Making Games Better Doesn’t Always Make Them Good

It sounds a little strange when I say it out loud, but I’m not sure I’m totally happy about the current drive towards “quality” that I see happening with social platform games.  While there’s currently no shortage of new applications that are attempting to grab users with virality, status, collection, and simple activities, I’m also seeing the big developers trying to “push out the envelope” with high-end graphics and more advanced gameplay.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for quality and polish. There’s no doubt that it makes sense for the big players to start consolidating their hold over the audience, and bigger budgets are one way the front-runners can pull out ahead the rest of the pack. At the same time, there may be a limit to just how much fancy graphics and precision gameplay is going to impact a mainstream social audience.

In a great game a lot of the entertainment happens inside of the player’s head.  If we’re already charging towards making more complicated titles that the industry will quickly lose some of the positive elements that come from simplicity. And the longer load times aren’t helping anything either.

We’ve seen something similar with the way Nintendo has managed to win the current round of the console war. With both the Wii and the DS they’ve proven that given the right application of technology you only need to reach a certain level of quality before the audience decides they’re perfectly happy, at least for a while. Call it the “VHS” effect, where you can settle on a sub-par format for a few years while the users enjoy your platform without needing all the sizzle and pop.

Every time a new market opens up the first games to appear are built on traditional, time-tested play patterns. From the DS to the iPhone, from XBLA to browser games, it’s always rock-solid gameplay that shows up first, with the fancy stuff pulling up in a later bus. And it’s been true since the beginning of the medium. It wasn’t the gorgeous graphics that made pong a household name.

Sure, basic expectations have grown in the last thirty years. These days players expect a lot more from even the most basic games than just a sprinkling of pixels and some bloops and bleeps. But it’s not zero-sum either. In the wrong hands, or used in the wrong way, adding more graphical effects may just serve to confuse your audience, or make a game that has less mainstream appeal. More isn’t always better, and the audience for social games isn’t one that will necessarily appreciate a hardcore experience.

With the race to quality clearly looming, are we still in a period where there are simple new dynamics that will pull in big audiences, even if they come from a developer who doesn’t have the ability to layer on the razzle-dazzle? I think the answer to that is yes, for now…  Users are still open to games that connect them back to their status, drive their friends to play with them, and give them a strong reason to pay for content without making them feel like they’re being blackmailed.

As genres settle Players start to gain strong opinions about the games the play,  and the quality matters more and more.  You certainly wouldn’t put a new mafia game into the marketplace without a serious commitment to bigger and better.

But until the audience discovers that they’re supposed to care more what a social platform game looks like than how it plays, I’m hoping that things can stay simple for just a little while longer.

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