Game Design, Programming and running a one-man games business…

Social games, unsocial methods

There is a current huge growth in ‘social’ games and ‘free forever!’ online games. I’ve seen a lot of online discussion trying to persuade people to jump on both bandwagons. I’ve never really liked them, or their methods, and today I encountered this:



A typical scam: users are offered in game currency in exchange for filling out an IQ survey. Four simple questions are asked. The answers are irrelevant. When the user gets to the last question they are told their results will be text messaged to them. They are asked to enter in their mobile phone number, and are texted a pin code to enter on the quiz. Once they’ve done that, they’ve just subscribed to a $9.99/month subscription. Tatto Media is the company at the very end of the line on most mobile scams, and they flow it up through Offerpal, SuperRewards and others to the game developers.

This does not surprise me. I had a go at super-popular ‘free’ social facebook game ‘farmville’ yesterday, to see what the fuss was about, and got a bad vibe from it immediately. This game is ‘free’, but that’s not strictly true. The game is totally designed around selling you in-game advantages by buying game-cash with real cash. In other words, it’s a grindfest where you can pay to avoid the grind. The game is also VERY insistent that you constantly let it spam updates to your facebook status on how you are playing, and you can only really do well if you drag your other facebook friends into play the game as your ‘neighbours’.

This is both a great piece of game design, and a terrible piece of game design. It’s great in that it achieves it’s objectives, cunningly encouraging you to market the game yourself in order to get gameplay advantage, and trying to maximise the amount of money extracted from you.

But, Its a terrible piece of game design in that the objective of the game designer was marketing and money, not fun. That really sucks.  I actually ‘disapprove’ in haughty terms. Someone’s business model has to be pretty cynical for me to say that, as a lot of indie developers consider me to be too hard-headed and business like, and not as much of an ‘enthusiast’ as the typical indie dev. I think that’s reluctantly true to a point. I live in an expensive part of an expensive country, and can’t afford to take my eye of the bank balance. I’m the sole breadwinner, so it’s not like I’m enjoying a sabbatical or a subsidised hobby. I need to run Positech like a business, or else I’ll be flipping burgers.

But! my business model is defiantly old-school in one respect: I aim to design FUN games, that people enjoy enough to pay me money to buy copies. I don’t look upon the people who buy my games as people to be milked of cash, exploited, or ‘leveraged as marketing assets’. To me, the positech games buyers are like a big extended club or enthusiasts group. We all like the same sort of games, and I’m lucky enough to be in the middle actually making the things, and shepherding the feedback and the enthusiasm so that games get made that everyone enjoys.  There are other indie devs with a similar attitude, such as wolffire,2DBoy, taleworlds etc. I think that you don’t get rich this way, but you get to enjoy making fun games for a really positive community.

I wish the more cynical people who are just trying to squeeze facebook profiles to extract cash would go off and do pyramid selling and boiler-room-sharedealing scams instead :( Leave game-dev to people who really enjoy making fun stuff.

10 thoughts on Social games, unsocial methods

  1. Hi Cliff,

    I just wrote a small post about Farmville myself recently. ( I agree with you in the sense that Zynga and esp. Farmville deserve cynicism in that they are born of “metrics-based game design.” These guys are making “conversion machines” first and games second, no doubt.

    However, I think it’s important to recognize that the definition of fun is highly subjective. Tens of millions of people play these games. In some ways, they may be some of the most highest reaching games of all time. My wife loves Farmville and I’m quite positive that she would not even be willing to try to play GSB, for example. I liked Farmville at first, but the game design is flawed enough that I lost enjoyment. But these design problems could have been fixed, I guess Zynga just doesn’t care enough to do so.

    Also, I think you should reconsider your criticism of the social aspects of the game. I’m not claiming that the game is truly social, but calling it spam is a bit of a knee-jerk reaction. Perhaps if you played it more or had more friends that played it, you may have realized that you can limit your social activity (gifting/neighboring) to just your friends who have already opted into the game and thus have chosen to accept the (IMHO highly unobtrusive thanks to Facebook) messaging that comes with friend notifications etc. If you can accept that people completely control whether or not they want to hear about Farmville, which I believe to be true, and take a look at how the messaging is tied into gameplay, you’ll realize that Farmville is a *brilliant* example of a viral application. The free gifts are essentially nudges to your friends to keep playing. Helping a friend out on their farm is another nudge. Neighboring is yet another nudge. Farmville basically turns each component of the social graph into a massive self-nudging vortex, and people cannot forget about Farmville. No indies are even remotely tapping into this kind of virality to my knowledge. PS: You are not viral unless your viral coefficient is > 1. Getting on digg or AOTS or whatever does not make you viral!

