Since I started working at Playdom, I’ve been getting occasional e-mails from friends who play traditional video games (or “core video games”, as they’re frequently called these days). The authors of these e-mails haven’t been impressed by the social games that they’ve played; so, given that I mostly blog about core games and my tastes and theirs have a lot of overlap, they’re wondering what I see in social games.

I’m afraid that my answers to that haven’t always been very satisfactory; but it’s a good question, so I’ll take a stab at answering it in a more public forum. The main reason why I’m interested in social games is because I want to better understand the possibilities of this art form that I love. The potential design space for video games is staggeringly vast: video games can borrow at length from books, from music, from visual arts, from drama, from traditional games. And those are just facets of what’s possible in video games: once you start mixing those are forms together, you have possibilities far beyond what I can imagine.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the part of the game industry whose products I’ve been spending the most time enjoying over the last decade has been doing a particularly good job at exploring those possibilities. Instead, it’s been going into the same (sub-)genres more and more deeply; there’s virtue to that as well (indeed, it’s produced some masterpieces), but I felt I should be consciously spending more of my time looking elsewhere.

So I should spend time elsewhere; and, fortunately, there are a lot of candidates. But one lens to look through is this: the core game industry is refining its products more and more to appeal to its best customers. This is a scenario that is ripe for disruption: find a cheaper analogue of the same technology, find a group of potential customers that doesn’t care about what your best customers care about and whose (different!) desires can be satisfied with that cheaper technology, and make something for them. Given that there are a lot of people out there who don’t care about core video games, and whose reasons for not caring don’t have anything to do with the graphics being insufficiently photorealistic, we have a potential match for this tactic.

And social games are an excellent example of that strategy. I work on Sorority Life, a game that’s laughably low-tech compared to modern console games (its front-end is almost entirely written in JavaScript), yet almost three times as many people played it last month as purchased a game from the top 10 in the July NPD console software list. And Sorority Life, while a quite successful game, isn’t one of the top 25 Facebook games ranked by number of users.

This suggests to me that social games could be a great source of new areas in the design space for me to learn from. Tens or hundreds of millions of newcomers have been generous enough to donate their time to an art form that I love; if I could listen to them, if I could understand better what they’re finding in social games that they’re not finding in core games, then I’d really learn something.

Note that I’m not saying that social games are better because they’re more popular. I have nothing against popularity, and I’m certainly always happy when we have an uptick in the number of Sorority Life users, but there are a lot of niche works in other art forms that I love, and games are no different. What I am saying is that I believe that social games are a reasonable candidate to discover new areas for game design; I’d be quite happy if that exploration eventually led to a flourishing of niches instead of a few winners. I think that it’s good for the total gaming audience to be as large as possible, in much the same way that I think it’s good if everybody can find books that they love and music that they love, and I don’t think that’s going to happen if we stick with core video games, but I’d just as soon not have that audience all be playing the same thing.

So: I need to listen to social gamers and to social games. For better or for worse, however, listening to people (and games!) is hard. And I find it especially hard when I’ve spent a lot of time immersed in a related but different space, because it’s far too easy for me to view the new space through the lens of the old space, causing me to see too much of the new space as inferior copies of the old space and to miss its own particular virtues. The result is that I’ve done a pretty bad job of learning what I could from social games, and of communicating that to you; for this I apologize. (I will share one thing I’ve learned, however. It seems to me that a lot of popular social games are usefully thought of as toys instead of just as games: they have a lot to give when looked at that way.)

To summarize: I want to learn about new areas of the game design space, I think that listening to social gamers and social games could be a good way for me to learn, but that’s hard. Which leads to the second reason why I’m writing this post, and that reason is purely selfish: I could use all of your help in figuring this out. And, for better or for worse, a lot of the discussion of social games that I read in blogs isn’t particularly helpful in that quest. There’s no particular reason that any of you should be motivated to help me, and I’m happy to shoulder a lot of the blame through my lack of communication, but still, it can be frustrating.

What really set me off was a note by Danc (of Lost Garden fame) bemoaning similar discussion of social games; I don’t have a URL for his note, unfortunately, but I’ve quoted it in full on my linkblog.

