Social Pastimes

In a previous post I wrote:

I look at the most popular Facebook games and only see pastimes, idle toys requiring action with little thought, minimal direct competition, and even rarer losses. Oh, and tens of millions of players.

I’ve kept an eye on the established game industry’s reaction and seen a lot of comments about how the successes of Zynga (Mafia Wars, Vampire Wars, Farmville) and other companies has been based on novelty and cheap distribution. The best essay is Zynga and the End of the Begining. If you’re interested in the growing wave of social games I strongly recommend reading the whole thing (uh, and if you’re not, now is a good time to give up on this blog post), but the specific bits I want to talk about are:

Viral game developers, such as Zynga, have little or no commitment to developing deep or rich game experiences because the market has not really rewarded that kind of activity. However that lack of depth is precisely the reason why viral gaming is showing signs of weakness typical in any runaway success.

Viral gaming up until this point has largely been a game of distribution plays rather than content plays, which is why the developers don’t really spend a lot of time on the depth of their games. In online gaming such as massive multiplayer games or first-person shooters players do not need nudging to come back and play again and again because the experience of playing is so good that they choose to return. No Facebook game comes anywhere close to offering that. They are closer to idle distractions.

Zynga’s games are not being built with renewal in mind. They are experiences built to appeal to novices and they inherently assume that novices are all there is. So they are simple to play, undemanding, lack challenge or consequence, and rely on time-oriented tasks. They may not realise it but Zynga, Playdom and Playfish (and others) are quietly educating millions of novices to expect more and then not delivering it to them.

There’s a simpler explanation that’s less palliative to the gaming industry: there’s a much larger audience available for these games than the ones they’ve been making, even making in the “casual games” genre.

This mass audience wants games without much of any conflict between players, though they’ll sometimes put up with a little for the sake of feeling dominant (eg. Mafia Wars’s fairly impersonal player attacks). They don’t want “Game Over” screens, they may not want any loss to even be possible.

That rules out direct competition, and a lot of indirect competiotion, through the ability to show off successes to friends is essential (not just useful for distribution).

If I’m being cynical, I’d say this adds up to offering people the illusion of advancement and improvement greased by an entertaining spectacle of cute graphics and lighthearted story. Maybe “game” isn’t the right word, maybe we should call these “toys” or “pastimes” or something else to differentiate them from games where players advance skills in competition against AI or players.

My game design keeps mutating and I think it’s turning into one of these passtimes. I started out with something very much like a contest and now it’s about self-expression and collaborative art. It will beta (one of these decades) with very few or no game mechanics at all. I don’t really know what to call it, even though it started as a game.