The Social Game A-Bomb

07_Mea-Culpa-Tag-WebOkay, mea culpa.

At some conference-talk I gave two years ago I said social games would never make money. Eh, I was a bit off on that one.

Then I ranted about how the current crop of social games had no staying power. That they sucked. That there was no art-factor, no fulfillment-factor, no learn-something-about-the-world-or-myself factor. That because of this they would fizzle out fast.

A few million Farmvillers later sure taught me.

Truth is, I shouldn’t have been surprised. None of us should have been. The social games that work today play right into the ethos taught by American public schools and mega-corporations: Small rewards for repetitive, mindless effort.

Okay. So my “predictions” weren’t well-thought out visions of the future. They were visceral reactions to the obsolescence of my traditional craft in the industry’s most lucrative field. They were hopeful reactions against the deep cynicism that when given access to a person’s social circle (and after all, what are we other than who we know and how others perceive us?) it’s merely the basest urges that generate the most hype and cash.

I believe the rise of mass-market social games is more than a question of shallow vs. deep or genre vs. literary. I believe there is a true battle over the soul of the game industry going on, with the core difference being the motivation of the creators: Those who are excelling and will excel at making the most money at social games are revenue-minded marketing wizards, not experience-minded interactive artists. As Zhan Ye put it at this year’s Virtual Goods Summit, everything traditional game designers know and value is wrong.

And so here I am, by my own choice, leading up the social games group at my company. I  must struggle with my instinct to make the things I create meaningful and beautiful and joyful and boldly realize that this is antithetical to what I must be focusing on: Urges, compulsions, and funnels to revenue.

Fine, I’m clever enough to adjust, right? As Mad Men‘s Don Draper said, “You’re not an artist. You solve problems.” But is that really what I want to be doing with what little gamecrafting talent I have?

So here’s another prediction (and you already know my prognostication track record):

Very soon there will be an A-bomb of a social game that does something truly crazy – it will make more than money.

And it will usher in an entirely new era of creativity, giving games and their creators an unheard of amount of exposure and power.

Will it be the game that lets people gang up and form an entirely spontaneous but unstoppable cultural movement? The one that highlights how shallow most of your Facebook friendships are and forces you to acknowledge the true timbre of your human connections? The one that overthrows a despotic government? Or the one that gives you a genuine religious experience?

Until then, keep farming.

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