The Ten Most Significant Social Games of 2009

It’s been a big year for social games as the category has exploded in popularity by orders of magnitude, going from a fad to a revolution that may well change the definition of gaming forever.

While it’s easy enough to figure out what the most popular games are simply by going over to AppData and looking at the numbers, I thought the end of the year might be a chance to reflect on what were some of the most significant games of 2009, and discuss their impact, for better and for worse.

Some of these games were hits, and others were bombs, but they are all games that will have (or should have) an impact on the way we’ll make our games in 2010.

10. Happy Aquarium

Yes, Zynga has created their own successful aquarium game, but Happy Aquarium is one of the first mainstream hits that seems to have found success without being quickly swamped by a tidal wave of clones. The aquarium category isn’t particularly innovative — it’s a mash-ups of pets and farming — but it has all the elements (emotional connection, appointment gaming, collection) that made this game dynamic one of the biggest splashes in 2009,.

The growing success of Happy Island is proof that this company is more than a one hit wonder, and Crowdstar may ready to play in the big leagues, if they don’t get purchased first.

9. Pogo Puppies

Now destined to be put to sleep at the end of the year, there probably isn’t a better example of the unique challenges that face mainstream developers in the social space than this big budget disaster from Electronic Arts that never managed to break through the 100,000 user mark. There are entire articles that could be written about this game. While it’s polished and professional looking, it often felt more like a utility than a game. The interface seemed designed to hide its entertainment value, and actively push the player away from exploration. Someone clearly thought they could make a game that would appeal to a more “sophisticated” user, but ended up making something that appealed to almost no one. Nothing quite sums up the problems with this game as succinctly as the apparently fatal mugging that is occurring in the corner of the splash screen.

Never kick a dog when he’s down…

8. Crazy Planets

While almost everyone was focused on chasing the big categories, PlayFish spent a good part of 2009 in a blaze of creativity, attempting to discover the size and shape of what the social audience is willing to play. One of its more audacious experiments, Crazy Planets ,used elements familiar to social gamers, including friends lists, and mission structure similar to the ones found in every social role-playing game, but mixed it with the gameplay elements of Worms, a classic turn-based strategy game.

Like most PlayFish titles, everything felt polished and fun. Players could stick their own head onto their avatar, and journey to worlds filled with goofball robots that exploded into a satisfying jumble of cogs and valuable minerals that could be used to upgrade your weapons and your world.

The result was (unfortunately) a truly noble failure that succeeded in every way except for being a major hit — the game has tapered off with less than 3 million monthly active users. The game remains a must-play for anyone who still believes that the once the social audience gains some sophistication they’ll start to behave more like gamers used to. Its problems are proof that something truly “different” is happening in the the social, and that making a hit title involves more than just a checklist of “easy” game dynamics.

7. Castle Age

While there have been any number of blockbuster games over the last year that have gathered millions of players in a matter of days or weeks, what’s been missing are the “slow burners”—titles that can patiently gather and grow a loyal audience in spite of more complicated game dynamics, or niche themes.

Castle Age seems poised to be the first game to truly earn that title by growing audience of just under 3 million MAU over a period of months. While it’s more complicated than most other games in the same category, Castle Age is mostly a class act, with attractive graphics, a strong understanding of how to integrate viral and community dynamics, and a few clever tricks up its sleeve that push it up above the average social RPG title. The game was only marred due to its creators’ infringement, at one point, of some images from Massive Black.

Players can, for example, have other players join them in their effort to take down a level boss, by showing up to take a few whacks at it over the course of day. It’s nothing revolutionary, but there’s an attention to detail that pushes the game up above the average title of its type. Taken altogether, it feels more like a true RPG than almost any other game in the space. Hopefully it will continue to grow in the New Year and stand as an example that sometimes determination and hard work that can be just as effective as cash and flash.

6. Mafia Wars

Zynga’s first big hit in the social space, Mafia Wars has spent the last year continually redefining itself, acting as a public laboratory of sorts as Zynga has bolted on a number of “expansions” and experimental dynamics that have managed to both plug the game’s original economic leaks, and keep it alive and growing in spite of a massive amount of competition determined to steal away the audience.

Outside of having “crime farming”, there probably isn’t a single new dynamic that Zynga hasn’t tested in this game in one form or another, from lotteries to having first come first serve items that appear in the live feed. Once Zynga gets a hold of a good idea, it works hard to effectively leverage it into as many of its games as possible.

