At the risk of understatement, social gaming is huge. The phenomenon of free-to-play, microtransaction-supported games has grown exponentially in recent years, to the point that the estimated worth of leading social publisher Zynga was pegged at $5.51 billion, overtaking that of traditional publishing giant Electronic Arts earlier this month.
Every month, more than 360 million people play Zynga games like FarmVille, Mafia Wars, and FrontierVille through Facebook, MySpace, and iOS devices. To put that number in perspective, that's more than the total number of votes in the last three US presidential elections combined, with more than 1 million to spare.
While social publishers like Zynga, Playdom, and Playfish are presiding over a period of explosive growth in the gaming industry, they are also the cause of much consternation in the development community, partly because of the way the free-to-play business model impacts design choices in these games. The most successful social games to date have used very simple gameplay mechanics, encouraging neither strategy nor dexterity but regular interaction with the game. Although free to play, the games also typically have a microtransaction component, where players can spend real money for in-game items or performance boosts.
Players can also reap some of the same rewards by recruiting their friends to sign up for the game, with each new user giving the developer another potential microtransaction customer. Those transactions aren't always of the "micro" variety, either. In his Game Developers Conference 2009 keynote address, Playfish cofounder Sebastian de Halleux talked about one of Pet Society's more popular items, a sofa shaped like lips that costs players $40 worth of virtual currency.
Addictive or Exploitive?
Although undeniably successful, the existing social game framework has been the subject of much debate among game developers from every corner of the game industry, from the mainstream to the indie community. Some, like Super Meat Boy creator Edmund McMillen, are particularly strident in their assessment.
"Social games tend to have a really seedy and abusive means of manipulation that they use to rope people in and keep them in," McMillen said. "People are so tricked into that that they'll actually spend real money on something that does absolutely nothing, nothing at all…There's a difference between addicting and compelling, and I think all designers want to push toward compelling. Crack is addicting, but it's not a fun game. It's a bad thing. It feels good when you're doing it, I'm sure, but it's not something you want to brag to your friends about doing. It's the difference between bragging to your friends about being addicted to running and being addicted to crack. It's, 'Man, I just ran a marathon and I'm getting better,' versus, 'Man, I just did crack for a week, and now I want so much more.'"
Sid Meier knows a thing or two about addicting and compelling games. His celebrated Civilization series of turn-based strategy games is notorious for sucking gamers in, so much so that the latest installment was promoted with a series of "CivAnon" video shorts. The clips featured rock-bottom accounts from members of a fictional 12-step program for gamers hooked on the series. Despite the marketing, Meier is hesitant to criticize games--his own or others--for being addictive.
"I think that's just the wrong word," Meier said. "It's fun to play. As game designers, we want to make an experience that you want to continue to play and play again and replay. So I'm hesitant to make that a bad thing: that games that are fun, that games are things you want to do, that you want to keep doing. Because that's our goal: to create a great experience. I just want to be careful that we don't make [it] a negative that games are too good. 'They're too much fun, they're too compelling!' Games should be fun. They should be compelling. They should make you want to play."
That's the goal Meier has for his current project, a Facebook-exclusive version of Civilization. While the developer hasn't detailed exactly how the game will work just yet, chances are it will be a more straight-faced attempt at a social game than the first effort of Ian Bogost, associate professor in the School of Literature, Communication, and Culture at Georgia Tech and cofounder of Persuasive Games.
Microtransactions, Macro Trepidation
Bogost was so put off by the trend that he created a satirical Facebook game of his own. Cow Clicker is a game that gives players a single cow that they are allowed to click on once every six hours, and it tallies the total number of clicks made. By purchasing the game's "Mooney" with microtransactions, players can click their cows more often or swap them out with premium cows costing as much as $500 worth of in-game currency.
If players can get their friends to sign up for Cow Clicker as well, they can share clicks and earn rewards more quickly, like a bronze cowbell for the fashion-forward bovine. Bogost said most social game players will never give the developers a dime in microtransactions, which leads to the industry mimicking an uncomfortable business model.
"There are certain industries in which the majority of revenues come from the minority of the customers," Bogost said. "Without citing numbers, it is generally incredibly sinful, morally questionable industries that are like this: alcohol sales, gambling, and tobacco. And we might want to ask ourselves what we think about that. When you have a game that does not have a spending cap and the vast majority of revenue is coming from a minority of players, 10 percent of players generating 90 percent of revenues, how do we feel about that? It's not a simple question, but it is something I think can't simply be brushed under the rug. We can't say, 'Well players will do what they want, and it's none of my business how they spend their free time.' A lot of game developers take that position. I think that's unfortunate."
Bogost also took issue with the way social games treat friends as resources, saying there was "some violence" involved in the process. It's something people do all the time, he admitted, in networking to find a job or getting a message out to a broader audience. But he worries many Facebook games do too little to actually cultivate or strengthen friendships.
"These games seem to consider their friends as mere resources rather than individuals with whom they want to develop sophisticated and expanded relationships," Bogost said. "They rely on compulsion. They prey upon the time we spend away from them. They have this insidious quality of being able to buy out of playing the game entirely through microtransactions. These things bother me, personally, as aesthetics."
