The Problem with Social Games

The Problem with Social Games

The fish are belly up, the crops withered. The restaurants have failed and the cities gone stagnant. My empires and my superheroes… all forgotten. I surf Facebook on a wave of destruction and neglect. Should I feel guilty?

The idea of playing games online with my friends is certainly appealing, which is a big reason that I have spent virtual lifetimes in MMOs. So the idea of a “social” game should really interest me, but does the current crop of social games really satisfy that urge? The MMOs I’ve played gave me way more than my money’s worth, countless hours of adventure and exploration, excellent companionship and tons of gameplay. You know, something I’d actually pay for!

Social games, so far, remind me of a nagging wife who constantly demands more money to buy more crap. She’s never satisfied. And you can never just sneak out of the house to have a beer with your friends. She catches you before you can shut the door. And that’s how these games are. Every time a game “knows” I’m playing, it interrupts my activities to try to coerce me into buying something – with real cash! And it does sneaky things, like making the button it wants you to press all colorful and the other button – the one I usually want to press – drab and gray, like an option in Windows that doesn’t work. Some games will put the “close window” button in different places for each successive nag screen, just to mess with me. I know it’s nothing personal, and they’re just trying to “monetize” the offering, which took them maybe four months to produce and is designed to rake in money from the 1.5% of people who succumb to the nagging, but it’s not my idea of fun.

Then there’s the fact that every social game on Facebook is in permanent beta! What’s with that? The way I see it, you play beta in order to help a company refine their game, then you stop playing beta and play the launch title. Apparently, despite the wads of money being accumulated in these games, they aren’t release candidates yet. So, maybe I should wait for them to be completed.

Even if you really love social games, how do you keep up? With tiny barriers to entry, social games have sprung up like mushrooms in a cow pasture after a rain, but without quite the psychedelic promise. What’s a gamer to do? Every game requires maintenance (equals time and attention), so if you try to keep up with the virtual Joneses while keeping all your empires expanding, cities thriving, restaurants serving and crops planted and harvested, you may as well quit your job and just play games full time. Come to think of it, that doesn’t sound bad… If they would only pay me to play those games…. Nope. No such luck. So I move on and leave the dead fish and spoiled crops behind in search of the next fish, crops, empire or whatever.

You can probably tell by now that I have issues with social games. So why do I play them? Let me count the ways:

First, it’s my business to know what’s going on in the game industry, and social games are what’s going on, big time.

Second, lots of my real-life friends are playing, so it’s fun to compete with them – give them a head start, then climb up the rankings ahead of them. Stuff like that.

Third? OK, sometimes they are fun – for a while. I mean, figuring out the min/max strategy for FarmVille was sort of fun, and I thought Playdom’s Social City wasn’t too bad when I started, but I soon grew tired of those and other games I tried, or maybe it was the nagging and the manipulative tricks.

Fourth, I am curious. I admit it. I fully expect social games to become interesting and, well, more game-like. And I’m seeing signs of life…

Today I’m playing three social games. I would play more, but I just don’t have the bandwidth – and anyway I’m lazy and get tired of switching apps and dealing with the often klunky Facebook UI, but that’s a whole other story. At any rate, I’m playing Restaurant City, Ravenwood Fair and CityVille.

I’ve been playing Restaurant City for a while. I’m impressed by some of the customization my friends have accomplished. Their restaurants are lavish and actually pretty imaginative. However, I’ve reached that stage with the game where I pop in a couple of times a day, restart my restaurant, do some clicking around, and leave. A matter of scant minutes a day. I am thinking of quitting, but it’s such a small bit of work that I keep making an appearance. It has become a mostly mindless habit.

I play Ravenwood Fair on and off, in part because it’s quirky, doesn’t take itself too seriously, and does remind me of a game. Also, because it isn’t a terrible nag. Ravenwood Fair has a variety and uniqueness to it that, for me, sets it apart. A lot of people I know are playing it, too. I don’t know how long I’ll keep playing, but it’s a good sign that I would play each session longer if I didn’t run out of energy. I see Ravenwood Fair as a sign that these games are getting better. Full disclosure:  It was created by a friend, and I like supporting his game.

When I began playing CityVille, despite what I think is a really nonsensical name, I was cringing. “Not another Zynga game,” I cried. But lots of my friends were playing it, and I had to see what new tricks Zynga had up its sleeve. There’s no question they deserve my respect, if not my love. So, I took the plunge – and was pleasantly surprised. CityVille turned out to be somewhat fun, and moreover, it doesn’t nag me – not much anyway. It doesn’t make everything I want to do cost cash, and I can play it the way I like to play. Moreover, they’ve added some nice features. I see an animation of exactly what my friends did when they visited my city. I can build franchises in my friends’ cities and watch my HQ buildings grow impressively tall – which I suppose suggests some kind of effective phallic metaphor. There are lots of elements that have been added to the game that make it interesting, yet it doesn’t seem bloated or overly complex. The main reason I like it, though, is that it seems to respect me more than the games that use what I call “the Zynga model.” So maybe – just maybe – this means that there’s a new Zynga model, and it’s going to be more fun, with less nag.

So I keep playing, seeing signs that social games are starting to mature, starting to become something I really do want to play, instead of being a daily chore, like doing the dishes and taking out the trash…

Now, if they could just get it out of beta…

About Rusel DeMaria
Game writer, consultant and designer, Rusel DeMaria first began hanging around video games in 1967 with Space War. A lifetime later: Founding editor and creative director for Prima Publishing, 60+ books, senior magazine editor and game designer/consultant/analyst with an ongoing passion for the best games have to offer.

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