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12 Mar 2011

This article is a bit late on account of my return from GDC dropping me straight into a pretty insane work-week, and also my random decision to re-do the site last weekend (hooray for priorities!)

While there was an entire Social and Online Games Summit at GDC this year, I attended just two sessions: a debate on the legitimacy of social games, and the annual rant panel for which this year's topic was "Social Game Developers Rant Back". (They're ranting back against the anti-social games attitude that was prevalent at last year's GDC, if you were wondering.)

Instead of just writing up my notes on each session, I'm going to merge together the various arguments from both sessions, along with some of my own opinions and responses, in an attempt to get a little broader look at this year's view of social gaming.

Driving Social Interaction

One oft-repeated argument in favor of social games was that they drive real-world social interaction. Nabeel Hyatt (Zynga) related an anecdote about a group of 40-year-old housewives who meet every week to play social games together, saying it resembled a LAN party. Curt Bererton (ZipZapPlay) indicated that social games have increased his own interaction with friends and family; he also talked about how in-game gifts like customized greeting cards, cupcakes, and other items can act as triggers for out-of-game conversations.

Bryan Reynolds (Zynga) said that he got into social games mainly because he loves Facebook, and that social games are doing audiences a service by giving them more ways to socialize. He also suggested that part of the attraction of the space is that it reaches larger and more diverse audiences than traditional games. But like traditional games, he asserted that social games are full of interesting choices, patterns, discovery, and surprise. He did admit that social games aren't yet where he wants them to be, but he seemed convinced that they're on the right track.

I understand these perspectives, and I agree that promoting social interaction is a good thing. But I'm not sure any arguments against social games also include arguments against promoting social interaction, nor do they suggest that social games have absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever. Highlighting this feature of social games seems like it's evading the debate.

The Irony of Legitimacy

Hyatt raised an interesting point: the games industry has fought for decades to legitimize itself (with a great deal of success) but now seems hellbent on de-legitimizing its own social games sector. Ryan Henson Creighton (Untold Entertainment)[1] noted that we often brag about games making more money than Hollywood, but when Zynga comes along and makes a lot of money we complain that it shouldn't be this way. Brenda Brathwaite (Loot Drop) reminded the audience that our industry has dealt with many similar conflicts before[2], and that we always came out stronger when we banded together rather than fracturing apart.

These are thought-provoking arguments which seem to highlight some hypocrisy by critics of social games. To a certain extent, this is the "You made your bed, now sleep in it" argument: we wanted games to take their place alongside other mainstream media, to be considered legitimate art and legitimate business, to make a lot of money and to touch millions of lives... and now we're here, and we're holding up our hands and saying, "Wait, no, this isn't right."

But to an extent, it isn't right. When Bererton started talking about the artistic merits of social games and Ian Bogost (Georgia Institute of Technology) cut in with a snarky, "Where's the art?" he captured the feelings of many of us in the room: that the idea of social games has much more potential than their modern execution has bothered to realize. We got mainstream, we got culturally legitimate, and we made a lot of money, but we lost something somewhere along the way. Sure we're connecting people, but as Bogost said, what we're really doing is turning our friends into resources. Is that the ultimate expression of social games? Is that what we really wanted to achieve all this time? I think for most of us, the answer is a resounding "No!"

Metrics vs. The Ivory Tower

Hyatt talked briefly about metrics, and while there was (curiously) almost no discussion on that topic outside of his own comments, his point still merits examination. He asserted that metrics bring the game designer out of the ivory tower, creating a feedback loop for design iteration that attends to the needs of the audience rather than the whims of the designer.

For many in the industry, "metrics" seems to have become a dirty word. But as Bererton at one point reminded us, metrics can be used for good or for evil. In my opinion, the correct relationship between the designer and the data is that the designer should use the data to understand the player's subjective experience, but make decisions based on what the designer means to communicate and not what the player prefers. The designer's vision is the soul of the game, its fundamental expression. If you trade that away and let the metrics control your decisions, you might end up with a commercially successful game, but it will still be a soulless one.

