Wednesday, August 4, 2010

What Does Free Really Cost?

Would you like to click a cow? It's free! All your friends are doing it. Your cow is waiting.

Two weeks ago, Ian Bogost released a satirical Facebook game called Cow Clicker. It means to reveal the mindless, repetitive nature of nearly all Facebook games by stripping all the other noise and trappings, leaving just a trivial mechanical task that can be repeated after a certain time interval (or you can pay real money to reduce/eliminate that interval). He writes about it on his blog at length here and Leigh Alexander at Gamasutra interviewed Bogost about the same.

Bogost identifies four qualities of social games he finds distressing. 1) Enframing, social games transform friends into mere resources. 2) Compulsion, social games demand frequent, OCD-esque updating. 3) Optionalism, social games demand you do little more than click a cow. 4) Destroyed time, where combined with compulsion, players are punished for spending time away from the game.

I'm not particularly concerned about the first (a Heidegger quote alone doesn't really persuade, sorry). The second and fourth are worrisome, but far larger concerns in some other types of games, e.g. almost all MMOs. But it's the third thing I find most troubling about social games. When the games consist merely of rote mechanical tasks where the decisions consist of, at best, meaningless colour picking, this becomes perilous when combined with free to play business models.

Now, I have little love for social games and to a lesser extent, other similar free to play games. Beyond Mark Pincus being an awful douche (and quite disappointingly later getting selected to keynote the IGDA's Leadership Forum), I feel there's a pretty fundamental problem that arises from the model of "games as a service."

Because the games are fundamentally free, all the game's features must do two things. One, attract as many people as possible. Two, find ways to get as many of those people to pay as much as possible. The strategy is to identify which of your users are the "whales" and get them to empty their wallets early and often. The term whale originally comes from casinos, the same industry that brought us the slot machine (another skill-less rote mechanical task you pay to perform).

I would say my role on DeathSpank (and everyone else's, really) was to create something lots of people would want to pay $15 dollars for. The difference being, the way I see to do that is to help make the most engaging, amusing game possible. As it's a discrete product, once we've transacted, we're done. I don't need to find a way to get another $15 (and another, and another) out of you. If we've really done our job right, you'll like the game so much, you'll tell your friends about it.

Social games monetize doing the opposite. You want to create a game that's compulsive and then start erecting barriers. Then you provide incentives to pay to remove those barriers. Players who aren't whales are only valuable because they are good bait for whales. They can spread the game around, attracting whales and they provide social pressure to keep playing the game, keeping the whales around and paying. But they're not valuable at all (in fact, they're only a cost) unless they're attracting or keeping whales around. David Hayward summarizes this as a "Fuck the users" approach and I'd say he's about right. Naturally, this collapses to making the games into rote, simple actions, as to attract and retain as many people as possible. Social games don't have to be high quality beyond a certain minimum threshold. Quality in something free is actually an expense that offers diminishing returns pretty quickly.

Some might say all games put up artificial barriers (after all, we could just make the player invincible and give them infinite ammo, right?), but I think that's an unfair comparison. If I'm playing chess with someone, I can intentionally make idiotic moves and throw the game. But that's hardly fun or engaging. The difference with a digital game is the designers front-load all their moves and let you play it out asynchronously. Depth and challenge make the game more compelling. For social games, they're actually a determent. Complexity compromises making the game accessible to as many players as possible and less players means less whales. Less whales means less revenue.

I'm saddened seeing ostensibly experienced and wise veterans like Brenda Brathwaite or Brian Reynolds talking about social games as a "game for designers" with all the access to data and feedback systems. And while that's kind of true, it's a game whose only objective is to separate people from their money. It's a game that's won by targeting whales, getting as much money from them as possible and giving them as little as you can in exchange. That's certainly no game I'd ever want to play.

Without the threshold provided by paying once for a single product and more importantly, needing to be perceived as being worth paying for, the incentives for creators become backward. It's not about making something so good people want to pay for it. It's about making the simplest, most available experience and finding ways to keep a subset of players coming back and paying over and over again. Inherently, you have to build a lesser product. If the free version is so good that nobody wants to pay for additional features, revenue is not possible.

I'd actually say I feel more or less the same way about social games that I do about Las Vegas. I'd certainly never say Vegas shouldn't exist, but I don't think anyone sensible would claim it's fair or a particularly valuable use of one's time. But at least Vegas offers the chance of real reward for playing. Social games merely devour time (and possibly money) in exchange for manipulating your brain to feel happy about clicking a cow. Being asked to strategize and improve is fundamentally at odds with the business model.

