It’s the social virus, not the game.

Raph has a lengthy post up on his site talking about social games being considered by some as ‘second class’ citizens of the gaming world, among other points. My own personal experience with social games is somewhat limited, but I have played a few on the iPhone and at least seen Farmville in ‘action’. I’ve also done my fair share of reading concerning Zynga’s business practices and what makes the business as a whole tick.

Before I really get into my main point though, I do want to highlight one part concerning the money aspect. From Raph’s post:

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.

To me the above sounds like a whole lot of excuses. On the one hand the allstar of social gaming is Zynga and Farmville, and at the same time Raph is saying that not everyone is Zynga. Who is ‘not everyone’, and why are we not talking about them? I’ve seen countless Mafia Wars clones, but at the end of the day they are cloning the Mafia Wars business. Companies try to clone WoW because the $15 a month model worked for Blizzard and made them millions. Imagine talking about AAA MMOs if WoW’s success was not based on the $15 a month model, but because the game automatically signed you up for a credit report service every time you created a new character. Show me a Mafia Wars or Farmville-level game WITHOUT the scams and shady practices (spamming your friends) to keep it going, and we can talk.

But even if the business does get cleaned up and still makes the same amount of money, in my opinion there is still the bigger issue that games like Mafia Wars and Farmville are, well, not very good. I mean if you had an hour in front of your PC to do anything you want and you had access to everything in gaming, how high would playing Farmville rank?

Social gaming is, in many ways, similar to blogging in this regard. There is a very good reason the majority of blog traffic and content happens between 8am and 5pm; people are at work and are bored with limited choices available to them. The key being ‘limited choices’, because as soon as that limit is lifted even slightly, we see the effect it has on blogging.

Let me put it this way: if I had the choice between playing a MMO and blogging about it, I would choose to play every single time. But when the choice is between blogging and spacing out at work, I’ll toss up a blog post. Or read one. Because I also don’t read blogs at home unless I happen to be semi-afk in an MMO (which might explain the popularity of EVE blogs… I kid, mostly.)

Which is also why blogs are free to read; the stuff is not ‘good enough’ to pay for. I love reading the few blogs I visit daily, but there is not a single one I would pay for, just like there was not a single ‘social’ iPhone game that I played that I even remotely considered worth spending 99 cents on, and I’ve bought more than a few rather meh iPhone games.

And here is the real kicker, if Farmville 2.0 is a better game in terms of gameplay, it’s self-defeating. It stops being easy enough to mindlessly poke at while on the train or during a commercial break on TV, or to attract the ‘non-gaming’ crowd, but short of becoming a ‘real’ game, it still won’t be good enough to make the list when given the choice of gaming options. Which is why the social gaming business needs those ‘other’ sources of revenue, because when asking for payment straight up most people don’t see anything they would be willing to pay for. The barrier of entry when something is free is much, much lower than even something as cheap as 99 cents, and just one look at the iPhone app store is all the evidence you need to see that.

Ultimately making social games as successful as possible has very little to do with making them a better game, and more to do with making them a better or more clever carrier for your particular ‘virus’. The more people you can infect, the more hosts you have and the faster you spread. I don’t think it’s difficult to see why members of the gaming community would not accept social ‘gaming’ with open arms, or why game devs don’t see what the people at Zynga are doing to grow their business as quite the same thing as making the best possible game.

16 Responses to It’s the social virus, not the game.

  1. sid67 says:

    I’m not convinced that a defining characteristic of Facebook games is that they need to be mindless.

    I AGREE that there are some intrinsic qualities that make them work friendly.

    Social games need to be accessible (run in a browser) and they need to be unobtrusive.

    Are simple browser applets accessible and unobtrusive? Yes. But that doesn’t make simplicity and lack of depth is not the requirement. It’s the approach.

    Blogging can be deeply complex as a time waster. It’s also accessible and unobtrusive.

    Personally, I am looking forward to Civilization coming to Facebook. I think it would be kick ass to dominate the world against my friends while at work.

    In my mind, that’s Farmville 2.0.

  2. […] at Hardcore Casual posted a response to Raph’s post about social gaming.  In it, he asked this question: On the one hand the […]

  3. bonedead says:

    lengthy*, bitch!

  4. Malakili says:

    Whats the definition of “social game.” Seriously, I’m not sure at what point something goes from being a normal game to being a social game. Where does something like Free Realms of Club Penguin fall?

    • sid67 says:

      A social game is any game which takes place on a social networking site like Facebook or MySpace.

      It’s understood that any online game is social, but it’s the networking site piece of the equation that’s important for defining “social games”.

      • Malakili says:

        Ok, I can work with that. I can easily say I am not remotely interested in “social games” by this definition.

  5. Bhagpuss says:

    I do all my extensive reading of blogs and posting on same in my own free time at home. When I’m at work, I work.

    Every day before I ever log into an MMO I read the news on two or three MMO gaming sites and then read all the new entries on Virgin Worlds “Updated Today” blog list, posting on whatever catches my attention. It’s generally between 30 and 90 minutes from when I switch my PC on until I move from reading blogs to playing MMOs.

    I’m probably more interested in reading and writing about MMOs than playing them, and I do often think of much of my playing as “research”.

