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Why We Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Social Games

Today I’d like to talk about Facebook games and why hardcore gamers have no reason fear them.  But before I do, I’ll provide the full, brutal disclosure: I work for the guys that made and maintain all those ‘Ville games.  No!  Wait!  Don’t go!  Though I am now a purposeful defender of social games (meaning games on the Facebook platform), it is decidedly not due to any corporate brainwashing, to be absolutely sure.  I was with the lot of you myself at one point–a skeptic–scoffing at Facebook quote-unquote games and the silly-ass wall spammage brought with them.  But I’ve matured, reasoned, and reflected; I’ve done my research, spoken with Zynga CEO Mark Pincus and a multitude of Zynga Boston guys whom I fervently admire (as well as a few not-so-local ones in this category), and I’ve played a ton of social games.   There is a lot of good in these games, and I’d like to show you.

Looking at appdata.com, there is no denying Zynga as a critical, powerful player in the game industry today; while many AAA console titles must sell a million copies to break even, Zynga’s CityVille alone carries over 20 million daily active users.  Yikes.  FarmVille, the title that put Zynga on the map, holds third place as of this writing, just behind Windows Live Messenger–a communication tool–at just over 13 million daily active users.  These are just two of the handful of games by Zynga that regularly populate the the top 15 app listings (based on MAU, DAU, or both) on Facebook–and that’s not just limited to games, but all applications.  If these numbers aren’t enough to illustrate Zynga’s dominance over Facebook (or the internet at large), check this out: looking at the developers of apps on Facebook (and not just games), and looking at monthly active users, Zynga holds the top spot at over 255 million.  The next highest games-only developer, coming in the form of industry colossus EA, sits at a jaw-droppingly contrasted 35 million.  That’s a 220 million MAU spread.  Double yikes.

Happily, for more traditional gamers at least, social gaming czar Zynga isn’t here to erode the hardcore AAA culture of games, no.  They are here to provide a meaningful experience for a particular audience, and although I am not part of their target demographic, I earnestly understand and appreciate what they offer, and why they offer it.  But make no mistake, the triple-A fare we know and love isn’t going anywhere; in my opinion, social games are bringing more and more people into the gaming fold, providing for wider and wider opportunity for casual players to make the leap to a dedicated console.  At the very least playing games is becoming more mainstream, more accepted to folks of all ages.

Creative Director at Zynga Chris Trottier (and 2011 Women in Games award winner) gave a GDC presentation entitled “Designing Games for the 43-Year Old Woman.”  In it, she pointed out a few eye-opening points.  First, she pointed out a 2010 PopCap study which said that the “average social gamer is a 43-year-old woman.”  Though she is but one woman in the demographic, she then conveyed what she feels so often as a mother raising children: being bothered, hassled, and challenged.  These are most definitely things she is not interested in when she has precious free time, particularly when it comes to gaming.  She is of the belief that games like FarmVille, City, and Frontier offer the perfect kind of gameplay she, as a busy and stressed mother, is looking for in a five-minute break from a full lifestyle: make a few do-no-wrong decisions, click-click-click toward something greater, interact with friends and family, and absorb that satisfying PopCap-style dazzle.

With an hour-or-two to myself each day, I’m inclined to share in this belief.  I wish I could play the bajesus out of triple-A fare, but I’m lucky to knock out a flavor-of-the-week shooter in a month’s time.  Mostly I find myself playing iOS games, those on the Windows 7 Phone, and on Facebook, mostly because the time I always have to play is almost always on-the-go.  And I don’t even have kids yet.

This is where the traditional hardcore sneer and jeer arises.  “You’re calling time-based crop mechanics gameplay?!” Well, yes.  Recently an article published on Gamasutra questioned the logic on which so many social gaming opponents rest their cases: shallow gameplay.  After reducing a few dozen console games to “pressing the ‘A’ button for 40 hours until you win,” the author presents an image of two games alongside the claim, “ONE of these games has shallow gameplay.  But just one.”  The two games are FarmVille and Harvest Moon.  This article is a refreshing and well-done check-and-balance to all the social gaming naysayers claiming there is nothing of value in a social game.  Want more?  According to that same 2010 PopCap study, “80{33432aa694e5f3438fe8434693c65104c8003966d5d6736d07d2c878ff0de51a} of social gamers [report] that playing social games strengthens their relationship with friends, family, and colleagues.”  Still want more?  If you buy into anything from Jane McGonigal’s research, she’s been saying for some time now that playing games makes folks happier, more positive, more productive, more empowered, and more confident in the real-world.  With the gargantuan audiences social games reach, this would then be a very good thing.

And as for the wall spam from Facebook game requests, are the twitter updates from Sword & Sworcery any different?

There is always a certain degree of excitement surrounding the appearance of something new successfully challenging a longstanding formula.  But I think Jesse Schell summed it up best at his 2010 DICE talk when he illustrated the following equation: EA – 1,500 full time employees + Playfish – $300 million = WTF?!”  Although Zynga seems unstoppable (that $300 million Playfish acquisition?  That’s the 220 million MAU spread pointed out earlier), a ton of legendary designers and authors are entering the space, taking social games very seriously.  Classical RTS designer Brian Reynolds joined the Zynga crew, but Raph Koster consulted on Deep Realms and Brenda Brathwaite and John Romero got Ravenwood Fair off the ground.

Although I am not a member of the 43-year-old woman demographic, I can certainly relate to what Trottier means when she explains what she wants in a game: a proverbial glass of wine, small expectations, and simple charm.  When I don’t have time to sink a few hours into my home consoles, I always have time for a few minutes of Dungeon Raid, Zombie Lane, or Ilomilo.  And particularly in the case of Facebook games, when a few real-life friends are racing to build their cities in CityVille, there is fun to be had.  You just need to be willing to suck it up and give it a try.


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