How Social Games Ate Our Lunch

The hardest thing in the world is being something new. Ask any disenfranchised minority who has ever wanted to vote, own property, or marry – from suffragettes in the 19th century to furries in the 21st. The Establishment does not like things that are new, and will hate on them just for existing and daring to carve a new identity.


At LOGIN 2010 this past May, I ran headfirst into the game industry’s latest “new.” Colleagues – usually virtual, but for this narrow window of time sharing physical space – commented on how they’d observed me playing Facebook games over the past several months. “You’re just doing that for research, right?” one asked. “You’re not one of those people?”

These were online game developers, and this was a good friend, a compassionate guy with a family and a very reasonable and ethical approach to life and game development. But New Things can make otherwise eminently reasonable people retreat into tribal human shield-banging without even realizing it. What my friend said was echoed by the rest of the gaming community – which, with a blinding level of hypocrisy, has largely turned on social gamers with all of the violent name-calling and apocalypse-hailing usually reserved for the likes of Jack Thompson. Something about these “social” games so terrified gamers and game developers that as a unit they flew from edgy First Amendment defenders to Dr. Phil groupies in ten seconds flat.

Because my approach to game design has always been full immersion, I knew more than ever in that moment that, although I wasn’t yet, I needed to become one of “those people” – who knew something that I didn’t about the world’s most popular new form of gaming.

Help Me Help You

As some of you secretly know already (you’re not fooling me – I’ve seen your level 24 farm), getting pulled into one of these games, at least the first time, is shockingly easy. Which is, of course, the point. Social games reel you in with their accessibility but they keep you with social glue: an advanced generosity system that takes the “player exchange” economy mechanics developed in MMOGs and distills it into a pure hardened crystal of reciprocation.

It’s unintuitive to think that games where you actually do not ever directly interact with another person could have a community, but what social games do is generate an asynchronous cloud of persistent community formed by the constant exchange of gifts, tools, and requests sent by other players. It’s generosity-driven, but transactional – if I send you a gift, I’m feeling happy because I helped you out (especially if I’m responding to a request you’ve put out), but I’m also hoping you’ll send me something back. And the more I send and receive, the more I plant, the more I return every day (or more than once a day) – the more hardcore my play becomes. Watch a hardcore FarmVille player. They move fluidly and attentively around the tiniest change in mechanics, and play not for some whimsical dollhouse experience but for tight, fast, controlled optimizations, seeking the fastest path to a clear goal, and putting in as much time as it takes to get there.

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In GoPets we knew that generous players were sticky players – meaning that we kept them for a long time – and so we incentivized generosity in our player base. But because our generosity levers were “manual” – players had the ability to send gifts, and socially benefited from doing so, but there were no specific mechanical achievement or requirement structures around them – our community was more genuinely social and less frenetic than its social game antecedents. The basic concept held true: Encourage players to exchange valuable items and they’ll create an atmosphere of positive assistance that will in turn bring them to associate the game with generosity and positive feelings.


And this, of course, generates the spam that non-players came to resent. One player’s spam is another’s treasure, however, and the exchange of these messages, quickly corralled into their own containers by Facebook, was utterly fundamental to the games’ fabric. No one would be sending those messages if they didn’t themselves both value receiving them and consider that the recipients would, too. What generated the spam impression was the platform’s inability to easily distinguish receptive targets from non-receptive ones, and with more than half of Facebook visiting the site for games, it’s no surprise that play is assumed.

What I didn’t expect, as I dug into these games (and doubtless lost a few Facebook friends in the process – sorry, guys), was that they would change how I felt about the friends I played them with. For the most part, these were people I knew, since the games capitalize on your existing network and possess few mechanics for seeking out non-friends. I realized, somewhere around level 20 in each game, that I actually felt differently about the friends whose faces I saw every day via the game. I felt more connected to them, part of their various daily missions to build structures or achieve goals, and grateful for their cooperation in mine.

This is ultimately what “those people” understood about social games that I didn’t, and that most of the mainstream game industry still doesn’t: it’s not about spam, and it’s not a Skinner box (which, by the way, is exactly what scared psychologists call all games). It’s an astonishing hyper-distilled interweaving of a number of organically developed online metagame mechanics – which might be why online game developers have been more sympathetic to social gaming than so-called “core” games. What World of Warcraft did to Everquest‘s mechanics – making them smoother, faster, and more elegant, and so earning unprecedented millions of players – FarmVille, though we don’t like to admit it, did to World of Warcraft. FarmVille distills the active components of a game down to a handful of clicks, and massively leverages social and viral communication channels to create the feelings of shared mission and victory, all while carving out a player-expressed space in the online world. And while it’s doubtful that even its creators would call FarmVille “elegant,” it is the first step in a new evolution of games, new (and resented) the way World of Warcraft was in the beginning – and its mechanics are so powerful that it has compelled a head-popping number of new gamers even without being polished the way WoW was.

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.


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.

Slavin’ for the Man

I’m annoyed at the gaming community for crapping on social gamers after having been crapped on by the mainstream entertainment formats for years – and I’m annoyed with my industry because we were too squeamish and tunnel-visioned to grow a new market. We let a bunch of Amazon execs blow open a huge new sector of game development that could have been our ticket out of third party hell. With all of our ceaseless complaints about game publishers – with all of the hopes lavished on indie games and systems that allow us to deliver direct to players – shouldn’t we at least have been willing to consider a vector that delivers games – real games – direct to an entirely new market of players?


More disappointing still has been the reaction of the game community to social gamers – not just developers, but their players as well. In spite of all our activism, all our proclaimed enlightenment, all our fury at a public that has feared and despised gaming for decades, the gaming community reverted to the exact same thinking: we don’t like it, so there must be something wrong with people who do. An assumption made with zero curiosity into what these new players are actually experiencing.

Now, of course, developers are pouring onto Facebook, and the tune is changing. We shouldn’t be chasing social games for the money, though sweet, sweet cash is indeed a perfectly valid route to our coveted unlimited independence and corresponding creative utopia. We should be chasing social games because of the frontiers that they’ve opened up in front of us, the utterly new data they allow us to gather about the behaviors and desires of our players. We should be paying close attention to the new metrics that these games have disclosed, and thinking about how they can enhance, expand, and intertwine our “core” gamers’ experiences.

Most importantly, we should be acknowledging and welcoming this new kind of gamer, and listening to what they have to say. From Senet to Settlers of Catan to Counter-Strike to FarmVille, we are all gamers, connected through the electric muse of interactivity, chasing the same brain state. And that, especially when it unnerves us, is a beautiful thing.

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Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. Her debut fantasy novel Sword of Fire and Sea is forthcoming with Pyr Books in 2011.

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