Massively Casual

Massively Casual
How Social Games Ate Our Lunch

Erin Hoffman | 27 Jul 2010 12:41
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A New Kind of Game Developer

Beyond the unveiling of a new kind of game player, social games are exciting for the new ways that they use the internet to map player behavior and rapidly evolve from it. What was a big deal about the "villes" wasn't just what they did, but how they did it.

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Up until now, games were made more or less like movies - and the more expensive the game, the more it was focus group tested throughout its development. These early tests tell investors what to expect of a game's performance. But any developer who's experienced one can tell you that these tests can be utterly laughable, telling you more about the executives' expectations than the game. Then, in online games, we began to track player behavior, developing logging systems and elaborate ways of filtering them. But game developers want to be artists, and so appreciation for this data was minimal. Ultimately, that's why the biggest mainstream revolution in videogames has come not from game development, but from web marketing.

In effect, metrics-driven online companies invest a substantial portion of their development in monitoring and analyzing player statistics, and guide their future development systems around them. This seems like common sense, but it is in fact a transformative development strategy, especially because nothing cuts through a four-hour design argument quite like saying, "I did this scientific test and here are the numbers - bitch."

To our collective detriment, however, this is not a concept that sits well with many game designers. "Games are art!", we've been so busy crying, that we can't possibly be so crassly enslaved to numbers. In fairness, player metrics have grudgingly been on the rise for the last year. But the change is slow and grinding, such that a company that delivers literally the most popular game of all time (more people played FarmVille at its peak every four hours than have played Call of Duty 4 ever), and delivers it independently, without a publisher, is accused of "fuck the players" game development. This is mind-bogglingly backwards and indicative of the industry's larger bias. Because metrics-driven development tracks and responds to player behavior, metrics-driven games are by definition more sensitive to players than any games that have ever come before them. Parts of the game industry so desperately wanted to believe that something had to be wrong with metrics-based Zynga games that they ignored the clear success.

Metrics aren't a panacea; once you've identified that you can gather answers, metrics illuminate the difficulty in forming the correct questions. But metrics-oriented development is like peeling back a shroud from the entire development process, and once your eyes adjust to the light, the vision and clarity are astounding.

The game industry missed the social game revolution. All of this - our intellectual tendency to complain "But it isn't that simple!", combined with the fundamentally romantic notion that our creativity cannot possibly be enslaved to numbers (as if numbers were a master and not a tool) - is why a bunch of web marketers swooped in and ate our damn lunch.

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