What Core Gamers Should Know About Social Games

[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Metaplace.com founder Raph Koster. It originally ran on his personal site, and we’re reprinting it here with his permission.]

The culture clash between social games and core gamers was on full display at the Game Developers Conference. I have been called a traitor to the cause of core gamers, even. At the awards show, when a Zynga rep claimed the social games award for Farmville and did a little bit of recruiting from the stage, he was not only booed, but someone shouted out, “But you don’t make games!” This is a common sentiment out there in the usual gamer haunts.

I have many, many thoughts on all this — and I have been posting some of them in various places when discussions arise.

Yes, Farmville is a game. It just requires fairly little skill compared to games for “advanced” gamers. But by any reasonable definition of game, it fits perfectly.

You have to make choices (they are strategic choices rather than real-time, but so what? Games have a long tradition of slower play). The choices require knowledge and skill (the skill is what gets derisively called “spreadsheet gaming” by the cognoscenti, but that’s a brush that EVE Online and other MMOs have been tarred with too). You have to prepare for the challenge. You can screw up. You get rewarded for doing well, etc.

It may seem elementary to those who can juggle complicated business sims, but think of it as the training wheels version for novices to that genre, and you won’t be far off. I think people who didn’t play games in the early days forget that the level of complexity they enjoy today is a phenomenon of the last ten years, a symptom of typical genre development. Social games are more advanced than most of the games made from 1970 to 1988.

Yes, social games truly are social. They just work on somewhat different modes than real-time synchronous games do. Instead of rewarding real-time teamwork the way that group combat in an MMO, playing on a soccer team, or being a member of a chorus line does, they reward asynchronous behaviors.

Most specifically, there is a lot of exactly the sort of weak-tie social design that was intrinsic to Star Wars Galaxies and Asheron’s Call: stuff around gifts, networks of mutual benefit, etc. More, they are exploring some of these things in a deeper way than MMOs do (because MMOs fall back on the synchronous crutch). Which is more indicative of social ties, a user who logs in once a week for a raid, or a user who logs in every day to send every friend a gift? The answer is not straightforward, if you dig into social networking data.

Yes, it is arguably even an MMO. The core activity is single-player, but the features around gifting, fertilizing, helping build structures collaboratively, etc, are all massively multiplayer techniques. Oh, they are not yet truly virtual worlds, though some of them do feature real-time chat, and more will over time, because in many many cases it is a value-add of a feature.

Long ago, I posed the question of whether American Idol was an MMO. And in that post, I said

It’s surprising, in a way, how little collective action matters in most MMOs. Here’s a medium that allows it better than any other game type, and yet we still see fairly little collective action — and when we do, it’s raids — arguably, exactly the wrong sort of collective action to really play to the strengths of what virtual spaces can do, precisely because what MMOs offer is spaces with thousands in them, not spaces with a few dozen.

Well, here we are. Collective action is starting to matter in the social games, and it’s going to matter more, not less precisely because it is an assumed core premise of the genre.