“Fear and Loathing in Farmville”

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 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.
  • Will Wright pointed out that the astonishing growth of Facebook (and Facebook gaming) more likely resembles an S-curve than a power law curve. Thus, although this new market is indeed enormous, the upward sloping curve will level off at some point, so we should be careful not to make exponential predictions.
  • 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 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 or 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 are engineered to prey on gambling addicts and 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 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’s 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 2Alpha CentauriRise 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 endeavour 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 Reynold’s Facebook game, will the guiding principle be increasing Zygna’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. However, 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.

76 thoughts on ““Fear and Loathing in Farmville”

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  2. Awesome post, thanks for the wrap as I wasn’t there myself.

    Just to comment on your last paragraph, aren’t you forgetting the whole indie thing? From what I can see it really seems to be all about designer-as-auteur and the traditional way of building a game and releasing it as a one shot package. Of course nothing is ever as awesome as the old days but you probably get the point.

    And when you think about this boom of social gaming business, isn’t it just a trend movement that’s been emphasized by the need for alternative business models for the AAA-games? Money makers wanted less risks but the competition didn’t have anywhere else to go that bigger budgets and these social platforms offer a chance to again compete in a different way with the big guys on huge profits. This train of thought leads me to assume that there’s no need to say that the traditional AAA is going anywhere, because it’s still profitable and fun for developers and consumers alike. All this is going towards the point that as a designer I believe one would now have three different “mainstream” choices to pick from depending on what seems enjoyable and still do good business: indie (like A or AA), AAA and Facebook. I know that’s oversimplifying it a lot but from my perspective game design has never been this much fun as you actually have a change to observe and participate in all of these different approaches.

    Well anyway it was an excellent read, thanks!

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  4. Fantastic summary there Soren you’ve managed to hoover up pretty much everything I’d read on the topic and about five more things I’d not seen at all despite paying very close attention.

    My personal hope is that both ‘social’ games and traditional games benefit from this renewed focus on investigating what effects a game’s design is having on its players; beyond making them repeatedly do something.

  5. It seems to me that this froth over social games comes mostly, if not all, from people who have no personal experience with the process. I’m here to tell you that my experiences in the space haven’t been anything like the story being told. In fact I feel *more* creatively empowered, less encumbered by business-for-the-sake-of-business, and have had exactly *ZERO* design conversations where we sat around in lab coats discussing how to use psychology as a weapon to replace fun with cash. Quite the opposite actually. I’ve found that the number of design conversations where I talk about things like “fun” and “what the player wants” has risen since moving to the social space. I don’t think I’m alone in this view. Take a look at the increasing ranks of talented and creative designers that are doing social games. Are they really all just selling their craft up the river to jump on a hot trend? Really? REALLY? C’mon people. Get real.

  6. Paul (and Soren, if you’re so inclined) – I’ve so far been put off by the ProgressClick / Buy Stuff nature of many of the higher profile social space games… but I also haven’t played through more than say 5-10 of the things.

    Can you point to any games that are out right now that move in significant ways past this in terms of depth, or utilize some of the things Soren sees as positives? Or some coming up that I should look for? And if those aren’t out or in the pipeline – what’s your take on when and how they’ll show up?

  7. The biggest problem I see with microtransactions in games is, in addition to the “pay to balance the game” aspect, microtransactions provide a vehicle to siphon money from the players indefinitely. And if we’ve seen anything about “the suits” in other arenas, they tend to not let things hold them back if it would prevent them from increasing the bottom line.

  8. Paul, do you really question that profitable social games make a significant amount of their money by triggering addictive and dysfunctional behaviors that don’t make their customers happier in the long run? In the world of perfect rational Homo economicus, people would only spend money to play games that do make them happier. But, in the real world, the two are not so strictly correlated, as the existence and reality of gambling casinos and lotteries makes clear.

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  10. @Teemu The indie question is a good one. I originally addressed whether indie designers should still be auteurs in my final paragraph although I changed it because I wasn’t sure if my thoughts were correct. Perhaps like some others, I seem to like indie gaming more in theory than in practice, so I believe that indie designers could also benefit a lot from the four pillars I mentioned above (as long as they don’t become slaves to them…)

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  12. @David – I’ve seen no real research to show that social games are any more or less prone to trigger negative behaviour than any other sort of game. I may not be “perfect rational” but I’m happy to entertain any real research you can point me to that would shed light on the situation?

    @Macguffin – Hard to know.The way I’m parsing your question makes me think that there may not actually be much for you in the social game space at the moment. Will that change? I can’t talk about my company’s future products but I would make the observation that the entire social gaming “market” (at least the part we’re all fussing over these days) has been building product for less time than a “traditional” videogame. In my personal opinion it seems very likely that, given even a modest amount of time, there will be many more types of experiences catering to a wide range of player preferences.

