Friday, March 19, 2010

Social Gaming for the Antisocial gamer

Welcome to SuperMonkeyCube's magical circus of broad generalizations.

"FarmVille is a giant waste of time and seems like work. "

See how easy that was? I will admit that that generalization is only true for some groups of people.

For my next trick, I will now lump everyone that reads these words into three categories. Watch carefully, as my fingers do not leave my hands. The first category is people who are reading this on my blog page, and with whom I do not interact with on Facebook. These people probably don't play FarmVille. They may not even know about it, or have only gotten sketchy information. The second category is people who are reading this on Facebook and may or may not know that they could read this somewhere else, but they are very aware of FarmVille because every third update on their Facebook home page is "'#FriendName' has just '#event' in FarmVille!". The third category are the people who are generating all those FarmVille updates on everyone else's pages and only stopped to read this because I put 'FarmVille' in the title.

At the Game Developer's Conference this past weekend in San Francisco, the two Facebook games that were mentioned the most were FarmVille and Bejeweled Blitz. Both games are doing something similar to a game model that is practically the standard in South Korea. The game is free to play. If you want cooler stuff for the game, you can either play the game a lot and get in-game rewards, or you can spend real money to reap the benefits right away. Typically, the numbers quoted for this sort of game is that 10 percent of the players actually fund the game for the other 90 percent that just play for free. (I'm sure it's another broad generalization.) Most of the reason that they were mentioned is that they are standout success stories, especially in light of the fact that they're free to play, and developers are talking about what it takes to make games in this space that are successful.

Bejeweled Blitz is a one-minute version of Popcap's game Bejeweled, a puzzle game where you swap two adjacent pieces in a large grid to get 3, 4, or 5 or the same kind of piece in a row. Unlike the regular Bejeweled, there is no fear of not having an available move. One is always available, so the trick is just to rack up score as fast as possible in the allotted time. In addition to your score, some pieces when cleared off the board yield coins that can then be used for power-ups in subsequent games. It is also possible to purchase coins with real money to get the same power-ups. This game, I like. Each game is self-contained. If I don't play it for a week, nothing bad happens in-game. I have noticed that among my friends, a surprising number of women are playing it, and they tend to be better than the men. I'm sure that has a lot to do with a self-selecting population - women who might only be mediocre at it may not tend to play as much or at all and would rather play something like Farmville where there isn't a score or a ranking ladder. Alternately, it might have something to do with the part of the brain that does pattern recognition being different in women, but I'm in no position to start funding a clinical trial.

FarmVille, on the other hand is structured around planting, raising, and harvesting crops, animal husbandry, and real estate improvement. If you neglect crops, they go bad. If you don't work on your field, it doesn't do anything for you. It does have the advantage of letting your virtual neighbors help you out, and a great deal of bartering and cooperation happens between people. The only console video games that this reminds me of are the Harvest Moon games, with a touch of Animal Crossing thrown in. After seeing what this was about, I opted not to play it. I didn't play it long enough to find out what you can do with real money. I can attest to the fact that easily 10 percent of my Facebook friends have played it at some point, and most of those people are not people that I would consider traditional gamers. Clearly it's more popular than something like Street Fighter - even though it's a flagship Capcom fighting game that just released a new version, I think I have a better chance at walking up to a random person under 40 that has played FarmVille than I do finding a person that's played Street Fighter IV.

This is not to say that people really want farming games. I don't think that's the driving force here. FarmVille is simple to operate, inherently networked, and easy to understand the concepts of. The last thing I want to see is the XBox and Playstation teams feeling like they need to get a farming simulator by fourth quarter this year, because that's wrong on so many levels. Nintendo has tried to make this work, since they have a fairly recent release of Animal Crossing for the Wii which includes a "Wii Speak" accessory - but Nintendo's online system is cumbersome for most. Connecting on most Nintendo games online involves having to obtain a "Friend Code" from your friends so you can connect to them, except that this code is different for every single game. Only the most dedicated Animal Crossing players will involve themselves. The "Wii Speak" allows people playing Animal Crossing online together to talk to each other over the Nintendo WFC connection. I don't think that this will help foster the same sense of cooperation that Facebook lends itself so easily to.

As usual, what I think that people that don't normally play games look for in games is a new experience. People that involve themselves in 'gaming culture' already have their preferences, and gravitate towards genres that they're already familiar with. Amongst those people, it takes a really standout game to get them out of their comfort zone. On the other hand, the novice gamer has fewer expectations, and has less reservation about throwing themselves in a new experience. Framed that way, it makes perfect sense that I would play Bejeweled Blitz over FarmVille - if I had wanted a farming game, I would have already played Harvest Moon and might even have thought FarmVille was inferior and not bothered with it. On the other hand, having played Tetris, Bust-A-Move, Chainz, and Collapse!, Bejeweled Blitz makes perfect sense and meshes well with my existing genre preferences.

So after writing this, I've decided to go easy on my Facebook friends that are playing FarmVille. While I've seen a bunch of people joining groups that sound like "I don't care about your farm, your mafia, or your cafe", I'm going to give that a pass. Besides, what's happening is that they're becoming social gamers.

(Is that like social consumption of adult beverages?)

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