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.