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  14. I am not a game developer, but would humbly encourage people to refer to ‘social games’ and ‘social gaming’ as what it really is: “social PRESSURE gaming” or in some cases “anti-social gaming”.

    Why is that important?

    To give you the real sense of what Zynga does. Give up the Newspeak from early on?

    Having said that, I was really excited to hear that finally ‘real’ game developers are moving to Facebook, which will encourage ME (old gamer) to move there too. There have to be other lucrative business models that will work without psychological tricks or deliberately braking the game balance? I do hope so. This is just the beginning?

    Imagine if Blizzard (I know, but indulge me) would have made an early iteration of StarCraft 2 a playable Facebook app, with a fee to play (beyond a free demo level). The next 2-3 years (or 5-8 with a total of 3 retail games in the making) they would develop with the feedback of an army of players and another incoming revenue stream.

    Blizzard was a bad example, since they make tons of money and are a well known brand for quality, but that’s the kind of goal you want to reach, isn’t it?

    If you, talented, thoughtful game devs make the switch to Browsergames, Facebook/iPad apps, tens of Millions of people will have the chance for richer, more satisfying game experiences!

    It’s true, how art turned into advertising and artist are enslaved in advertising agencies. Game development can turn into this line of work too. But there are still artists out there and there will be imaginative, creative, fierce game developers, who will make awesome games.

    The question, like in all ethical problems concerning work and life, is: where do YOU draw the line? Do you draw your own line? Or as Jesse Schell put it: “Who makes the calls?” I sincerely hope, guys like you do.

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  19. Excellent points, Soren.
    As Paul said, though, we do have to wait a while for the facebook-type medium to mature before we judge it, don’t we?

    Microtransactions and their problems have been with us since before facebook and yet I haven’t heard this much against them before.
    In addition, many MMOs seem to utilize “defects” and issue in human psyches to keep players playing, even if they’re simply subscription-based and such criticism has hardly been aimed at them.

    So, what is it? Is it just the convergence of these two issues with the huge crowd which facebook represents that makes this now a burning issue?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for auteur-ship and paying for an experience up-front (after sampling, of course) and hating farmville and its ilk, I do think these questions need answering.

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  21. This post freaked me out by how close it was to some observations I had on Farmville a few months ago: http://richardconroy.blogspot.com/2009/12/grindville-population-74-million.html

    But to see the main designers admit to compromised play experiences still hits hard.

    @MacGuffin Check out My Tribe on facebook (http://www.facebook.com/MyTribe. Its Virtual Villagers ported to a social game, and it s not bad, but its early stages yet. The game scheduling your life element seems to be a bit downplayed thankfully.

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  23. Just a bit of clarity…what I said during my talk at GDC is that you look for patterns of behavior and match them with your understanding of whether they are fun or not. I actually used an example from the work we did on C&C:Generals (best selling PC game in North America for 2003) to illustrate this point.

    Additional confusion probably comes from the comment I made that people tend to repeat behaviors that are fun for them.

    Hope this helps move the discussion forward.

    I’m personally looking forward to all the amazing cool new ideas, and approaches that will be coming into this part of the game business this year. It’s fun to watch how fast things are changing and getting better.

    Social games is a fun part of the business to get into. I would suggest everyone try it out and see if they like it.

  24. In the end, I trust the markets and consumers. These games by Zynga et al are sophisticated slot machines with little redeeming value to the user. Eventually, the users will seek more and the current gen of games will either mutate towards genuinely satisfying users OR die.

    The more difficult question to ask is “why can’t these games continue to succeed?”, since slot machines, MacDonald’s, and Coke seem to do just fine, even though the customer value is severely in doubt (and the customer pain is obvious). My answer: competition. The food and TV markets which are rampant with crap are more controlled distribution channels. The internet/facebook is wide open. So, I contend the increased competition will force user value and games MUST get better (or die).

  25. Thanks for posting! It’s good to read about what game desingers think of their wares. I hope I can strike an even balance between profit and player joy with my game.

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  27. I have spent a lot of time playing “social” games, many Zynga games and have come to the realization that a) largely a waste of time b) the way they lure you in to have to spend money to achieve the results you hope for is scammy and lame c) I’m done with all of them and enjoying the great outdoors.
    d) My advice, put down the computers/iphones and enjoy a lot more life away from the screens

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  29. This whole debate, while understandable in the flash point of the moment, is ultimately much ado about nothing. A different-but-similar creative vs. business hand-wringing went down as the wild west early independent games of the 1980s turned into the companies that would become or evolve into the big bucks AAA publishers of the 1990s and today. It is a bit humorous to read today people waxing for the time of what was once considered giant, faceless companies that stomped out the creative vision and dream of the indie designer!