I don't think the social games are some dark future that must be combated with fang and claw. Some may absurdly claim they're "eating the lunch" of traditional games. But it's not like the people that would have bought Red Dead Redemption are opting for Frontierville instead. It's a different (I'd argue, far less discerning) audience. But it's an audience that's being taken advantage of, even if it is consensual.

Social games offer access to millions upon millions of people. I just find it kind of lame that the perceived ideal use for their time is to offer them an opportunity to click on a cow and then ask them to pay to click on the cow more often.

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Blogger David Carlton said...

Going for whales is one strategy to make money on social games; it's not clear to me that it's the only good strategy. And, even if you're going for whales, I don't see why that should be at tension with keeping your quality high - why shouldn't whales prefer high quality games? You bring up casinos as an analogy - do whales there disproportionately prefer slot machines (low quality) to poker (high quality)?

Actually, I guess I just don't understand the role of whales in your argument at all. You say yourself that social games want to attract as many users as possible, which suggests that social game developers aren't obsessed with whales. (And, incidentally, most social game developers I know want as many people to experience their work as possible for reasons of simple human satisfaction, though of course we're also aware of whether or not we're making money by doing so.)

I think there are specific tactics than you can follow if you're trying to make as much money as possible from whales, but I don't see you talking about those tactics in your post - you transition instead from whales to saying that social games want to attract and retain as many users as possible (which I agree with) and then say that that's a bad thing (which I disagree with in general, though there are some tactics towards that end that I like more than others).

I also don't understand what's so great about upfront fixed-price payment. Consider three players of a hypothetical game:

* Player A didn't like the game, and regrets having spent money on it.
* Player B played through it once, and enjoyed it but thought once was enough.
* Player C happily played through it a bunch of times.

Let's also assume that we're comparing a pay-as-you-go model versus a model priced to be a fair value for a single playthrough.

Both models end up having the same cost for player B, so that's a wash. The upfront payment model makes player A actively unhappy and player C actively happy. The pay-as-you-go model moderates both A and C's feelings - A will still feel unhappy but not ripped off, C will still feel happy but not feel like they got a bargain.

Why is one of these models better than the other? (For moral reasons, or personal satisfaction reasons, not financial reasons.) Why are designers' incentives reversed in these two models? I really honestly just don't get that at all.

August 4, 2010 at 1:14 PM  
Blogger The Chairman said...

That techcrunch article was a big piece of sensationalist garbage. Zynga does not have scammy offers any more and they didn't have them when the article was published.

And all this talk about Cow Clicker is frustrating. Bogost has obviously gotten a lot of media coverage with his cheap low blow to the social gaming giant, but lets look at his hypothesis (people only play farmville because of cheap psychological tricks)

If that was the case than Cow clicker would be the most popular game on facebook

lets compare,

It's not like Farmville has 1700 times as much content or tricks. Meaning there must be some fundamental thing Farmville has, which Cow Clicker does not. Farmville's users care about their animals, they care about what their friends are doing, and some of them will spent a few bucks to decorate the virtual place they care so much about. What's so bad about that?

August 4, 2010 at 1:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@The Chairman: isn't it a bit unfair to compare Farmville with Cow clicker in terms of popularity? From what I understand, Cow clicker is more of an experiment to prove a point than a full game. It's so stripped down to the essentials that you can't expect it to have the same appeal.

That being said, I like how this article puts in perspective the big questions of social games: revenue, the quality of games, their future and the responsibility of the developers. The latter is especially important, and so easily overlooked!

August 4, 2010 at 2:31 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@David Thanks David. The tone I adopted above may be a bit antagonistic, but I genuinely appreciate your thoughts.

My concern really is with nearly all social games (and certainly the most popular ones) devolving into rote mechanical actions. While I don't think the casino comparison is wholly apt, ~70% of casino income does come from slots, which are totally skill-less.

As far as I'm aware, the whale-based revenue model relies on attracting as many people as possible to increase whale numbers, but also to retain those whales. Eponymously, social games rely on a ecosystem of players to attract and retain whales. (I don't think anyone would claim Facebook games would be compelling if they could only be played alone)

I assume the revenue increase from getting more players in that pool is not linear (as is it with stand-alone products). My concern is that this creates a positive feedback loop where the simpler a game is, the more people it attracts and the more money is earns. If that is the case, could the end game be anything but cow clicking?

I can't help but feeling worried that the conversation about social games is almost always dominated by discussions of how to increase revenue. It seems every feature has to justify its existence by demonstrating profitability and doing so right now. But with a single, fixed-price project, only the experience as a whole has to be seen as worth paying for.

