Most Facebook games have models that can be traced back to earlier games that existed before the launch of the Platform. This is nothing new as it has been the pattern of game design since the beginning. By standing on the shoulders of giants and using existing game mechanics that work well, the biggest challenge for social game designers is to port the game to work well in social networks. We take a look at some of these models below.
Farmville draws on a number of influences, but many players have reported the game’s similarities to the Harvest Moon series. Harvest Moon is a farming simulation where players have a certain amount of time and energy allocated to them each day, and they must use it to plant, harvest and sell crops, with the ultimate goal of building the biggest farm.
The game also emphasizes interpersonal relationships (a player could marry, have kids, and then take care of the kids in a fashion similar to taking care of the farm!), an element that is not really a part of Farmville, but in theory Zynga could have removed it because the nature of the social game means that every person you engage with is an interpersonal relationship.
Mafia Wars, Mob Wars, Gangster City
These games from the strategy RPG genre borrow from many standard game engines. The basic engine of doing quests, gaining experience and then gaining levels and strength has been a standard role-playing game tool since Dungeons and Dragons (and probably earlier). The ability to purchase areas and have them earn you money and resources is used in strategy RPGs like Warcraft, but is also seen in games like Monopoly, where users pay you rent.
It sounds like a diverse selection of games, but having worked in the industry with a lot of designers, I have seen strong innovation. Social game makers are keen to draw on a well of great gaming resources from around the world to introduce new social experiences to gamers.
Who Has The Biggest Brain, IQ Test
These IQ test type games have existed for years, but when Playfish’s Who Has The Biggest Brain Facebook application burst onto the scene, a lot of players felt they were looking at Brain Age 3. Brain Age, released for the Nintendo DS, was a fun way to refresh your mental skills through a series of mini-games. By playing the games and being given a Brain Age, users were incentivized to complete the mini-games and ‘get smarter’.
Playfish, of course, took this to the next level on social networks by having players compete against each other. That said, the games that Playfish chose are quite unique, and their art style and presentation does not mimic Brain Age in any way. That sort of novelty made the game one-of-a-kind, and it was one of the first high-production viral games for Facebook. Tangentially, this was at a time when Zynga and Playfish were head-to-head in traffic, and times certainly have changed.
Cafe World, Restaurant City
If you’ve ever played PlayFirst’s extremely successful “Diner Dash”, then you’ve got the basic idea down for games like Zynga’s Cafe World or Playfish’s Restaurant City. Diner Dash is a game where you are tasked with managing a restaurant by ensuring you please all your clients with the right dishes they want. That said, Diner Dash emphasizes the action experience of the game. You have to put your clients down in open chairs, then grab their order from your chefs and hand it over to them at their table. These are elements that aren’t in the social game versions, but what Playfish did (and then Zynga) was to simplify the action elements and keep the core game idea intact. A player is still running a restaurant business, but the waiters and cooks work automatically: you just have to keep them rested and well-fed so they have the energy to work.
Also, the games introduced the social element of trading ingredients to the formula. By being able to work with other restaurant owners and find the items I want, I can customize my menu to look the way I want it to. This is a big difference, and demonstrates how social games evolve different aspects of gameplay than single player games.
Poker Blitz, Texas Hold ‘Em Poker
Now, obviously any card game is going to be borrowing from the source game, but there’s also the issue of how the game designers designs and develops the world around the game. In Zynga’s classic Texas Hold ‘Em Poker game, the game is nearly identical to other real cash poker games available on the web. You have a standard interface of check, fold and raise, and can sit down at any seat at the table. The social elements that have been added are being able to send players drinks and gifts using your in-game currency, and the idea of receiving a certain amount of money per day to play (if only it worked that way in real money games).
Poker Blitz, which was just released, takes Poker into its own hands and attempts to simplify gameplay by changing the rules. The game starts by occuring in just one round (eliminating the flop and the turn) and players have the simplified ability to bet fixed amounts. The game slowly becomes more complex as you gain levels, but at its core it is the same poker that has proliferated the web for years gone past.