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.

No, social games are not what we think of as a virtual world. But as I said the other day, that definition is evolving.

Yes, social games make money. Do some Googling, people! And no, it’s not all from scams. Yes, there are shady practices. But not all games use them, and if they do, it is less every day as the market gets cleaned up. And even when they do, they are not the bulk of the money.

Social games are not just a fad. There have been a lot of comparisons to things like motion control, 3d imaging, and so on. But back in 2008 there were Gamasutra articles about whether retro-looking gaming was a fad; before 3d graphics got good enough, there were questions about whether it was a fad… the key thing to look at here is whether there are underlying technical and social factors that are pushing development in a particular direction.

In the case of retro looks (which are now a firmly established aesthetic), the answer lay in the somewhat complicated fact that a younger gamer sees all previous aesthetics side-by-side and does not judge their quality based on technology, the way that older gamers do. A push towards innovation and artistic intent in game design called forth the ghost of the 8-bit era, and the pixelated look became an identity badge. Tech helped this along — the rise of Flash as a common game development platform resulted in a “Flash aesthetic” driven by the display limitations that today we see in console games such as PixelJunk Eden and Patapon.

In the case of 3d, the march of technology simply made it work over time, and it evolved from gimmick to tool. This may yet happen with 3d displays as well, or motion control.

In the case of social games, you have to look at the overall context too. As I have been saying for quite some time, all games are becoming connected experiences. And it turns out that social networks are becoming the glue. They are sweeping away all the “gamer-only” networks that so many companies started.

The value in these networks lies in the connectivity to friends, the easy distribution of content across the social graph, the web accessibility, and so on. These are things that we now take for granted. The genie is not going to go back into the bottle.

Now, is the investment level going to change? Absolutely. The white-hot heat around the segment will definitely subside as everyone gets used to the fact that the market is here to stay.

No, social games won’t turn into core games. This is one of the misconceptions that AAA developers often have as they try to establish themselves in the market. It is absolutely true that social games are going to grow more sophisticated over time. But they will do so by growing further along the direction they have already been going.

If you look at the AAA game world today, you can trace just about everything in it to the early core gamer market. Video games got going with sports, dragons, robots, guns, jumping & climbing, and cars. Those were the first big ideas. And here we are now, decades in, and they are still the big ideas. Many other ideas have come along since, but somehow they have always been quirky, “outside the mainstream” — like, say, when Rollercoaster Tycoon, or Guitar Hero, or The Sims came along. The only way something like “playing house” can possibly be “outside the mainstream” is if there’s a subculture in charge.

Well, social games are here and they managed to get themselves established largely without reference to those tropes. As a result, they have a different set of starting premises. Many of the things that were “quirky” are “normal” and vice versa. Central design tropes include cooperation rather than competition; asynchronous rather than synchronous play; social dynamics; and a very different set of core cultural references. There’s more.

What will happen over time is that this new audience will grow in sophistication. They already take for granted all of the elements of a farming game, for example. You can think of the farming game as equivalent to any other genre, and replete with design tropes that are exactly equivalent to conventions like WASD, hit points, skill point allocation, rocket jumping, and tank-nuker-healer, if you like.

All that is going to happen is a recapitulation of design history, only with a new of new assumptions embedded in the games:

  • a far broader set of cultural references.
  • a new and different set of core artistic choices driven by different rendering technology
  • a fresh and exciting set of design paradigms built around asynchronous sociability and large-scale weak-tie “guild” structures — hoo, is there a design essay lurking in the difference between a guild and a neighbor ring…!
  • a whole new set of business models and practices

What this boils down to is that social games will grow along those axes, and not magically turn into what core gamers today consider to be core games. It’s a mistake to think that the game development industry is going to manage to magically make this audience fall in love with sports, dragons, robots, guns, jumping & climbing, and cars.

But there’s hope for core gamers nonetheless: These games are the new home of “worldy” games, in some ways. And they are bringing neglected genres back to life.

Social games are going to push boundaries in design areas that are currently neglected. A renaissance in simulation and strategy games is likely, and I don’t think it is an accident that so many prominent AAA strategy game developers are in social games now.

If what you have craved is greater user agency and impact on a persistent world, a greater sense of community and economic interdependence — those are features that are intrinsic to this new market. As an example, I would point out that there was a core MMO game that many of the readers of this blog loved that had a farming game where you had to check in every few days to collect your stuff and decide what to try to harvest next. And it’s wasn’t Farmville. It was Star Wars Galaxies. In many ways, the features that were seen as oddest or least “gamer-like” in the worldy MMOs are going to be among core features in the social games: housebuilding, shopkeeping, farming, dancing, dress-up, even hairdressing. Right now, these are one-to-a-game. But one possible direction of development is that they not be.

I have thoughts on what all this means for the core games we know and love, but I’ll leave those for another day.