The Social Nutwork

I have a particularly addictive personality when it comes to computer games. When the Infocom games like Zork first came out, I spent hours on my Commodore 64 plugging away at them to solve their mindless mysteries. I was addicted to several of the Ultima series and even a few of the early primitive online RPGs like Nethack and Angband. When the MMORPG rage started, I was addicted to Ultima Online, then Everquest, then Dark Age of Camelot, then World of Warcraft. However, I have an unusual on/off switch for these games. I can be playing the game nonstop for weeks, and then suddenly quit and never play the particular game again. If I could figure out why I stop cold turkey on these games, I could probably get some decent work as a consultant on MMO projects, but I really don’t know the answer.

One of the big crazes these days is Facebook games. I personally have never been sucked into Facebook, although I did really enjoy the South Park episode that spoofed both Facebook and Tron. I check Facebook mostly to see what people are up to. When I used to work at Wizards, there was a gossip network and if you were within earshot of Mark Rosewater (head Magic designer and former writer for some sitcom I’ll remember later), you were occasionally kept up to date of various goings-on at your company, other companies, and picked up tidbits on what former employees were doing every now and then. Sadly, Mark has been rendered obsolete by modern technology in this area (although it will take many, many years for computers to replace his design skills.)

Nowadays, I can spend a couple minutes and scroll through a few pages of status posts and find out what everyone is up to. I find Facebook to be the catch all for both social and business since the real goal for business connections is to have the contact info for people that can potentially help you out with future employment and Facebook gives you that link in a format that is friendlier to casual people than Linked In or other business-centric sites. For business, it is a self updating Rolodex, with a built in excuse to occasionally reach out to someone without making an overt business approach. On the personal side, the entertainment value is in the user content. However, for many, there is also entertainment value in the games.

Being a core hobby gamer, I find most of the offerings on Facebook to be fairly weak, and I am being generous. To me, most of them are the modern version of the Zork games. You log on for a while, click a few buttons, and some sort of progress happens. Get some of your friends to help you out, or throw a little real world cash in, and you get faster progress towards your ultimate goal of control of the entire Tri-state area! (Having a young son, I watch a lot of children’s shows. Google it if you don’t have kids.) About ten years ago, there was a game called Progress Quest where you created a character and the computer would run the character through the dungeon for you. It was similar to the bot program for Angband, but in Progress Quest there was no option to take control of your character later. You basically just watched your character kill stuff, collect items, and level up in a wide array of meaningless stats. Many of the collection games like Treasure Isle remind me a lot of that game. Most of the light touch time based Facebook games have very little in the way of strategic decisions.

I am not sure if I will ever design in the “Facebook game” area. There is a ton of money being thrown at new Facebook games, and over two-thirds of my former coworkers in the game industry are now working on some form of digital games, many with some focus towards Facebook. The problem is that most of these games are fairly simple collection games with frequent flier rewards built in. While I can design games at that level, so can hundreds of other people, and the main hook elements in these are the continual drivers and innovation to keep players coming back and incentivized to spend actual money, and many of those are more marketing related than game related. It might be very arrogant for me to believe this, (and I am certainly not known for arrogance) but I feel that most of the “game” elements that I could introduce that would be innovative for the platform would be mostly wasted on the majority of the users, who are mostly casual “touch” users that generally do not want more complicated games. I imagine many of the designers who have been approached probably have to navigate this conundrum.

One option might be to have a light touch game that has additional strategy layers built in for the users with an interest in a higher level of game play. Perhaps something along the lines of Farmville meets Dwarf Fortress. (If you are not one of the several hundred players that play Dwarf Fortress, Google that one too. Lots of homework in this month’s column.)  For now, the more complicated and challenging games do not get the exposure, and the popular games don’t have a huge incentive to expand the game play when the current models are attracting such a large audience and there is not a clear indication that the current audience wants something that gamers would consider better.

