Local Maxima – The Battle for the Soul of Games

max_min_3The recent Social Games Summit should have been called the “Social Games Base”, given the immaturity of the industry.

A lot of corridor talk centered around how top social game-crafters seem to basically be slapping spam-like functionality and heartless monetization techniques onto crappy and dated game mechanics and milking it for all it’s worth. Many core game associates were saying things like, “If all these people care about is profit, why aren’t they just working on Wall Street?”

As a knee-jerk reaction, I share a similar inherent repulsion to the whip-smart but cynical techniques that many social game companies use to turn players to engines for more-monthlies and those monthlies into mo’ money.

With young companies like Zynga raking in that mystical (if not mythical) “over $100 million,” these techniques are working and working well.

Christian Nutt wrote a fantastic summary at Gamasutra that captured some of the tension. In the comments to the article, the inimitable Ian Bogost scoffs at how “web assholes ” are:

…simply “leveraging social graphs for maximum microtransactional sellthrough” or whatnot.

Siqi Chen, who was targeted in the article as a cold-hearted metrics-head, responds:

For my part, I don’t agree that’s what our industry is doing. We have hundreds of thousands of people every day who are passionate about the community and games that we have built – we’re not just “web assholes.” … We’re people who have a background in web, communities, and data driven development that want to share a little of what we know in the hopes of getting more people like you who really understand game design involved in our industry.

Truth is, Siqi gave a fantastic talk, the best one of the summit. He covered social game metrics 101 in plain English and dug in deep on real tools, data, and insights instead of banal platitudes about “games that friends that can finally play together.”

Add to that, Siqi is a heck of a nice guy. He has no pretensions. His LinkedIn job description as CEO of Serious Business is, “Making stupid shit on Facebook for fun and profit.”

Siqi was careful before his talk to disclaim that metrics are not the end-all-be-all and he cautioned about spending valuable time and resources chasing “local maxima” — trying to tune, say, word variations on Facebook notifications to get a higher viral coefficient rather than adjusting something else that would have much greater impact.

But make no mistake: Whether intentions are noble or cynical, we’re in a battle for the soul of computer games. And it’s clear to see which side is kicking ass. Ultimately, what will most people in the world be playing? Will they be ramping up on intricate mechanics with specialized controllers, or whittling away their daily boredom doing game-like-activities via ubiquitous platforms?

Just as core game devs were jealous yet dismissive of the impact and reach of “watered down” casual games, casual game devs are frightened as they watch social games drawing away much of the mass-market attention and money.

And it’s the cyclical nature of the beast that today’s casual games market is stuck in the same cul de sac that trapped core games, educational games, and kid games — stuck atop an ever-shrinking local maximum that demands high production values, utter accesibility, and little originality.

For my part, I want to, and need to believe that the core metrics surrounding virality and monetization are always going to be local maxima. Making a more emotional, more impactful, more artful and polished and nuanced game (or game-like activity) will always lead to happier players — if not more players and more money. 

I’ve interviewed non-game-industry friends who have succumbed to buying points in Mafia Wars. They ultimately feel ashamed and a bit dirty about it. That’s not sustainable. There’s no doubt — social games must get richer and more artful to keep people engaged. Companies like PlayFish are already taking a stand, focusing on the gameplay first and metrics later — deliberately not shoving people to invite their friends, just making it easier to do so.

Who will win the battle?

As with all things, depends on what metric you’re measuring.

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One thought on “Local Maxima – The Battle for the Soul of Games

  1. Pingback: The Social Game A-Bomb « Shakespearean Cybermonkey

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