Not all the social game concerns are ethical in nature. Chris Hecker, Spore developer and creator of the upcoming SpyParty, sees social games as a potential threat to the long-term health of games. Echoing a presentation he gave at this year's Game Developers Conference, Hecker expressed concern with games that rely on external enticements to keep players engaged. According to Hecker, psychological research suggests that rewarding people for a task like playing games--as with achievements and trophies, or the aforementioned bronze cowbell--can cause them to derive less enjoyment from that task.
"My worry is from the player's standpoint. If the research carries over to gameplay as it does in other [fields], it will actually turn people off games in the long run. It emphasizes the shallow, dumb, non-interesting tasks, and it decreases motivation for interesting tasks that might be intrinsically motivated."
Hecker said his hope for games is that they become the preeminent art form of the 21st century in the same way film was for the 20th century. His concern is that the industry is engaging in trends now that will hold it back from achieving that goal in the future.
"The way you become the 'preeminent art form of the 21st century' is not by giving people more achievements and stuff," Hecker said. "It's by making deeper and more compelling games."
While some might find the social gaming model insidious, other designers find the nascent nature of the genre downright inspirational. One such creator is Spry Fox cofounder and chief creative officer Daniel Cook, whose career has been following an increasingly experimental trajectory since breaking into the industry with Epic Games' 1995 PC shoot-'em-up Tyrian. During a stint with Microsoft, Cook worked on titles like the live game show 1 vs. 100, and for Spry Fox, he has developed the browser-based Steambirds and games for Amazon's Kindle e-reader (Triple Town and Panda Poet).
"I personally adore the microtransactions model," Cook said. "To me, there's always been something fundamentally dishonest about the way retail works. Most games are purchased without reading the reviews. There's a box on the shelf and someone spent an insane amount of marketing dollars to get someone to look at the pretty picture on the box and buy the game. As a game designer, I would much rather have someone try my game for free, and if you like it and find value there, pay a little bit of money. I'm absolutely in love with that model."
Taking Measure of Metrics
Another benefit Cook has spotted in the social gaming model is the abundance of metrics available. It's easy for developers to make minor changes in social games, take them live for a short period of time, and get detailed data on exactly how the player base reacted.
"A lot of game design historically has been designing in the dark," Cook said. "You don't know what people think, and more importantly, you don't know what they're going to do. The metrics give us very up-to-date, rapid information on areas of gameplay that we never would have had insight into previously. It's like someone is turning on a light bulb for the whole design process."
Cook acknowledged the possibility that some designers may rely too heavily on metrics, but he said they were just tools to be used judiciously, like focus groups or a designer's own instincts.
"I've seen intuition create incredibly horrible games, and I've seen metrics create incredibly horrible games," Cook said. "If you use the tools badly, then yes, they will lead you in the wrong direction."
Meier downplayed the impact metrics have on the overall design of his games, saying metrics primarily help with small-scale optimization.
"Most of our design decisions are pretty big and broad," Meier explained. "Take this in, put this out, double that. The idea that we need to add 3 percent to this or make this green instead of blue…those aren't the kind of decisions we focus on to make the game. Our game is based on big ideas, fun concepts, and interesting ways to play a variety of strategies, so metrics are not really at this point a big part of our game design process."
McMillen said Super Meat Boy was designed without the aid of metrics. And while there was one focus testing session for the game, most of the feedback was thrown out. (One tester suggested that having a static loading screen would be preferable to a cutscene that couldn't be skipped for the first few seconds because the level was loading in the background.)
"The funny thing about [metrics] and business in general is the idea that they think they're perfecting something and they're going to be more successful by perfecting it," McMillen said. "When in reality, I guarantee you something will come out in the next few years that will beat out these games, and it will be something nobody knows about, and something nobody knows they wanted, because the thing that people really want is something they don't know exists."
One common theme expressed to varying degrees by all of the developers above is that the notion of a social game isn't inherently broken and that things could get better.
"I'm sure you can make a responsible, fun, even competitive Facebook game," McMillen said. "Facebook has the ability to become like an Xbox Live system, where if a good game came out and was fun like a Geometry Wars type game and you could compete for high scores, I think that would be just as successful and a more responsible gameplay experience."
Describing himself as naturally optimistic, Hecker focused on how far Facebook games have already come.
"If you look at Facebook before Zynga and Playfish and all these guys, they were selling apps that let you put fake vomit on your friend's wall," Hecker said. "There was no gameplay whatsoever; it was just junk you would spam on your friends' walls. And the game developers basically put all those guys out of business by making just the simplest games. And that gives me some hope because it means that maybe deeper gameplay will steamroller over the current list of really shallow games. It's not a huge step forward, but it seems like it's going in the right direction."
Finally, Meier took a long-range perspective on the issue, like a Civilization player on the first turn, looking at a lone settler unit on barren plains and hoping in time to turn it into the heart of a globe-spanning empire.
"If you're not thrilled with the current crop of games, we're still in the early experimental phase," Meier said. "The first computer games weren't all that awesome, and the first networking games weren't like what we're seeing today. Give us a little time to explore this technology and see what we come up with."