    Bottom line is Zynga’s success should be studied and we should endeavor to take what they do right and leave behind what is “evil”. I truly believe there is space for an “honest” game out there that has all the virality of these “social” games. Part of Zynga’s success is that they’ve copied competitors games which weren’t very defensible due to their simplicity, and just marketed them better as well as way dialed up their virality. If someone were to build a game of “significance”, it might be more defensible against Zynga’s copy-and-beat-you playbook.

    Someone will crack the nut eventually.

  2. It’s a bit harsh to leapt from scams to Farmville in one sentence and I don’t think you can write Farmville off as “not fun” simply because it requires grind or offers micro-transactions. In fact the grinding *is* the fun part, much like trading in Elite, levelling up in World Of Warcraft or farming in Harvest Moon.

    Actually, paying for in-game items takes away the fun as (aside from the machinery) the items are purely decoration and have no real effect and *that* is cynical part. Once people realise that the items ultimately fail to improve the game they soon lose interest. Like Animal Crossing the real-time nature of the game is great and while the social aspect is paper thin it does work extremely well.

    It is also quite possible to enjoy Farmville for weeks without paying a penny. I should know because I did. And so did my sister, me wife, many friends…

  3. Sorry Simon, I disagree there about WoW and grinding.

    Trading in Elite is fun because it takes skill and thought.
    It’s the old “series of interesting choices”, do you risk trading in dodgy stuff in the dangerous systems for the quick cash or do you trade slowly and build up slowly?
    Do you jump to the edge of your range and hope the prices are worth it or do you go close by?

    With World of Warcraft, once you start getting high up in the rankings it you end up having to grind away doing the same old bits over and over just to get your self to a level where you can proceed.
    To me that’s just dull!

    I actually play Farmville occasionally though, I have to say that Farmville is a reasonably fun game to a point.
    It’s a slow game where you don’t have to put much thought into it to get far but you can still progress.
    However, the problem with Farmville is the standard currency is fairly worthless after a certain level and to get further into the game you need to use the “special” currency, which, of course, you have to pay for.
    You end up with a huge amount of the standard currency but nothing to spend it on.


  4. Fair point, but for me it’s still the lure of unattainable items that keeps games like Elite, WoW etc interesting. The problem with Farmville is that the items serve no purpose, so why anyone would spend real money on it is beyond me. People do though. They even raised $0.5 million for charity through the Haiti seeds. If I remember rightly only 50% went to charity. Not a bad little earner eh?

  5. Well I do agree with you there.

    While the items serve the same purpose as any other game really, they’re either decoration or an in-game asset, they do push you to use real-world money to pay for them.
    To be fair to Farmville it is sold as a “beta” game and a lot of the decorative items, like barns, are starting to get functionality added to them.
    E.g. there’s now a cow shed which holds something like 6 cows.

    As Cliffski said, Farmville is a good example of this new trend of social games which are designed by marketers purely to be a money sink for the players rather than designed for fun.

    As a game developer it does leave a bit of a bad taste when you see that happening.

  6. ah yes, the horrors of social networking games.. mafia wars is an even worse grind .. the surprising thing is that, although not very interactive, they capture the player’s imagination as well. Anyway, after a few 1000 clicks i swore all of them off, i believe they’re an unbelievable waste of time

  7. I play Mafia Wars and think that though it can be fun (and when friending random people can actually introduce you to some pretty cool people), I somehow got scammed and thanks to your post I caught it in time before I got any seriously expensive cell phone charges. So, thank you and shame on Zynga (tho I admit I still play and I still like it).

    I bet if you designed a social game it would beat Zynga in terms of quality, fun, and lack of scamminess, which might be just what some disillusioned players might like. Just sayin’. :)

  8. My gosh, I can’t believe people use Farmville (I don’t think you can call it a game).

    “Fair point, but for me it’s still the lure of unattainable items that keeps games like Elite, WoW etc interesting.”

    Wow, Isn’t that so exciting!
    These types of games are like junkfood (or porn), they lure you with their brief taste and then leave you feeling crap.
    Whereas intelligent game designers are actually human people who want to make something worthwhile.

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