A Howl and Two Coconuts

The very first Ferris Wheel, built for the World’s Fair in Chicago, 1893.

A lifetime ago (2008) I gave a talk at the GDC titled “Beyond the Box.” The central image was a lonely Ferris wheel standing in the middle of a trash-strewn, dusty field. The point? Even the best digital games at the time lacked context, relevance, and human connectivity.

The talk was tepidly received, and rightly so, because it had a tepid conclusion. I said that the world needed a special place where people and their fellows could seamlessly interact and play… but I couldn’t quite paint a coherent picture of what that place would look like.

Then Facebook  happened. The lone Ferris wheel suddenly became a small feature of a rollicking, Rick-Rolling carnival.

Even a longer lifetime ago (2000), I co-founded a company called iWin with the belief that games were for everyone, not just teenagers who loved head-shots. iWin helped pioneer simple, addictive, all-embracing play via games such as Jewel Quest and Family Feud with philosophies such as making it impossible to really lose. People started calling the types of games we made ‘casual.’ Casual games were more than a market opportunity to me, but a real chance to make the wonder of digital play  relevant and accessible to the mainstream.

Then, from that fertile substrate of Facebook and Casual, the behemoth called Zynga was spawned, mastering the ability to beg, build, or borrow the best mechanics and all but take over the  social channels.

And so it came to be: 88.4 million people playing CityVille.

Everything I’d been preaching about and hoping for and working for had reached fruition…

It should have been a transcendant moment.

But I was disillusioned. I had gone way wrong somewhere, many twisty paths ago… and couldn’t figure out where.

The comparison gives me too much credit, but I suppose I felt a bit like Trotsky watching all he helped painstakingly build with the most humanistic of ideals become bastardized as the power structures grew to take advantage of what was most base and weak about humanity.

It was the unfunniest of Marx Brothers who said, “[History repeats itself,] the first as tragedy, then as farce.”

I didn’t really care, as so many industry vets did, that there’s hardly any true challenge or meaning in mass market games anymore. Experiments were tried. The mainstream has rejected the old paradigms of challenge.

Nor did it bother me that profit came from honing in on the deepest pathology of the most addicted — get bored onlookers to try. Get triers to use. Get users to share. Get sharers to spend. After all, the vast majority enjoyed these games absolutely gratis. And even the most cynical of these bejeweled Skinner Boxes are brightening an otherwise dull day.

My father trying to draw SWIG (when the word was actually SWAG). That’s so him!

No… what really stung was seeing the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical, nakedly a-cloning, fast-following, and pretending to grasp and control the almighty metric. It shamed me to see high-IQ analytical pattern-spotters, max-frame-rate programmers, edgy artists, and seasoned polyglot designers — working in unison with the noble goal of making a “gift wall” more viral….

It made me wonder for a time if the the right answer was to tear myself away from the carnival and retreat with the Hobbits back to the hard-core ghetto, where the Ferris Wheel rides are at least damned fast and fun.
Or get out of the games industry entirely and do something meaningful with life.
And it wasn’t just me having these thoughts. The massive Facebook audience that had, just months ago, so contently click-zen’d through CityVille felt the shallowness, too. Many argue that Facebook gaming’s audience decline was due to tightened newsfeed algorithms, but having lived through many market cycles before, I believe it was more audience saturation and then maturation.

Then the most amazing thing happened: Words with Friends came out. And I started playing it… a lot… with my mom. Who suddenly had an iPad. It was so friggin’ simple.. “just” another Scrabble clone. But the format fit perfectly and made the game into an accessible and ongoing layer of daily life.

Then Draw Something took over. And after a brief lesson, my dad got on board. We speak more genuinely through sketches and the game’s rudimentary chat feature than we do even the few times we get together in person. The game has made us laugh at, appreciate, and even better understand each other.

And so the howl of anguish turned to one of laughter.

Because as awesome as this new crop of truly social games are, they are missing a few important magic ingredients.

That’s why I’m extremely happy to announce the launch of a new mobile game startup called Double Coconut.We’re just a few souls at this point, but with the passion and know-how to make big things happen. I think we’ve finally cracked the code on achieving that perfect nexus of casual and social — and can’t wait to show you.

More to come soon!

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