Mafia Wars is no longer the hot title that it once was, but if you wanted to know what Zynga was thinking about it 2009, it was worth keeping an eye on.

5. Island Paradise

In the last year no other genre has had as much experimentation as the farming category. Between Barn Buddy, Country Story, and a half a dozen other titles, there have been a variety of attempts to tweak the fundamentals of the farming dynamic and build an audience. Most of these games went for twists on gameplay such as adding in more ways to interact with your farm plots, or the addition of quests.

Other games radically altered the genre, turning farming into fishing, for example. Island Paradise went the other direction, building a strong and simple farming title, then improving it by adding a colorful layer of high quality content along with a well integrated theme. By combining this with knack for community building that came from their expertise as the creators of Neopets, they built a strong mid-tier hit that has Meteor Games poised to be a break out company in 2010.

4. Mobsters 2: Vendetta

Although it didn’t land with a splash, Mobsters 2 proved that Playdom can trade body blows with Zynga when the company puts its mind to it.

A confident and thorough reworking of the social RPG, Mobsters2 honestly wasn’t a game I was expecting to find much traction with an audience already swimming in mafia games. Although its popularity may have peaked, the fact that this game was able to grow its audience in a crowded market is a testament to how much impact solid content and a great interface (along with well thought out viral integration, marketing, and cross promotion) can have on making your social game a hit.

3. Bejeweled Blitz

Standing nearly alone in the “social arcade game” category, PopCap has perfected this three-in-a-row game even further since launch. It added a number of subtle tweaks, such as minute-long game sessions and bonuses for speed, that prove its half-decade dominance over the casual category was no accident.

While many others have tried to rework classic game dynamics and make them succeed in the social space, BB seems to have almost effortlessly shown how you can make it work if you truly understand what makes a game tick.

2. Café World

While it’s only human nature to want to hate on the winner, especially when the winner is as as aggressive as Zynga, there’s no doubt that Café World is an amazing game on every level.

While some people have accused this game of being a clone, in truth it’s anything but. Yes, it borrowed heavily from the look and feel of Restaurant City, but the gameplay was an amazing remix of the Farmville appointment game dynamic. It took the basic farming gameplay of having to click on every space in a large field of squares, and drastically reduced the number of individual areas that needed to be “farmed.” That meant that a new user could get into the game faster, and had less grinding to do when they came back. It also meant that the graphics for a pot of pea soup could be far more detailed and attractive that those for a plot of peas. Layout also became more important as customers and waiters need to be able to flow through the space. Users would spend more time looking at things to buy for their restaurant, and be more likely to spend real money to get them.

Where most social games need time and tweaking to optimize their gameplay (see Roller Coaster Kingdom), Café World launched with almost everything perfectly tuned. The audience immediately recognized and rewarded that, growing the game at an incredible pace, and creating what is easily my favorite game of the year.

1. FarmVille

Sorry to be so predictable, but there’s no way to avoid giving top honors to this category-defining monster.

Zynga applied polish in all the right places to turn this into what is clearly the social game of the year, and showed everyone else what the rules are for creating a social blockbuster.  The game itself was streamlined and simplified. The UI was intuitive and clean, with plenty of feedback, both visual and auditory. Simple tricks like being able to stack clicks made the game stand out from the competition. Zynga also rewarded exploration, letting the player know when they were doing things right through well-chosen achievements, and constant invites to discover more.

The art was a well-designed take on Zynga’s existing YoVille characters, with cute, cartoony farm animals, bright tractors, and solid-looking houses and other bits of set dressing, all done up in warm and inviting colors.

The game also took advantage of every viral trick in the book, getting players to ask their friends to help them out by adopting “lost cows” and “ugly ducklings”, and offering cash in return.

It all added up to a textbook example of what makes a mainstream hit work. It was all good, but not too good. It could be annoying, but not too annoying. The game was sometimes frustrating,  but never punished the player.

Zynga may not have done any of it first, but they did it best, and Farmville was able to find an audience by perfecting a balance of rewarding exploration, clean interface design, and rapid response to user metrics.

[Image Credits: Happy Aquarium via gamebook; Crazy Planets via Canada.com; Castle Age via gamebook; Mafia Wars via Oatmeal Stout; Island Paradise via Kea’s Dream; Mobsters 2 via Mobsters Forums; Bejeweled via Games.com; Café World via seeminglee; FarmVille via FarmVille Freak.]

Andrew Mayer is a Social Gaming and User Experience Consultant with over seventeen years of experience in the games industry.