Tobold's Blog
Sunday, September 18, 2011
Gaming Facebook Games

Michael Hartman of Brighthub wrote a very angry rant about Facebook games. Quote:
When I play a Facebook game, I feel less and less like a gamer and more and more like an employee of the developer's marketing division. It feels like half my gameplay time is spent sending messages to friends, asking friends to click on links, inviting friends to play, or otherwise pimping the game in one way or another.EXAMPLE: In The Sims Social, you cannot build rooms, buy certain types of furniture, advance certain quests, or do much of anything without the direct contribution of your friends. I'm serious.

If you have ever played any of the "real" Sims games, just think about how absurd that is. Think of every single time you built a new room, advanced one of your "wishes", or did a whole host of other core gameplay elements. Now imagine instead of actually getting to do those things, you had to wait until 2 to 10 friends:

1.Happened to be online.
2.Happened to be checking your messages.
3.Happened to have the same game installed.
4.Happened to feel like clicking the link.

What a titantic PAIN IN THE NECK. I just want to build a room for crying out loud! Why do I need permission from 10 of my friends to keep playing this game?

Why do they do this? Simple. They want your friends to see these constant wall posts of yours asking for help. They want you to beg your friends to install the game so they'll click on the links that let you trudge inexorably forward in the game.
Of course he is totally right. Needing the permission from 10 of your friends to keep playing is infuriating. But what if those friends not only had to come online and click on a link? What if to advance you'd need your friends to be online at the same time as you, doing the same activity in the same game as you for a continuous block of several hours? Then you'd be raiding in a MMORPG. :)

The chances that among your real-life close friends there are a sufficient number who actually want to help you with your various game chores is slim. Which is why guilds in MMORPGs have reverse social engineered the problem a long time ago: If you don't have enough friends who want to raid, you simply seek out the people who want to raid, and declare them your new friends!

And as we've seen that Facebook games actually require much less effort from your "friends" than a MMORPG does, the same trick works there even better. You don't pimp a game to your friends, you pimp your virtual friendship to people who happen to play the same game. Problem solved. Just like in a guild your fellow raiders need you as much as you need them, the players of Facebook games all need each other. You usually get a list of game requests when you start the game, and clicking through them is a matter of seconds. With very little effort you quickly make all of your "friends" happy, and thus don't have to feel embarrassed if a bit later you find you need to spam them with your requests. It's a click for a click, a simple deal that benefits all involved. Except of course for the marketing people who had hoped you'd pimp their game to some of your real friends.

Developers design reward systems to make players behave in a certain manner. But that only works on some players. Other players look at the reward system, and quickly find out how to game it to their best advantage. That is the very thing that makes online games so interesting to observe. Emerging player behavior in response to some rule system. And because game rules are different from real life rules, one even has the chance to observe modes of behavior that don't exist in real life. Albeit not in this case: If your real-life friends don't want to play tennis with you, you'd join a tennis club and make new friends in real life too.

I do think that the latest generation of Facebook games has gone a bit too far in how much you either need to have help from your "friends" or as an alternative how much money you have to spend to advance if you don't have enough friends. In Adventure World I'm working on my second tool shed upgrade, and if I'm not willing to get 75 clicks from friends, I'd need to pay 50 bucks for the upgrade. Which is rather ridiculous. And probably counter-productive, as this is way beyond what most people would actually be willing to spend. Lower prices would be a lot more profitable, because then friends or cash would actually look like viable alternatives. As it is, we'll just see the evolution of something like "guilds" on Facebook, interest groups of strangers banding together to game the social requirements of the games.
"What if to advance you'd need your friends to be online at the same time as you, doing the same activity in the same game as you for a continuous block of several hours? "

Then you might be playing football, or going to a reading group, or any number of other activities which have fixed social schedules :P Or a gaming group, even.
Maybe. Or maybe Facebook games aren't designed to appeal to people who want to play games. Maybe the idea is that people who are already logged into Facebook and using for its main purpose as a social network will simply roll the games up with all their other Facebook activities as part of a seamless whole.

I'm not on Facebook, but I work with people who are. They send messages to each other on Facebook about things they are doing, as they are doing them, while they are in the same room as each other. Then they laugh about it. They aren't geeks. They aren't gamers. They are young and middle-aged adults with families and very active social lives and they constantly update each other on all kinds of trivial and practical matters as a matter of course.

As far as I know none of these people play online games. Few of them even play console games. But they're all on Facebook. Some of them do play Facebook games but they don't see them as "games" as Michael Hartman describes. I think they see them as things they can joke about with their friends, like TV shows or bands they've seen. Shared experiences.

I don't believe anyone in that group that I've observed using Facebook as a "gaming" platform has the slightest interest in achieving anything at all in the "games" other than maybe getting an ironic laugh out of one of their real-life or online friends.

I'm pretty sure none of them would pay $50 for an imaginary shed, but I think there'd be more chance of that happening than of any of them joining a raiding guild.
Helping you build a room as I read this post ;)
I'm playing adventureworld, but I've just decided that I'm not going to bother with it anymore - I need to build my tool shop, but that requires a load of material that I can't get from anywhere else but buying or asking my friends (at the moment only Tobold plays it). I literally can't do anything else without the tool shop, and I've only played 2 levels. I think they could get away with this when there weren't many facebook games on the market, but now there are thousands, so I can go play something else.