While Facebook is clearly the top end for keeping up on old friends, coworkers, and crazy cyber stalkers, there are many better destinations if you are interested in gaming, and having a button built into Facebook is not particularly more convenient than clicking a web link on your favorites bar to go to a gaming site, or can fire up any number of games like World of Warcraft, Team Fortress, Starcraft II or any number of multiplayer or single player games.

The same is true for players that are not gamers, but get into gaming due to their exposure from Facebook. If you are ready to graduate from Farmville or Mafia Wars, there are a huge number of existing options available outside of Facebook, and for many of them, the Facebook interface is just a hindrance to play. So that narrows down your viable audience to light touch gamers that have been introduced to games through Facebook and become a beginning gamer, but for some reason fail to make the leap to the extensive available gaming options for someone looking for something more.

The simplest explanation is that these people really don’t want or need anything else and just want the mindless 5 or 10 minutes a day, or in some cases are just OCD and have to complete every map or get to a certain rank before they can become sane again. You are on checking on friends. Why not spend an extra 5 minutes feeding your cows? It is often difficult to look at it from the outside and see whether the games are just another way to kill a few minutes before getting back to work, or whether these poor souls are starving for some meatier offerings and are just biding their time with crops and contract hits until the new wave of superior games comes along.

It would appear to be a tough nut to crack.

-Mike Elliott


5 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. The game’s name is actually Dwarf Fortress. The publisher’s forum has over 22,000 members, so we may hope the game has more than “several hundred” players.

    • MikeElliott,

      You caught me Allen. :) My apologies for the error in the name. It has been over a year since I met the designer and played the game. I hope it was clear that the example was hyperbole. I can’t imagine anyone adding elements to a Facebook game like Farmville would actually try to combine it with Dwarf Fortress, which was picked solely due to it being on the far end of the computer game complexity spectrum. The number estimate was also an attempt to draw contrast to the fact that the solid gamers game, which I in fact liked, was shall we say “Dwarfed” by the 60 million plus users of Farmville, a game many of the readers on the site are probably reluctant to put in the game category with games like Dwarf Fortress.

  2. While I’m not a game designer, I find this an interesting time for gaming. There is a huge audience of casual gamers that Facebook and smartphones are tapping in to, and not many people are using those tools to their advantage. I’m not sure if it would work, but why not create a FB game that pushes players towards more independently published games? Put the “free” version on FB, and a larger more expansive paid version online somewhere.

    Then you have things like the Wii and Microsoft Kinect and Playstation Move that are introducing older (and younger than normal) people into gaming. I can’t see any of these motion controllers working out too well for any kind of competitive game, but they’re certainly pulling in people who don’t normally play games.

    And on top of that, you have websites integrating gaming into their normal functionality, like Foursquare or Gowalla or whathaveyou. I believe there are even websites now that offer services of turning your website into a more “game-like” experience, because it increases response and user participation. It’s crazy; I never would have thought of that.

    I don’t pick up all the board and indie computer games available, but I consider myself a somewhat hardcore gamer, and it’s exciting to watch all this stuff going down. But at the same time, it’s disappointing, because I see people play Farmville or “let’s see how boring we can make this game” games and it makes me cry a little inside, because they’re missing so much more. But maybe that’s all the want.

    It’s someone’s job to turn these casual gamers on to bigger and better things.

  3. Duncan,

    Neat article, and I’d love to hear about this from the other side of the field. Any chance you could get Henry Stern to comment about designing Facebook games for Zenga? Or is he too busy swimming in his Scrooge McDuck sized pool of money right now?

  4. Mathijs,

    blockquote cite=”I feel that most of the “game” elements that I could introduce that would be innovative for the platform would be mostly wasted on the majority of the users, who are mostly casual “touch” users that generally do not want more complicated games.”

    It is my impression, from observing my teen stepdaughter and her friends, that the target audience for Farmville and the likes don’t play the game for any sort of strategic decision-making. The fun appears to lie in giving each other all sorts of gifts and decorating the farm. That is not to say this audience is not interested in more challenging fare, per se. They just don’t go to FB for that.

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