Thursday, April 8, 2010

Where Gaming Meets Social Networking: Farmville and (hopefully) Beyond

Just read an article by Soren Johnson on Game Guide Reviews about Farmville, which concludes with this: "Obviously, developers are wary of how Facebook gaming will change the industry in the years ahead. (Compare the importance of business metrics now with 1997s Ultima Online, which lead designer Raph Koster points out wasnt designed around any business model in particular.) The irony is that Facebook games typically share four characteristics that really do promise great things for both gamers and designers: -True friends list: Gaming can now happen exclusively within the context of ones actual friends. Multiplayer games no longer suffer from the catch-22 of requiring friends to be fun while new players always start the game without friends. -Free-to-play business model: New players need not shell out $60 to join the crowd. Consumers dont like buying multiplayer games unless they know that their friends are all going to buy the game as well. Free-to-play removes that friction. -Persistent, asynchronous play: Finding time to play with ones real friends is difficult, especially for working, adult gamers. Asynchronous mechanics, however, let gamers play at their own pace and with their own friends, not strangers who happen to be online at the same time. -Metrics-based iteration: Retail games are developed in a vacuum, with designers working by gut instinct. Further, games get only one launch, a single chance to succeed. Most developers would love, instead, to iterate quickly on genuine, live feedback. These four pillars are the reason why many game developers are flocking to Facebook. (Of course, many of these characteristics are not exclusive to Facebook, but combining them together with such a large audience makes Facebook the obvious choice right now.) However, Jesse Schell is right; a war is brewing over who will call the shots. The question is not simply one of suits-vs-creatives. The question is will designers take the time to learn the business, to learn how to pay the bills while also delivering a fantastic game experience? As BioWares Ray Muzyka put it during a panel on connected gaming, ultimately all decisions are made with a goal to make money, but the goal may be short-term revenue (can we sell more blue hats tomorrow?) or long-term growth (does our community believe in what we are doing? are we creating life-long fans?). The successes will not come from open conflict between design and business but from developers who internalize the tension and attack the problem holistically. I have to admit my own reservations about this transformation; game design itself simply might be not as much fun as it used to be. I cannot easily sum up how enjoyable brainstorming a game is during the early, heady days of blue skies and distant deadlines. With a release-early-and-iterate mentality, these days are now over, for good. Games will no longer be a manifestation of an individuals (or a teams) pure imagination and, instead, will grow out of the murky grey area between developers and players. The designer-as-auteur ideal is perhaps incompatible with this model, but I believe the best game designers are the ones willing to get dirty to engage fully with a community to discover which ideas actually work and which ones were simply wishful thinking. Loss of control is never fun, but as Sid is fond of saying, the player should be the one having the fun, after all, not the designer."
Very interesting, those four characteristics. The idea that asynchronous play is appealing for one's real friends is a really important one, because a game can become the mode through which contact and shared experience can continue even if your lives make it hard to have synchronous computer-mediated quality time never mind face to face interactions. So building that into a game goes against so much of the MMO kind of thing, or the synchronous virtual world, where the social interactions are predicated on who is around at the same time.

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