If you follow that link, you will discover that he does not mince words. And in particular, the following bit of his rant really hit home for me:

People who play different types of games are not in face brain damaged wards of the state that must be protected from evil. Your mom is likely an intelligent adult capable of making rational decisions. You don’t need to ‘protect’ her. Where is your respect for people other than yourself?

Because, the day before reading Danc’s note, I came across a post on social games on a (pretty good) blog I read. (I won’t link to it here because I don’t want to single it out as a particularly bad example of the genre: it instead seems depressingly normal to me.) The author of that post, after the traditional slagging on social games, felt that he had to make the point that he didn’t think of social game players as “losers”, and also clarified that he didn’t think that “fools” and “suckers” were appropriate adjectives. Instead, he settled on “victims” as the mot juste.

And if that’s the range of adjectives that my corner of the blogosphere considers using for social game players, then that makes me sad. I’m with Danc: to me, that reads profoundly disrespectfully, and I’ll join him in suggesting that you instead start from a baseline of thinking of social game players as “intelligent adult[s] capable of making rational decisions”. I believe that for multiple reasons, not least of which is a selfish one: when I think of others in dismissive terms, I’m shutting myself off from learning, while if I can open myself up and maintain an appreciative attitude, I get more out of my interactions. (And yes, I am aware of the irony of the fact that I’m not serving as a good role model of that behavior in this section; please help me develop the wisdom to handle this better.)

When I was first thinking about writing this post, I was going to more or less end it here, but then another social games post spread through my Twitter feed. Except this one was a report on a talk by a social game designer; and my first reaction there was “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” (That’s my problem in a nutshell: I have many friends on both the social and core sides of the game space, and ever since this year’s GDC, there have been a lot of excuses for the two sides to become enemies.) So yes, I should clarify: there are people in the social game space who act like asses. This is not unique to the social games space (Bobby Kotick comes to mind), but it’s there, and there are probably aspects of the gold rush mentality that bring it out a little more strongly here than in more established game areas.

But I don’t want to throw that speaker under the bus, either, or pretend that he’s so different from me. Because I can understand where he’s coming from pretty much in everything he says, and in fact I think that the specific recommendations he makes in the “seven biblical sins” part of that article are all reasonable design decisions. They’re not the only reasonable design decisions, but I suspect you could follow any or even all of them and still have a game that’s genuinely satisfying; indeed, I think scrupulously avoiding them could be as likely to lead to an unsatisfying game as following them would. (And I think it’s a good idea for games to be profitable, too, which is another key point in his talk, though obviously that has a more direct effect on me than on many of my readers.)

I could, however, be wrong. (And I’d certainly be happy to discuss those design decisions in the comments, if any of you think that my point of view is crazy but that I’m perhaps not completely beyond hope.) On which note, I’ll return to my selfishness from above: it would be really helpful if I could have all of your help to understand how to improve social games, to find their best characteristics while avoiding their worst. But, as a fallible human being, it’s hard for me to learn as much as I could from you if, when I read your posts, I get the feeling that you wouldn’t like social games no matter what they did, unless they were to change so much as to fit back into the core game design space. Unfortunately, when I read posts written in that sort of tone, my brain starts disengaging; I can work against that, but it’s not easy.

So please, write your posts with compassion. And I will repeat again, I could use a lot of help in this: y’all have a lot to say, and you’ve collectively seen a much larger area of the game design space than I have or ever will. So whatever you have to give, I will accept gratefully. I just might not seem super-grateful at all times, if you hit on one of my triggers.

In fact, I’ll make one specific request: a lot of my game blogger Facebook friends have been playing Cow Clicker recently. That game isn’t a great example of a social game: it’s a satire (or a travesty) of the genre, its design is missing some very important traditional aspects of the genre, and what’s there is very stripped down. (Incidentally, if you’re looking for something more firmly centered in the genre to try out, Playdom just released City of Wonder, and while it’s too early to know if the game has legs, I’m totally charmed by it so far.) But, as satires go, Cow Clicker is quite well done, and several of you have been playing it for a week or two. So: when you listen to the game, is it telling you anything that you didn’t know when you started playing it? (My experience playing the game has surprised me in one way; I’ll blog about that later.) I’d love to read a series of experience reports of the game.

Or, if you’re not interested, that’s fine too! There’s no reason at all why your interests and motivations should match mine, and I’d much rather read you talk about what you’re interested in.

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