Tobold's Blog
Monday, October 26, 2009
 
Facebook games: Scam or useful tool?

While I am present on Facebook as Tobold Stoutfoot, I wasn't actually using Facebook all that much up to about a week ago. Then I read somebody claiming that the future of gaming was Facebook apps, some of which already have millions of players, and I decided to see for myself what the fuzz was about. I tried out several different Facebook games, and quickly realized certain commonalities. These games all work along the same simple lines:

1) Gameplay is extremely simple, and does not require a whole lot of tactical or strategic thought. Basically you click on something, and you get a reward. The next reward is never more than a few clicks away. And it is very obvious what to do to get the next reward, so your chance of failure is small. Facebook games are simple Skinner boxes.

2) All these apps have some important elements based on real time. As you are rewarded for a few simple clicks, the game basically needs to stop you from doing those simple clicks for hours repeatedly and rise to the top too fast. Real time elements are the answer to that, in different forms. Either your click starts a process for which you can gather the reward only hours later, or you have a maximum number of activity you can do before your pool of energy / stamina / whatever runs out, and you need to wait hours for it to refill. In consequence you are encouraged to play Facebook games in short spurts, not taking more than a few minutes, but to come back every day, or even several times per day.

3) With the real time elements braking you out, it is likely that you feel an urge to advance faster than the game will let you. But, lo and behold, the Facebook app also offers a way out from that dilemma: Microtransactions. You can buy yourself more clicks, leading to more rewards per time unit. Or you can even buy the rewards themselves, for cash. I begin to see why some people are so rabidly opposed to microtransactions, because with Facebook apps you really see just the worst kind of them. For those who don't want to spend money on game advantages directly, there are also lots of indirect ways: The game company has commercial partners, who will give you whatever reward points the game uses in exchange for you signing up for something like ring-tones, or at least for agreeing to be bombarded with advertising.

4) Facebook apps are using the power of social networks. If you and your friends are playing the same game, you can help each other, even if you aren't online at the same time. There is always some mechanism which allows you to recruit your friends, and get some in-game advantage from that. The further you advance in the game, the more often you will actually *need* friends to do certain things. The Facebook app will also encourage you to plaster your "wall" with announcements of your progress, and even offer your friends rewards if they click on those announcements to join the game.

And that is it, the general principle of Facebook games. The purpose is rather obvious: Get people hooked with easy rewards, then block them from gaining those rewards as fast as they want, make them pay you money directly or via another company, and encourage them to invite all their friends to participate. It is an extremely effective way to make money with games, because much of the game is in the interaction of the players with his friends, and doesn't cost the game company anything to produce.

My apologies to those of you who have me as friend of Facebook, and who had to endure a lot of Facebook spam being caused by me trying out the various functionalities of different Facebook games!

Now we could just judge this to be an elaborate scam, and be done with it. But I'm not in the business of judging games, I'm in the business of analyzing them. While I find these Facebook apps to be somewhat distasteful, I do recognize that they "work". Which makes me think that instead of using the working part to squeeze out the maximum amount of money from players, and entice them to get their friends hooked as well, for a minimum amount of game actually delivered, we could use the same principles to make good games even better.

One thing these Facebook games do really well is to allow players to cooperate even if they are not online at the same time. That is an element which is often missing in MMORPGs. The requirement to be online at the same time, and in some cases the additional requirement to stay online together for consecutive blocks of hours, is a strong limitation to classic MMORPGs. Even communication in-game between friends and guild-mates is often quite limited, which is why pretty much every guild in every game has a website *outside* the game. MMORPGs could learn a lot here from Facebook apps: Guilds could have cooperative in-game projects to which every guild member can contribute at his own pace and timing. MMORPGs could be integrated with social network websites, where your character info would always automatically be up to date, and you'd automatically be part of the social group representing your guild. Guild forums and raid calendars could be part of that social network group functionality, and be accessible both from inside the game and from outside, via a browser or even via a smart phone.

In short, Facebook apps are using some quite powerful social engineering tools. And just like most tools, they can be used for different purposes, good or bad. Just like a hammer can be used for bashing somebody's head in, or for something constructive, these social engineering tools can be used for fleecing suckers on Facebook, or to create the next generation of MMORPGs.
Comments:
I use to play Diplomacy on Facebook. I really like this game, but I think is in other "category". There are few Facebook games programed by "fans", so no Microtransactions.
 
Heartless_ found a pink willy-wisp dinger dong. Click here to adopt it.
 
But the popular ones, or seemingly popular ones seeing how often they show up in the FB feeds, are all very simple and rather dumb little games.

Tobold had a post a while ago where he touched upon them before and I noted then that only bored housewives play them (which technically isn't true, but a lot of them do.)

