future peoples who are not tied to their specific moment of original publication and use.

    Will that require technology to “top out” so it is apples-to-apples experiences? Does there need to be a further shakedown of genres, that some genres of games – presumably those that are more storytelling or moralistic in nature – are seen in a different category from the twitch and dexterity games that will give them permanence?

    Board games seem to clearly have crossed over into the same realm as movies and books. One could argue that games like Chess and Go certainly, if not Monopoly, Clue and other generations-old games that continue to be played every day by ordinary people, in fact have crossed the line to join those other media that are considered “art”. The great proof is in the fact they are played, loved and continue today. Indeed, that might be the only criteria: is it still in use and enjoyed by real people, not just academics or lovers of the arcane? By that measure board games seem to have wholly crossed over.

    Going back to video games for a second, if we consider future versions to be an extension of the original product then there are certainly some successes. Flight Simulator might be considered the first game as art. What about EA Sports? The NHL and Madden franchises have been hugely popular for two decades. Doesn’t that count? It is an evolution of the same game. What about Civilization? Again, 20 years. That feels like art to me.

    This is a rich and interesting subject area, I’m surprised there has not been more of this sort of analysis.

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  8. Yeah, games are just games. There are a lot of people who really have no interest in games. I love games, but I have many friends who don’t play any at all, and that’s cool. It’s not really necessary for everyone to be into games.

  9. Not to distract from yet another discussion on games as art… 😉

    It’s interesting that you discuss shame-as-a-mechanic in the context of it being an innovation. Do you really think that’s the kind of innovation we want to embrace as game creators?

  10. Pingback: BookBlog » Blog Archive » Zero-sum social - Adina Levin's weblog. For conversation about books I've been reading, social software, and other stuff too.

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