Even smart folks like Brenda and Brian only seem to talk about revenue. I'd like to imagine it's just a matter of letting this style of game mature, but given the leaders that dominate this space, it's really challenging to see that happening. I just can't see someone writing something like this about social games, but I'd love to be wrong.

Again, I appreciate your thoughts. And believe me, I'm glad you're doing what you do. I just wish there were more Davids =)

August 4, 2010 at 5:17 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@TheChairman Farmville was created by a multi-billion dollar corporation with thousands of employees. Cow Clicker is satire created by a professor. Do you really think comparing their player numbers is useful?

@Hugo I find a lot of the conversation about the value of social games boils down to "They're good because they're popular." While it's possible for that to be true, it's certainly not the given that many seem to think it is. And this certainly isn't isolated to social games; there are a great many popular things that are a far cry from good.

August 4, 2010 at 5:20 PM  
Blogger David Carlton said...

I don't think that it's the case that the Facebook model depends inherently on a single game that appeals to everybody - as somebody who works with economists at a social game company, I'm quite sure those economists aware of the virtues of market segmentation. And maybe Ian Bogost will get rich off of cow clicking, but I'm not betting on it...

I also don't think that social game developers only think in terms of profit. I'm taking part in a reading group right now with those same economists, and we're going through Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design; I also play board games at work regularly with a group of designers, product managers, and developers, and my experience there convinces me that they don't only care about profit. We all want our games to be profitable; we also all want our games to be satisfying, and we all hope and believe that those aren't inherently in tension.

In terms of social games being a game for designers: yes, money is our primary ultimate scoring mechanism, but game design wouldn't be a very good game if that were all designers were paying attention to! And it's not: we have lots of other metrics that we track, many of which are attempts at proxies for customer enjoyment, and even long-term customer enjoyment, which I'll continue to maintain is a good thing. If you want to see an example of the sort of theorizing that Brenda is doing, check out her blog post on Some forming social game theories - 16 bullet points, and money isn't mentioned in them once.

I'll have to think more about the Clint Hocking blog post that you referred to. There's a lot of good stuff there; are there particular points that you would like to refer to in it that you see as especially relevant to this discussion? I'll start with one: farms in FarmVille are a form of player expression, and Clint says (italics in the original) "The point is that it doesn't matter if the vast majority of player expressions are nonsensical and seem to be 'bad art' - the beauty comes from the fact that they are player expressions."

Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that I like everything about social games right now, that a metrics-driven approach is the only right way to develop games, that everybody should enjoy the kind of game that Brenda talks about in that blog post (you and I probably would generally prefer to games that don't meet many of her criteria), or that everybody should be focused on money. (Like any art form, ours would be a lot less rich if it didn't have its share of starving artists!) But I also don't see today's most popular social games as slot machines, and I would be pretty surprised if we were to look back on social game development ten years from now and thought that it never got better than today's games.

August 4, 2010 at 9:01 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@David That's great (honestly) and it genuinely is enlivening to know there are some folks thinking beyond just revenue. (Although do you think it's a little weird you work with economists? Doesn't that point to the priorities, at least somewhat? The only non-social developer I know that employs an economist is CCP for Eve and he's responsible for the game's economy, not making money from the game)

Brenda's post is good, but this makes me a little sad:

"Always know precisely what they need to do to solve all problems in the game."

I mean, ouch. That's the opposite of expressiveness. Being told exactly what to do eliminates any motivation to form your own intent. Clint talks about "leaving room for beauty" but having a single correct solution leaves no room at all.

("Be rewarded for every single click either visually, through XP, coins or some other measure of progress." That's a little saddening too, c.f. Chris Hecker's Achievements Considered Harmful?)

All her theories are about the how of making social games. Has anyone tried to codify the why behind making social games? Maybe it's just the suits and VCs dominating the conversation, but it seems the why is just "Make a ton of money."

Don't get me wrong, a lot of "traditional" games have the same motivation. But it seems there are some folks that care about other kinds of why in that space.

Looking at the GDC Europe talks, I could only find a single one related to social games that didn't have monetization, retention, etc. as a large component. But maybe that's a good sign, I don't think there was a single talk of this nature at GDC Prime.

You're much closer to this stuff than I am. I'd like to believe it's getting better, at least from some developers. I think too part of the unpleasantness is due to the gold rush state social games are in right now drawing VCs and encourage the creation of humongous organizations. When the tide inevitably goes back out, hopefully some of the folks left will be able to do more interesting things. There will always be titans (WoW, Zynga), but maybe smaller groups with different motives will be able to succeed too.

Again, I really do appreciate the comments and I'm glad you're doing what you are. I hope I don't come across as too much of a jackass. I honestly do realize at least some of this comes from social games just really not being for me.

