Social game developers rant back

Developers take to the stage to share their thoughts on why social games matter.


Who was there: Chris Hecker (formerly at EA, now independent); Trip Hawkins (Digital Chocolate); Brenda Brathwaite (Loot Drop); Ian Bogost (independent); Brian Reynolds (Zynga); Steve Meretzky (Playdom); and Scott Jon Siegel (Playdom).

What they talked about: The GDC rant sessions are a chance for developers to get together and share their ideas and thoughts on topical issues in the industry. This year, the conference offered social developers a chance to fight back against the vitriol directed at them from within the industry.

BRENDA BRATHWAITE: Although admitting she has been making social games for only two years, Brathwaite resisted turning on her "fellow" developers who have supported her in the industry for the past 30 years, and thus refused to talk about the current state of social gaming and how some developers view the issue. However, she used past examples to illustrate the point that throughout the years, the gaming industry has been forced to defend itself time and time again against the world at large. Within the industry, too, there have been many rifts: when graphics were introduced, replacing text-based games, many thought this spelled the end of gaming; the same thing happened again and again with things like cutscenes, mature themes, and the introduction of consoles. "We stood together, you and me, because we love games," Brathwaite said. Brathwaite recognized that current social games do not care about gameplay, or about being fun. But the developers at GDC today are not making those kinds of games; they want to create compelling experiences, not just for core gamers but for everyone. "We want to make great games, even for the 43-year-old Facebook mother, because she deserves a great f***ing game too."

BRIAN REYNOLDS: Reynolds said that he has heard a lot of criticisms aimed at social games lately, and it doesn't sit well with him. The reason he became a social game developer was because he loves creating something that puts people in touch with each other and growing the gaming audience. "I’m doing this because I love it and I have a chance to talk to an audience that's larger than we've ever had before." Reynolds then told some personal stories about people he knows who have been socially empowered through social gaming. He ended by saying that social games are real games because they are fun and they are full of interesting choices, which, at the end of the day, is the definition of gaming.

STEVE MERETZKY: Meretzky's talk was about the fact that a lot of executives in the games industry are under the impression that they can create games better than designers can; he related some horror stories on the topic, most of which involved CEOs telling game designers that they're not needed. He said the playing field is always changing with the introduction of new features--from text to graphics, PCs to consoles, single-player to multiplayer, core to casual, and retail to digital. This means that designers are continually learning about the game world, and thus a good game comes not from a single idea but from thousands of hours of thought and planning.

CHRIS HECKER: Hecker began by saying he thought he was going to speak about gamification (and gave a shout-out to Jane Mcgonigal, who was apparently in the audience), but instead wrote a talk about the need to insert more complex human interaction into games. Hecker said that art and entertainment are important to society, but each medium has its own breadth of emotions that it can draw out of an audience--for example, a Velazquez painting can make a viewer feel all sorts of different things, but a game can make a player feel only a small number of things. Hecker calls this "potential unreached"--that is, the emotional bandwidth of other art forms dwarfs that of video games right now. This needs to be expanded--games currently cannot express a lot, and for an art form to work, it needs the gamut of possible emotions it can evoke in its audience to be as wide as possible. "We need more human interaction in games," Hecker said. "And please: no more aliens or orcs." Hecker closed by saying that adding human interaction to games does not have to be difficult; he then played a clip of Fumito Ueda's 2001 PS2 title Ico to demonstrate how the relationship between Ico and Yorda is expressed through game mechanics (that is, that they have to work together).

SCOTT JON SIEGEL: Siegel began his rant by saying: "You're doing it wrong." By this, he meant that all social game developers, while getting some things right (like making money and engaging a wide audience) are getting the most important part of the game-making process wrong--making games that are good. Since making social games is his job, Siegel lamented the fact that he has to be depressed every day at the current state of social gaming. Two years ago, he said, the genre was showing potential with games such as Parking Wars and Mouse Hunt. "I can't name anything in the last two years that has been as interesting as those games. Successful, yes. But good? No. What happened?" According to Siegel, one game is to blame for this drastic shift in casual game development: Farm Town (Slashkey). Siegel says this game became popular on Facebook and, as a result, influenced the entire social games industry to become fixated on success. Companies began to mimic Farm Town's model and patterns, and soon enough, all social games were carbon copies of this one title. The best thing to do to reverse this is to start over, Siegel said. He called on all social developers to look to those early examples of good social gaming and to the mobile space for ideas and inspiration and to work together to start making good social games once more.

TRIP HAWKINS: Hawkins' rant was about business and the problem of closed and open platforms. He called out Nintendo for introducing a license agreement, but later said that at least the publisher was open about "screwing" developers. On the other hand, companies like Apple take a lot of the revenue made from their applications, effectively leaving developers with nothing. "After Apple takes its cut, developers get around $4,000. That isn't even enough money to buy a good foosball table," Hawkins joked. He ended by saying that the browser is a good place to go for developers.

IAN BOGOST: The title of Bogost' rant was "Shit Crayons." He began by explaining to audiences that he'd made a Facebook game about Facebook games called Cow Clicker. Although the game is obviously a parody at its most basic level and a comment on the nature of the industry at its highest, Bogost was disturbed by the feedback he received after making the game, accused of being uncreative and unoriginal. So, Bogost began to get creative: he built a bovine search engine (Moogle) and created smaller, cow-themed games. Cow Clicker fans followed suit, writing fan fic, designing T-shirts, and so on. Bogost then talked about Nigerian poet Wole Soyinka, who wrote poems on toilet paper while in jail and was subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986 for exposing the drama of existence. Bogost too tried to scribble something meaningful in Cow Clicker, and his overall point seemed to be that creativity comes from restraint.

Quote: "We stood together, you and me, because we love games."--Brenda Brathwaite.

Takeaway: It seems that while all the developers on this panel were supporting social game development, the majority called out current social games for being uncreative and unrewarding. All we can hope for is that they deliver on their promise to take social games in a new direction.

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