Things like FB may get non-gamers gaming, but what is there in the form of actual games is generally rather dumb.
 
Rock, paper, shotgun had a small article on those facebook apps.

Reminds me a bit of Travian. You get resources over time. And you can start projects which take time. You log in once to spend your resources (e.g. build a farm) and come back in x hours to look happy at your new farm and spend your new resources. There's little point in playing all the time as you're limited by time.

And of course you need allies later in the game. You *need* to join an alliance if you want to win the game and build that super monument.

As for the facebook games themselves, haven't tried them yet. Although I do get spammed by those "join farmville, maffia wars" messages. I'd rather spend my time playing a real game.
 
Although I do get spammed by those "join farmville, maffia wars" messages.

It's funny though, because the guy who started Zynga, the company who makes a large portion of the FB games, considers himself to be a "competitive gamer", yet he embraces the concept of using microtransactions and 3rd party spamming companies to earn money for his company. Odd, that.
 
As you said, the main 'problem' is that FB games (and all the other similar type of games on the iPhone or internet) don't have a lot of game to them, and it would be nice to actually have something challenging or interesting to do. The problem (IMO) is that once you add thought to these games, they become 'too hard' for the target market, and your profits drop. So long as zero thought is required, and the 'winner' is determined by who spends more to buy clicks, the FB games are targeting exactly who they need to prosper.
 
Excellent analysis. The Facebook game world is in a different market from where we MMO nerds live. I really like your comments about what MMOs could learn from the Facebook socialization. The MMOs are slowly working on bringing more social media into their games, but the developers are in a totally different world.

It's not a bug that the Facebook games are so simple, it's a feature. Making Mafia Wars or Farm Town more complicated won't make it more fun or successful for Facebook players.
 
Outside of the social engineering aspect (which I agree is the most compelling reason to play FB games), the other major element is that it is a browser based applet that can played at work.

People who normally wouldn't spend their off hours playing these games are more than willing to play during some downtime at work.

Enter Zynga, who just made $150,000,000 on these games and discovered that while user play dropped considerably over the weekend in most games, it did not drop off in games that required players to collect at specific intervals like FarmVille. In other words, by requiring the player to collect every X hours, Zynga started getting the 'work only' crowd to play while not at work.

If you play these games, expect that approach to continue...
 
Try some Bejeweled Blitz too. Its in another dimension designwize. Got some 8M monthly active users or so.
 
I spend several hours outside of wow "playing" wow : Rawr simulator, guild website, mmo forums... i very much agree with tobold, as for me the future of mmorpg is offline (well, not directly ingame anyway). Those tools SHOULD be part of the game. Look at the success already of the armory service-oriented architecture, and the number of applications done out of it :)
 
This post echoed some of my thoughts. I think Facebook is going to play a part in MMO development of the future. Instant gratification, having your friends help you even if they are not online, and alot of fluff to buy in the game.
 
From reading the comments, I take it that no one here has gotten to the endgame of Mafia Wars on Facebook. Although it lacks the twitch mechanics of "Get out of the fire within 2 seconds" as seen in WoW raiding, the game still presents interesting tactical choices which makes it fun, IMO.

Unfortunately, in both WoW and Mafia Wars, you only see the leveling game for the first X hours of play, and the leveling game is very different from endgame.
 
"I take it that no one here has gotten to the endgame of Mafia Wars on Facebook. [..] the game still presents interesting tactical choices which makes it fun, IMO."

I'm level 412 with over 100,000 fights won. There is no end-game. It's still the same two things that existed at Level 1 -- Do Job or Attack.

Unless you consider the "end-game" to be working tirelessly to get an item that has only a slightly higher stat value. Because if that's the case, then yes -- I guess it does have an end game like WoW. LOL.
 
These games are exactly why I've always been uncomfortable with microtransaction games. I just don't like the idea of a company trying to trick me into spending extra money on something. Charge me outright and let me decide if I want to pay for it or not without trying to scam me into it.
 
Until this post I admit I've only ever been annoyed by these games because of the update spam marketing but this post led me to the announcement that Sid Meier is bringing Civilization to FB which you may agree is quite interesting. I've always been a big fan of the game that introduced me to PC gaming.
As for the FB version aptly named Civilization Network, I'm mostly curious as to the depth it will have (will it improve on current offers or just be a brand name offering at the same level - I suspect the former). Secondly, and of course, will there be any innovation as to how they monetize it.
I only hope they avoid the spam.
 
I'm impressed that you found a few good things to note about Facebook games... for the most part I avoid them like the plague.

I hate facebook anyway, because it's the ultimate tool for your distant acquaintances to manipulate and guilt you in the name of being a "support network"... adding inane games never increased the charm for me.