On the prices issue, I'm now working for a small Facebook games company, and the way the ceo explained it to me is that they need to get on average 1$ out of each player. Unfortunately only about 1% of their players pay anything, so they need to get $100 out of the players that do pay. This means paying the price for a good console title isn't enough to let you experience the whole of a facebook game, you'd be looking at hundreds (or having hundreds of friends playing). This is insane.

I think Bhagpuss has it right that most facebook gamers don't really play online games. You only have to look at all of the simple flash games like Diamond Dash and Bejewled Blitz where people pay money to play games on facebook that they could play elsewhere for free. (We've just put up a beta version of a Qix inspired game which is by no means original very arcade/twitch skill based gameplay. Tobold will hate it :D )
I prefer not to add strangers - or 'virtual friends' - as my Facebook friends. There's stuff (not much, but some) on my Facebook that I don't want random people to be able to access.

It's also easy for people to fake their identity over the internet, so you never know, for example, if that 'social game player' might actually be your boss (under a fake name).

It's not so much the 'community of game players' that I have a problem with, it's that Facebook is an unsuitable platform for that - people put a lot of real-life info on Facebook. By contrast, an MMO guild doesn't have access to much real-life info about you.
I literally can't do anything else without the tool shop, and I've only played 2 levels.

Strange, I'm pretty sure one can get up to level 10+ without getting the tool shop to level 2.

There's stuff (not much, but some) on my Facebook that I don't want random people to be able to access.

The solution might be two Facebook accounts. One for real friends, and one for random strangers.
facebook agames is all about earning profit from the masses, evil money scheme.
I am constantly amazed there are people who actually waste their time on these Zynga games.
Isn't wasting ones time the purpose of games? In 30 years of computer gaming I haven't seen a single game yet where I wasn't wasting my time.
"What if to advance you'd need your friends to be online at the same time as you, doing the same activity in the same game as you for a continuous block of several hours?"

Good point, but there's a huge difference in frequency and expected game time.
I used to raid two times a week. Some guilds liked to raid more, some less. We could still agree that raiding two times a week is or was average.
Like spinksville said, raiding works the same way as any many other social activities: they are big scheduled group events that will take you anywhere from 4 to (you all know which number goes here) hours.
You still have a single player viable option in most of those games (at least the ones I could think of right now). But you want to play it with other people, as it's usually perceived as more fun.
And they work kind of like a story: you'll get an introduction, a body and some kind of ending.
Facebook social games work entirely different, they are designed from the ground to be played much more like having a smoke; we could say an average time of 30 seconds to maybe 5 minutes, and probably while you're doing something else.
That's why, when you cripple the flow of a game that way, you'll stop working for a whole generation that was raised by games.
Yet I play many of those social games. Naturally expecting good game design, I usally get bored and frustrated, yet I feel the need to come back.
But that's social competition and it's another big topic.
Isn't wasting ones time the purpose of games?

No. I am saddened even by the suggestion.

The purpose of games are amusement. Along the way, these companies have discovered that it is easier (and more profitable) to exploit psychology than it is to actually make a quality game experience.

The tragic thing is how we as consumers can shake our fists at cigarette companies who make their product as addictive as possible, but we do not behave similarly towards game companies who do the same thing. Cancer is terrible, of course. However, time will only tell what effects psychological exploitation will have on generations of gamers, especially as these companies get better and better at it. We can already see the effects that things like Photoshopping models on magazine covers do the average person's sense of identity/self-worth.

A decade from now, will we even be able to tell the difference between a great game and a terrible one when they activate the same reward centers of the brain from two separate angles? Will games like ICO be indistinguishable from FarmVille?
Amusement and wasting time is pretty much the same. I believe that the fact that people are playing these games proves that they are amused by them. Different people are amused by different things, so who are you to tell them they are doing it wrong? If they didn't find these games an amusing waste of time, they wouldn't play them.
I don't use facebook any more. I only got into the thing a few years back to satisfy the demands of a then-girlfriend. When she became an ex, so did the facebook.

While I was using it, however, one of the many, many reasons I couldn't wait to get rid of it was incessant requests (active invites or passive wall posts) from friends and associates to get me in on these ponzi schemes masquerading as video games.

The whole friend-dependent advancement system is distasteful and manipulative and a symptom of the slot-machine cancer infesting the industry, starving REAL games (ie: the ones I like) of vital investment capital and development talent.
Just getting the toolshop up and running requires a load of material, and you can't get to any more expeiditions without it. I went back and realised they start you with enough currency to buy all the items though, so I got them all. Getting it to level 2 I would have to spend money/have more friends playing.
I was surprised to see the hundreds of friends my facebook-game playing uncle had when I added him to facebook.

But then I noticed that they were from all around the world and 90% of them were just added to play his facebook games.
I don't believe pleasure is a waste of our time. Arguably it is the best use of it, and the purpose of doing boring or unpleasant things is to allow us to use at least some of our time well!

Thanks for the shout out about my article. Stumbling on this at your blog was a very happy surprise.

@Bhagpuss: I think they are indeed designed to appeal to gamers, and I think most people treat them as such. Social network games did over $1.5 billion in revenue last year. That's serious business...

@Tobold: I think you are definitely on to something as far as where things are going if social network devs keep cramming the "get your friends to help" mechanic down people's throats.

I already know tons of people who don't even play games on their main facebook account any more. They create a "gaming" account, and on that account their friends list is nothing but random people they meet through fan pages or forums devoted to the game(s) they are playing.

That's definitely not what social network games were supposed to be about, and it represents a pretty huge failure imho.

You lose out on potentially much stronger social ties if people were playing as themself with their real friends. But when you make people pester their real friends to such a huge extent, something has to give.
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