But to be fair to Hyatt's point, if you ignore the data entirely then you really have no idea if the player is experiencing anything remotely like what you intended to express, and you're liable to miss the mark entirely. Metrics are a means by which we can compare subjective experiences. That they're often not used that way is not a failing of the concept, but of its execution.

An Industry of Clones

One of the most common criticisms of the social games space in recent years has been that they are an army of clones. Zynga in particular has come under fire for this: critics claim a clear lineage from Farm Town to FarmVille, from Social City to CityVille, and so on.

Hyatt defended this accusation by asserting that first-person shooters are all quite similar and that the formula for TV sitcoms hasn't changed in decades. He said this indicates that those creators have found something that works for their audiences, so they'll keep providing that for as long as it keeps working. He also asserted that FarmVille and CityVille have in fact built new innovations on top of their predecessors.

Daniel James (Three Rings) was more sympathetic to this criticism, indicating that the perception of rampant, outright cloning is a major factor in traditional game developers shying away from the social games space entirely. He also noted that a culture of clones creates a very difficult environment for independent developers who might want to get into social games: an indie's only recourse is to innovate, but then a huge, well-established company (like Zynga?) comes along and better executes that innovative idea, effectively killing the indie which is now in no position to compete.

Scott Jon Siegel (Playdom) railed enthusiastically against his own sector, asserting that social games were in a much better place two years ago than they are today. Two years ago, he said, social games showed signs of creativity and innovation, citing games like Parking Wars, Bejeweled Blitz, and Mouse Hunt. He said these were genuinely interesting games, but then Farm Town came along and the industry became totally fixated on that game's success. "Two years ago we made a hard right turn and never looked back," he said. "We need to start over."

This is probably my biggest complaint about social games. The Farm Town formula, subsequently immortalized by Zynga in FarmVille, seems like it's become the de facto blueprint for the modern social game. But we're looking at a platform and a paradigm which are capable of things games have never been capable of before!

I want to know why games like Neptune's Pride and Blight of the Immortals never seem to come up in conversations about social games, and why so few social games work that way. I want to know why social games are about using your friends as resources, rather than truly playing with (or against) them. I want to know why the social graph is still seen as a tool for viral marketing and not an honest gameplay opportunity. I want to know why social games and ARGs don't have a million times more cross-pollenation. I want to know why social games don't try to introduce people to new ideas, teach them new skills, or even guide them to discover things about each other. I want to know why social games go so far out of their way to limit your interaction, literally down to "clicks per day". I want to know why social games are content with the fantasy of labor[3] and why they don't encourage their audiences to aspire to more. And most of all, I want to know why social games aren't actually fucking social.


I was a major skeptic of social games going in, and this year's GDC didn't really change that. However, I did return with a a better understanding of (if not agreement with) the arguments in favor of social games and (I think?) an improved ability to articulate myself on this topic.

One thing that became clear to me -- and in retrospect it should perhaps have been obvious -- is that there really are designers in the social games space who are not happy with the modern social game, and who are very passionate about moving that form away from its present failings and into a future where social games do much better both at being "social" and at being "games". As Brenda Brathwaite said, "I have seen the strip miners and their entry into games... They are not one of us, nor are they from us." And while I haven't yet seen these designers' labors bear fruit -- at least not in the sense of moving social games in the direction I personally would like to see them go -- it is at least comforting to me to know that there are people within the space who are as critical of it as the rest of us.


[1] Ryan Henson Creighton was not actually on the rant panel, but earned his five minutes of fame anyway by cleverly exploiting the makeshift, audience-oriented social game conducted alongside the rants. He wrote up a great piece about it here.

[2] A transcript of Brenda Brathwaite's impassioned rant about game industry solidarity can be found here.

[3] The "fantasy of labor" was actually the subject of a GDC talk I did not attend, but which was written up by Darius Kazemi here.

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