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18 Apr 2010

I recently criticized Bill Mooney's acceptance speech at GDC for Zynga's "Best New Social/Online Game" award (for FarmVille), and excerpts from that started a journey across the internets. Subsequently, I've been involved in a number of conversations -- often spirited debates -- about the good and bad of social games, what effects they're really having on the industry, and whether my attitude toward them is justified.

One point of clarity: while the articles that quoted me are about the intra-industry controversy around Zynga (and social games in general), my criticism in particular was not targeted that broadly. I felt that significant aspects of Bill Mooney's acceptance speech were inappropriate in the context of the GDC Awards (specifically his taking a shot at the indie game developers and fellow award recipients in the room), but I didn't offer an opinion directly toward Zynga or FarmVille, or social games as a whole.

With respect to the broader social games space, I'm doing that now. ;)

I look at social games through a few lenses:

  • Do I want to play social games?
  • Do I want to work in the social games space?
  • Are social games exploitative, or even unethical?

Let's explore, shall we?

Play Them?

As a player, I have yet to see a social game that appeals to me. To be honest, I'm usually turned off by the amount of automated Facebook spam I get from friends who are playing social games, to the point that I'm sick of the game before I've even taken a look at it. Although I have made a bit of an informal game out of blocking social games, so I guess there's a silver lining. ;)

I don't view social games as particularly engaging; I'm bored by the very concept of them. MMOs, at least, feel like proper games to me, even though there are clear similarities between the two in terms of being deliberately-designed time- and money-sinks. I just don't see the appeal of manipulating a Facebook account in a controlled way and calling that a game: I have way more interesting things to spend my time on.

The fact that I'm uninterested in playing social games doesn't mean nobody should play them, however. That there are all new kinds of games showing up that don't interest me speaks to the expanding diversity of our industry, and that can only be a good thing. The "core gamer" market won't evaporate, and any perceived shrinkage in that sector owes only to the fact that it's becoming more and more clear how much of a niche it's always been: it just hasn't had competition before. I'm okay with being a niche player, and letting everyone else do their thing.

Develop Them?

As a game designer, I can see some interesting opportunities in the concept of social games, but thus far I have yet to see a single product attempt to explore those opportunities. Social gaming is a business buzzword right now, in my view, and that unrestrained profit motive is stifling creative innovation. As such, I have absolutely no desire to enter this space at this time. Maybe the business end of things will quiet down in a few years -- it seems inevitable that this social games bubble will eventually burst -- and there'll be more room to design for the sake of the game. But right now, it looks to me like social game designers are stuck designing business opportunities more often than they are designing games.

And that's fine too, if that's the sort of thing you like doing. But I'm not a businessman: I don't get excited talking about quarterly reports, shareholders, venture capital, ROI, or IPOs. I know what I need to know about those things to be a [hopefully] successful game designer in the commercial game development industry, but business is the part of my job that I have to do, not the part that I want to do. So why would I go into a social games space where, as far as I can tell, it's currently all about the business?

Condemn Them?

Probably the biggest point of industry contention over social games is the accusation that they are designed to exploit our inherent psychological weaknesses of compulsion and addiction, for profit. (B.F. Skinner has almost become a household name in just a few short months, it seems.)

I do get a bit uncomfortable when I look at the business models of many social games today. I feel more or less the same about the modern MMO, about the free-to-play sector, and about some of the early experiments with DLC (the worst of which seems to be largely phased out now, thankfully). I wouldn't go so far as to call any of these games "unethical", as long as they're up-front with consumers about their business model. But from a pure game design standpoint, I feel like leaning on the psychology of addiction to satisfy a profit motive may be chilling creative exploration into other kinds of interactive experiences.

One can certainly argue that "other kinds of interactive experiences" simply belong somewhere other than the social games space... and that may well be true. Is it valid to want social game designers to create an experience like that of Heavy Rain? Does that even make sense? Perhaps not. Maybe experiences like Heavy Rain necessarily belong to the single-player space, or the home console space, or the long-form space, or whatever other classification you want to assign it.

Ultimately, social games exist because there is an apparent demand for them. Zynga makes eleventy billion dollars off a glorified Facebook app, because there are eleventy billion people who enjoy tinkering with that app enough to shell out some cash for it. If those people are enjoying themselves, then far be it from me to suggest that they are wrong for wanting to play FarmVille, or that Zynga is wrong for developing it. My taste doesn't dictate the world.

My biggest fear -- which is, admittedly, probably irrational -- is that the apparent financial success of modern social games will broadly motivate our industry's business interests toward that sort of design. And since our business interests (i.e. publishers and investors) provide the the means by which we game designers create entertainment (i.e. money and resources), I fear a future in which "game design" gives way to "business design". That's a future in which I, as a game designer, would have to either adapt or die... and yes, I'll admit it: that thought bothers me a lot.

More rationally, demand continues to exist for other kinds of experiences, including experiences more in line with my own taste. Where there's demand, the American free-market system incentivizes a supply, so I doubt an apocalyptic takeover of the industry by social games will actually come to pass. In reality, we'll probably spend a few years baby-stepping in that direction before the bubble bursts and the cycle starts anew. I'll continue to design games, and leave the business design to the business people.


In summary:

  • As a player, social games bore the hell out of me.
  • As a designer, I think social games have far more potential than their unrestrained profit motive allows them to explore.
  • The social games bubble will eventually burst. Real innovation may follow soon thereafter.
  • They're not inherently unethical, but they do lean on the psychology of addiction as a financial crutch.
  • People are free to make and play what they want, regardless of my taste.

I do want to leave you with this sobering thought, from Psychochild's Blog:

I think this focus on psychological tricks is one reason why people are wary about the "metrics-driven" design of new social games that focus on profitability over fun: it does seem a bit much like the psychological tricks that casinos use. But, while there are resources to warn people about the dangers of gambling and programs to help people with gambling problems, we don't have the same thing for social games. Again, I'd rather not get to the point where we need to have these types of support networks and education, because strict government regulation comes shortly thereafter.

There are consequences to leaning on the psychology of addiction too much, whether or not it's profit-motivated. All game designers, whether in the social games space or otherwise, should respect that.

Posted In:

business game-design social-games video-games