We Must Eradicate / Support Social Gaming Before It Ends Life On Earth / So Kittens Can Live Forever

05 Apr
5 April 2011

You couldn’t go ten minutes at GDC  this year without running into someone either raging against or defending the virtue of “social gaming.”  The content of the conference mirrored this, frequently seeming very much like the same arguments attendees were lobbing at one another only delivered on stage (and with somewhat less slurring).  Satoru Iwata, Nintendo CEO, bemoaned the decline of the industry at the hands of smartphone and social-media in his keynote.  The rant session was a collection of people from the social-gaming space ranting against the fact that other ranty people were ranting about them too (probably most mentioned from this being Brathwaite’s call for solidarity).

And now Zynga apparently feels a need to answer critics of their development process, with Brian Reynolds going out of his way to assure people that, hey, there actually is creativity involved in how they make games.

I’ll borrow from the late, great Kurt Vonnegut here and recast his take on overly-concerned literary critics to fit the current situation:

Any developer who expresses rage and loathing for a type of game is preposterous.  He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae.

There are plenty of games I don’t like.  And I’m happy to tell you about all of them, in great detail, loudly and with very liberal use of swears.  But, regardless of what I enjoy, there’s one truth I keep in mind: The reason any game exists is because someone likes to play it.

What’s the issue here anyway?  Social games aren’t really games? 

Something along those lines is usually preamble to a lengthy argument about a working definition for “games,” invariably engineered to either include or exclude social-media anything from the family.  I’ve been present at these often enough now that the suggestion of another prompts a Pavlovian response, causing me to unconsciously hand my American Express to the nearest bartender with instructions to “bring me as much scotch as this will buy.”

It makes no difference if they are “games” or not.  Imagine you get unanimous agreement on a definition one way or another, what changes?  I somehow doubt you’ll see a Zynga press release stating, “we recently learned that what we’re doing isn’t actually games, so we’ve decided to immediately go out of business” or that you’ll hear anyone say, “I used to love playing MafiaVille but I hear that it isn’t really a game so now I don’t.”  Conversely, I doubt GDC 2012 will be filled with people telling you, “I used to think FarmBurg was stupid but now I hear it qualifies as a game so I love it and respect the devs who worked on it.”

While we’re on the subject, if you actually are interested in knowing if these things are games or not, here’s a handy litmus test:

“Hey, mom, what are you doing?”
“Playing a game.”
Grats.  You’re a game.

Or is it that social games rely heavily on metrics?

Zynga’s position at the top of the social gaming heap means that most of this brand of vitriol is pointed in their direction.  Mark Pincus is a serial entrepreneur with a background in finance.  Zynga is his fourth company.  The previous three had nothing to do with gaming.  I’ll go out on a limb and suggest that Zynga was not born of a deep, heartfelt nerd-love of games, rather that Mr. Pincus saw in delivering gaming on social media an opportunity for another successful start-up.

Zynga’s heavy use of metrics thus comes naturally, the result of being a web enterprise first and foremost, and it is unburdened by baggage about any “morally pure” way to make games.  What they’ve demonstrated by applying this practice to social-media gaming is that, for their product and the current state of the market, it works very well.  It’d be amazingly silly of them to not rely heavily upon metrics given the experiences they’ve had thus far.

Using “metrics” to steer design is nothing new to gaming, anyway.  At one of my first E3s, I met a designer working on Madden.  When I asked what that was like, he told me it sucked because there was no interesting design work, as much of the direction was based on how focus groups reacted to potential new features.  Despite this, I don’t remember any debates about Madden’s rightful citizenship in Gameland.

Blizzard collects and analyzes mountains of data, as does Bungie, as does CCP, as do myriad other non-social-media devs.  The degree and intent are different — when these guys look at player data the goal isn’t “make as many humans as possible stick with this as long as possible.”  They aren’t trying to find the font or shade of blue that will attract more people.  But differences in the games partially explain this and Zynga doesn’t suggest that their approach is anything other than what it is.  Brian Reynolds has been pretty clear about the testing they do and the value they see in it and statements from insiders like Andy “it’s not art” Tian (Zynga’s Beijing GM) don’t seem indicative of an effort to convince anyone that they aren’t doing the same thing that the TV networks do when they happen upon a formula that works.

Or is it that you think social gaming is taking away from whatever form of gaming you prefer?

Traditionally, publishers set the direction of the industry by financing the development of games they think will be profitable.  Whenever the Next Big Thing becomes obvious, they move cash in that direction, which means less cash for other things.  So, in that manner, yes, social gaming is gobbling dollars and attention that could be going to other places.

This isn’t unique to social gaming.  Go back through the years and you’ll notice a long line of darlings, including RTSs, FPSs, MMOs, cellphone games (the pre-iPhone and iPhone variety), casual games, in-game advertising, PC games, console games, browser games, free-to-play, World War 2, zombies, DotA games, and so on.  Each of these, to varying degrees, attained a hallowed spot at one point and attracted publisher dollars that would have been spent elsewhere.

It wasn’t that long ago that EA was dropping millions on Jamdat instead of Playfish or that MS was picking up Massive instead of 3DV and Canesta.

Markets change.  I promise you that the social gaming trend is not the end of history.  You’ll return from a GDC at some point in the future and complain that “every freaking talk was about X” with a different value assigned to the variable (my guess for the next: “3D gaming”).  Publisher investment will migrate elsewhere.  The fact that the bumbling dinosaurs with money are showing up to the social-media trough is actually a good sign that the gold rush is winding down.  So, as the old saw goes, if you don’t like the weather now, just wait 15 minutes.  The games you love, whatever they may be, aren’t going away.

And games change too.  You might not like what social gaming has to offer today, as a player or a developer, but there’s no reason that needs to be the case for all eternity.  There are any number of interesting and engaging things that could be happening in the social-media gaming space.  These things aren’t being explored today primarily because a lot of the pressure in this segment is from VC and get-rich-quick “exit strategy vehicle” start-ups, both of which are generally more interested in “proven models.”  But they will be.  And while the current offerings might seem derivative and formulaic, there aren’t a lot of people who think that can continue for many more cycles.  These games need to evolve to survive and creative talent will certainly win that fight (which is one reason Zynga is grabbing experienced game devs at a good clip).

In the end, if you’re infatuated with social games (or any games, for that matter) or cannot stand them, do me a favor and leave it at that.  Nothing is going to ruin everything.  Nothing is going to be so awesome that it renders everything else irrelevant.

Take off the armor and leave the hot fudge sundae alone.

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