Even NeoPets had a few compelling games... I got hooked on NeoQuest for a few weeks... basically a hybrid of early FF/Pokemon gameplay, but there's not a lot of other places I've found that sort of thing in free flash form.
 
@ sid67: My apologies -- I guess you have gotten to the endgame. Your comparison to WoW is on target: more effort for diminishing rewards. I guess that's the case for any reward-based, character-building game.

I have a few questions for you regarding the endgame (my own answers in italics). Hopefully this is useful to beginning MW players, or others who want to study the game's design.

- Are you at 501 mafia now, and if so, when did you decide to make that push?

Near 400 mafia currently, started seriously trying about 3 weeks ago -- my main is level 191.

- Did you use 3rd party programs, or just search FB groups to find people to invite one at a time?

Just FB groups for me, inviting 20 random people per day.

- For your 100k kills, how many were at or above your mafia size? Alternatively, what's your winning percentage these days?

I used to pick on smaller mafias until I loaded up on Cuba loot. Now I attack everyone, and win about 90% against my level / 501 mafia.

- How are your att/def/energy/stam stats allocated? Did you go for a fighter or energy build?

415/423/490/25, mostly fighter but now trying to get enough energy to take advantage of Golden Throne soon.

- What's your att/def strength based on mafia and items? Do you use any energy alts to feed loot to your main? Do you use bots (you probably don't want to answer that in a public forum)?

44k, 42k. When I decided to start the PvP endgame and play seriously, I rolled an energy alt to generate Cuba loot.

- Do you go through 3rd party links or pay real money for Godfather points?

Not yet.

- Are you done with both Cuba and Moscow?

Not even done with NY-Boss yet. Started playing in July after quitting WoW.
 
From first post: "I use to play Diplomacy on Facebook".

As in the Hasbro Diplomacy game?

I used to play that all the time live; then after I grew up, I'd get my fix by playing by email using the JUDGE system.

If its on FB, I might actually consider logging onto my FB account, despite the near-constant danger of being harassed by ex-gf's and long lost relatives.

Anyone know if Diplomacy (if its what I think it is) is any good on FB? :-)

Facegriller
 
"There are few Facebook games programed by "fans", so no Microtransactions."

My experience developing a couple of Facebook apps at work is that the API is so unpleasant and poorly documented that few people would want to do anything with it, if not for a paycheck.
 
Personally I really liked scrabble when that was on facebook (maybe it still is)
 
You might want to check out the Blizzcon Panel on the new Battle.net.

Blizzard is paying very close attention to Facebook and Myspace, and are working to incorporate parts (such as the things you mention in your post). One of the reasons blizzard is blizzard is staying ahead of competition like this!
 
I remember some Korean MMORPG, where you can convert your character to the weapon or some other item and give yourself to your friend or to others for a fee. (Too bad there isn't any english translation yet.)
Not the greatest offline cooperation, maybe, but it must feel great (and awkward, of course).
 
Thank you for spelling out how Facebook games work. I've tried to avoid Facebook myself, but many friends have tried to pull me in because of the games.

I find it pretty depressing that social engineering "works". I hope it only works for a few minutes until people catch on and start to wonder why they aren't the ones being paid for their attention. If adults start to think twice, while impatient kids continue to get suckered out of their allowance, the customer base might start to look like targets of exploitation.

I also don't have your faith that these principles will improve mmorpgs. Free-to-Play games already pack in as many inconveniences as possible to encourage players to buy from the cash shop: resurrection, avoiding level loss, movement speed, increased character stats, increased experience rates, increased skill raters, increased drop rater, improvement to armor and weapons - you name it and F2P games already manipulate you into buying it.
 
FB Scrabble = WordScrapper
 
I play mafia wars and farmville, in addition to WoW. All of the facebook games have the elements mentioned. But they are so easy, that 8 yr olds can do it. My wife has a hard time playing complex games like WoW (raids or PVP is too hard for her), and she actually likes the mindlessness of the game. It doesn't mean the target audience is stupid, she's the smartest person I know, probably IQ of 160 or so. But it's slightly insane how popular these stupid games are. I play to make her happy and interact with my godchildren and friends. That's about all that's going for me right now as far as those games go.
 
These were the games of my generation and I still love to play them. They are comfortable and convenient and easy for me.
 
I agree with most of you but then again. A company has to earn money although $150.000.000 is a lot of money maybe even too much compared to their games.

Facebook has done a great job of cleaning up their act with games spamming and cheating gamers.

I am currently playing Space Traders (http://apps.facebook.com/inthespace/), Mafia Wars on Facebook. I have to try Diplomacy and see if it is something for me.
 
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