August 4, 2010 at 11:44 PM  
Blogger David Carlton said...

Sure, the presence of economists definitely points to priorities. Those priorities are somewhat broader than just maximizing profit - they spend a lot of time encouraging game teams to formulate explicit hypotheses and test them, whether the hypotheses are directly linked to profit - but profit is there.

As to whether or not it's weird; seems pretty normal to me, but then again my background is a math PhD, not game programming, so that's probably evidence that I'm weird! :-) A lot of what they do doesn't sound too dissimilar from what I hear coming out of Valve, though - my impression is that those folks do quite a bit of testing, including measuring metrics (as opposed to only interviewing / observing), and that they have an in-house psychologist. I could be wrong, though.

I agree with you that Brenda's post is describing games that aren't in my sweet spot, and that I don't want all games to be that way. The only quibbles I have are:

* In regards to expressiveness: I actually think that many social games are most interesting when viewed as toys rather than as games. What that means is that the problems to be solved just aren't that interesting; but that creates a void leaving space to mess around in. Games like FarmVille or Social City end up with a lego-like vibe; and Sorority Life has a major component that's basically just playing dress-up with your dolls. So there's still expressiveness, it's just a different kind of expressiveness than I have when, say, playing go.

* I could go either way on the "be rewarded for every click" issue. I have a long-seated distrust of extrinsic motivators, but that particular statement gives me more of a "The Lens of Visible Progress" (in Schell's terminology) vibe. So I see it as mostly warning against the sort of frustration that I experienced when banging my head against the beaver puzzle in Grim Fandango, or my recent experience in the Ayame Blackburn fights on Killer 7 where I was playing for 15 minutes with no idea whether I had the right strategy but was executing wrong or whether I had the right strategy and decent execution and just needed to keep on doing it or whether I was doing the wrong thing entirely.

Anyways: no, you're not being too much of a jackass, and I'm definitely adopting a more Polyanna-ish tone than I would if I weren't working on social games. I'll try to work on bringing some of the virtues of traditional games to the social space while not stomping on what new virtues social games have; and, while doing so, I'll depend on people like you to keep on writing games that I play more on evenings and weekends...

August 5, 2010 at 9:34 AM  
Blogger JPLC said...

Thanks for writing this, Nels. In my eyes, you hit the nail on the head.

August 6, 2010 at 4:54 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@David Definitely a fair assessment, I think. Social games less as games and more as toys is an interesting perspective I hadn't really considered. Thanks again for all the good thoughts, I genuinely appreciate it.

@JPLC Thanks, but definitely do take a minute and read David's thoughts too, if you haven't. It's always good to get another perspective and David is a real smart guy.

August 7, 2010 at 6:29 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm really enjoying your recent posts Nels. Good job on thinking about this stuff.

I wonder how much of this social games wave is a temporary thing. Will people see that they're being manipulated and develop cultural resistance towards exploitative mechanics?

The other question, is there such a thing as a niche social game? That's a contradiction in terms right now. On the other hand, Facebook is just a platform. If people develop sophisticated, divergent tastes then maybe we'll see small indie Facebook games.

August 8, 2010 at 11:09 AM  
Blogger JPLC said...


I almost always read the comments, don't worry. David brings up some good points, but your original post still resonates with me.

August 8, 2010 at 12:58 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alex Yeah, I dunno. The business model makes it pretty tricky. Roughly, 2% of people playing a free game will buy virtual goods and if you're doing really well, you might get $10/month from them. So one needs tens of thousands of users to ever start making a sustainable amount of revenue. And that's not really niche, or at least not niche given how many millions of people play social games. Not saying it's impossible, of course, but certainly harder given the market.

Bogost said Cow Clicker pays about for its server costs. There's no way he could make a living off of it.

August 8, 2010 at 3:45 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@JPLC Excellent =)

August 8, 2010 at 3:46 PM  
Blogger 5parrowhawk said...

I think the worrying thing about Facebook games, at least as far as the "no gameplay" aspect goes, is that they may be taking casual audiences away from casual games which actually have gameplay.

I mean, as much as hardcore gamers used to revile Bejeweled, Diner Dash and all their clones/etc, those games do possess significant scope for meaningful decision-making - something which is not often found in FB games.

August 18, 2010 at 1:01 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@5parrowhawk Aye, it seems that ostensibly casual games designed without the free-to-play necessity to monetize everything don't suffer from a lot of these issues.

And really, Bejeweled isn't that far off from Tetris and Diner Dash isn't that different from Tapper. While not exactly deep, I don't think many would claim those old arcade games are poor games.

August 18, 2010 at 9:30 AM  

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