Social Games Aren’t All About Great Gameplay

Back at the turn of the century, when just the idea of 3D games was still pretty awesome, something more fundamental was occurring. Still reeling from the dark years of CD-ROM “multimedia” before the internet took hold, the entertainment market had been flooded by scores of crappy knock-offs, badly used licenses, and endless desperate attempts to discover the next new magical “mascot” that would replace Mario and Sonic in gamers’ hearts. From out of that wasteland a cry arose from developers that quickly turned into a mighty roar: GAMEPLAY FIRST. No amount of flashy graphics or technological marvels could replace the need for a solid dynamic as the core experience. And over the last ten years we’ve followed that creed while making incredible leaps and bounds in realism and technology. It’s helped the market grow, and created a generation of gamers and developers who have a far better understanding of what a good game is.

But those days are over.

No, we’re not going back to the bad old days of Aero the Acrobat, and cheese-ball movie tie-ins; creating good gameplay remains just as important as it ever was. It just isn’t enough anymore. From flash games to core games, having a well developed dynamic should no longer be considered the high rung of the ladder you need to climb in order to reach the top. In fact, it’s one of the lowest ones.

Over the last few years any number of hardcore games have been released that have absolutely fantastic gameplay, but never got the level of polish and content they needed to compete in the marketplace. That’s because we understand the fundamentals far better than we ever did before, and now it’s time to start payng attention to other issues as well.

Of course there are still new games to be made, and awesome new dynamics to be mined. But too many people out there are still convinced that it’s purely the greatness of the idea that propels it to success. But with the rise of social media platforms not only are we seeing the nature of that assumption changing, the very idea of gameplay seems to be changing into something new.

What, after all, is the fundamental gameplay of Mob Wars and the other X-Wars games? From a traditional design standpoint the only real game action in the entire product that is when you press the “Do Job” button. Everything else is just buying stuff and getting the status you need to get you to the point that you’re allowed to do that. It’s like creating a role-playing game where you spend all your time messing with your character sheet instead of actually fighting the battle. (Someone should really make one of those.)

We’ve had the ability to click buttons on a screen for a while now, and it hasn’t turned into the fastest growing sector of the gaming industry before. That’s because Social Games are changing the rules. Sure, there are still a lot of games in the space that rely purely on good old fashioned gameplay. But when you’re reaching out to a mainstream audience, you’ll often discover that the tastes of the masses are shockingly different than any specific sub-group you care to name. And they often won’t care at all about what you think they should think is important.

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