    • sid67 says:

      Someone needs to add Bhagpuss to the Urban Dictionary.

      Bhagpuss (n): An individual who consistently likes to prove themselves as the exception to the rule.

      Seriously, I can’t imagine how hard your life must be when you go through it backwards all the time.

      I swear that whenever I think of what ‘normal’ people do, I just have to remember it’s the opposite of whatever Bhagpuss is doing.

      • Bhagpuss says:

        Heh! I should start a cult.

      • Zubon says:

        Bhagpuss is the reason why one of my econ profs had a rule that you could not object to principles that guide the entire economy with “But my cousin knows this one guy who…”

    • valkrysa says:

      Same, before I jump into the game of choice for the night I open up 5 tabs for my daily blogs.

  6. Logan says:

    I’ve been beating this drum for the past week or so, and i think i finally figured out the best way to explain the whole facebook games issue.

    i’m going to post this comment on various forums and blogs i’ve been following where this topic has come up. so don’t be suprised if you see this exact comment somewhere else on the web… this is a fairly long post so bear with me.

    the key issue that a lot of pro-facebook individuals are overlooking is the fact that facebook games are INFERIOR goods, therefor the common thinking that an increase in quality leads to an increased demand is simply not true. inferior goods behave the exact opposite.

    In consumer theory, an inferior good is “a good that decreases in demand when consumer income rises, unlike normal goods, for which the opposite is observed. Normal goods are those for which consumers’ demand increases when their income increases.”

    lets use an inferior good that most people can relate to, Ramen Noodles. i love Ramen Noodles, as a college student i can’t tell you how awesome Ramen Noodles are… but, as soon as i start making enough money to afford something better, i’ll gladly never taste another Ramen Noodle again.

    Like Ramen Noodles, facebook games are only going to be consumed when we can’t afford anything better (in this case the cost is time and energy). so we’re only going to play facebook games when we don’t have enough time or energy to do something better… as soon as we have more time and energy available to us, we will stop playing facebook games and move on to other “better” games. (just like how we only purchase Ramen when we can’t afford something better, and as soon as we can afford something better, we stop buying Ramen.)

    it’s the same as if you went to a store and there was the regular old Ramen, and sitting next to it on the shelf was a New and Improved Ramen… regular Ramen is 15 cents a package, while the New Ramen is 25 cents a package… which one are you going to buy?

    well the fact that you’re in the market for Ramen means that the most important thing to you is COST (lowest time and energy investment).. so you’re going to buy the cheapest product, quality doesn’t matter to you. (otherwise you would have headed for the steaks instead of the ramen)

    quality games require a time and energy investment not found in facebook games… and it’s this lack of investment that makes facebook games appealing… as soon as you cross that threshold into a “good” game, then the cost (time and energy) required to participate in the “good” game becomes too high, and the demand for that game will drop off… because once a game becomes “good” then it is a NORMAL good, and facebook users cannot afford normal goods… they don’t have enough time or energy.

    facebook games are inferior goods… “good” games are normal goods. facebook users WANT inferior goods because it suits their playstyle and it’s all they can afford… normal goods will not perform as well because facebook users simply cannot afford them… it’s like trying to sell a steak to a poor person who only makes $1 a week, he can either buy an extremely tiny steak that would last him less than a day, and he’d go hungry the other 6… or he can buy a week’s supply of ramen… which would you choose?

    i’m not saying you won’t see good games on facebook, but good games won’t benefit anything by being on facebook.

    besides, would you really rather log into facebook to play civilization? and deal with all the extra crap that facebook brings? or would you rather play the game like normal, but have an app that connects the game and facebook?

    personally i’d rather have the regular game, and then an app that automatically searches my facebook for friends that also have the game, and then adds them to my in-game friends list. then i can easily interact with my friends in-game, but i don’t have to deal with all the ads, spam, random messages, that i’d have to put up with if the whole game was played through facebook. also an app could be like the PSN app that shows what you download from PSN in your facebook feed.. so in this way you could easily share your accomplishments in-game with your facebook friends, without all the intrusive facebook stuff… i see more benefits in keeping the game and facebook at arm’s length, than you could get by tightly integrating them.

    do you really want your civilization gaming to be interrupted by random friends telling you about the awesome party they went to last night? do you really want pop ups notifying you of all the farmville gifts you just got intruding on your gameplay? do you really want ads in the sidebar distracting you from your gaming? or even worse, ads IN the game itself?

    all of the above things are what make facebook games successful. these things are fine when you’re playing something with little to no gameplay, like Farmville, but when the gameplay becomes more engaging and more interesting, and requires more of your attention, like Civilization, are you really going to put up with all this extra crap distracting you from the “good” gameplay.

    basically what i’m trying to say is that facebook is a platform for inferior goods, not normal goods… so the thinking that higher quality leads to higher demand, which is generally true for normal goods.. is not true for inferior goods and therefor facebook.

    i hope this makes sense, it’s the best explanation i could come up with.

    – Logan

    • SynCaine says:

      More or less what I was trying to get at in the second part of my post, but simply worded a lot better here. It’s why a game dev looks down on a FB ‘game’ dev much the same way a chef looks down on a Ramen Noodle ‘chef’. One is trying to make the highest quality product they can, the other is trying to produce anything edible at the absolute lowest possible cost.

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