    Great experiences will always have a place at the table. Farmville may be the flavour of the month, and there might be countless other soulless experiences to follow, but the truly ingenious, beautiful, moving experiences will always find their way thru the noise and have an impact. I think the best games being designed for the last couple years ARE indie games. That is no accident. Who got the standing ovation at GDC: Zynga or Brenda Brathwaite?

    Facebook games have the potential to greatly broaden the PC gaming market. I hasten to say that is a good thing for us all. And if most of us consider, for example, our wine drinking habits or hobbies, you can bet most of us first sipped a Kendall-Jackson or a Yellowtail before figuring out the really good stuff was the Gaia or the Screaming Eagle. If the Facebook games broaden our market category it will eventually be to everyone’s benefit.

    If people like Brian Reynolds are working for companies like Zynga they are speaking with their feet and making a choice to throw into this new culture and agenda. I happen to agree with the vocal creative complaint that Zynga-like companies are making garbage products and exploiting people as opposed to fulfilling them. However I am also anti-capitalist so I suspect my objections are a little more religious in nature.

    The “DLC” model that Facebook games are extending is really not sustainable. The problem with it is that it only takes a few subversives who publish really good games that aren’t constantly taxing the player and consumers will choose those games instead. After all, it is an eminently superior user experience to pay once and play endlessly than only be able to play as far as you are willing to pay. I suspect in the future games will be like productivity software: you can have it for 30 days for a free trial but then you pay the $49 (or whatever) for it. It will be a “best of both worlds” where players are able to try it out without the big price tag but then pay once when the moment is right.

    Regardless, this is not the end of the world as we know it. It is a moment of stress, angst, confusion, concern and uncertainty. This, too, shall pass. And we will find a new normal that will start seeming pretty OK to most. I assure you the very fact Soren is pining for “good old days” that would have the indie designers of the 1980’s rolling over in their graves to even imagine someone could consider them good is proof positive this is an evolutionary and ever-changing process.

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  32. I did an event where Mr. Kai Huang, creator of Guitar Hero gave one of the most inspiring talks of his journey as an entrepreneur, coming from the traditional game space, he said he gave another 10 – 15 years for traditional game, and that the social game is only at the tip of the iceberg, given the sheer number of massive users on the social networks and the lenghty time they spend on.

    Not every one is into playing those head exploding, limb flying, blood splashing, aliens tearing human guts, macho monsters games. Obviously again, the sheer fact that so many people, esp. women and very young kids are playing these light hearted social game, speaks volume. There is a need to satisfy with light and fun games that are entertaining, relaxing, totally non-violent and do not consume hours and hours of hard-core addiction. Ignoring the opportunites to monetize on such following is to shut the window to one’s own face.

    For now, there is still strong market for traditional MMOG, which breeds so many middle men in the ecosystem, of course there is strong interest to guard the status quo. But a diffent game play is set to stir up that monopoly and challenge the stereo type of so called “games” to a much wider adoption. It sure lowers the barrier for entry and open up more opportunites for designers, developers and advertizers. Who is to say there is no innovation and creativity in this brand new world? Whatever might the format be, it will evolve and refine.

  33. Soren — your heading “Soren Johnson’s Game Design Journal” at the top of the page is a link to your personal bio at http://www.designer-notes.com/?page_id=2 . I was expecting a link to the home page of this blog, which is at http://www.designer-notes.com/ . I think the personal bio link should be attached to your name (“Posted by Soren Johnson”) and the blog’s title should link to your blog’s home page. (It’s possible you think “Design Notes” is the name of your blog, but to me it looks like a post title or I-don’t-know-what, but I completely ignored it. Anyway, you have a celebrity blog and its name should include your name.)

    Maybe clicking “End Turn” is the most fun at the end of Civ, but the answer is to tweak the rest until it stops being so, or else make it even more fun (maybe give a reward for how many years you can survive in “auto end turn” without losing your lead). (I personally thought the end game of Civ IV was lots of fun and the best yet, I only auto-clicked End Turn when I was waiting to see the peaceful ending.)

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  39. I completely agree with your last paragraph. As a modder for Civ4, I’ve found that when I worked with the community, my projects were transformed in ways I never envisioned, but were much better for it. Working with the player base creates much happier players, much more publicity, and in the end, a more satisfactory game. It does cost a bit of creative freedom; but if that’s the price of making a truly great game, then I think it is worth it.

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  41. My feeling- as a doe-eyed spectator or fresh pair of eyeballs, take your pick- is that creativity and passion I see in this industry is something that the inevitable push towards business-centric design processes can suppress but not snuff out. It may mean 9 out of 10 games that could be great wind up bland, and that game design as a field advances at a quarter of the rate it could be. But I think the evolving nature of an industry like this means that there’s going to be a big enough crack in the dam sooner or later.

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