How Social Networks Reinvent Game Design

How Social Networks Reinvent Game Design

Anyone who attended the 2010 Game Developers Conference a few months back will remember it as a hard one to forget because the whole expo 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 f**king 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 today though 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 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?

About Soren Johnson
Soren Johnson was lead designer and AI programmer for Sid Meier’s Civilization IV before joining EA Maxis in 2007 to work on Spore as a lead designer/programmer. He is currently building web-based games with EA2D such as the moddable strategystation.com.

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