Family Feud

For those who care about big brands, social games, or the legacy of Richard Dawson, the Social Times has published an interview about my company’s involvement bringing Family Feud to Facebook.

In designing the game, we pretty much had to break every dearly-held rule of social gaming. Family Feud is long-form, text-based, American-only, and losable. And yet it seems to be a hit — we’re nearly at 4 Million monthly users after 6 weeks out. Here are from slides from a talk I gave at the Social Games Summit:

What this means for me personally is that Family Feud has had more social and cultural impact (by most forms of measure) than any other project — game, writing, movie, or otherwise — I’ve ever toiled on. Knowing that so many people are spending so much of their leisure time on something you help pull the levers on is a tremendous feeling. This was (and is) an exhilirating ride.

Life, she is a funny beast.

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.

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.

True Confessions: Anti/social Games

All in the professional interest of “researching” why the hell “social games” are so darn popular, I’ve spent the last few weeks playing a Facebookload of ’em.

All of them suck… yet brilliantly suck you in, each in their own special way. The one that sucked the most, sucked like a pornographic nebula, is Zynga’s Mafia Wars.

I dutifully drag myself back to the browser every few hours and do enough Jobs, Fights, Property Buys, and occasional Blacklists to up my points. In case you haven’t played the game, doing these actions doesn’t involve negotiating a rich 3D world, outstrategizing opponents, or carefully balancing a recipe of spells — but just hitting buttons.

Bap, bang, ka-pow. Energy down, experience up. No more energy? Wait.

Easier’n than a 2006 mortgage.

Why? Why bother playing this thing?

There’s the joy of earning more “money” each hour as I buy more rental properties, though most of the cash is stolen from me through an endless news-stream of fights and heists.

There’s the joy of becoming ever-stronger and upping my attack and defense stats, but that doesn’t matter since there are always dozens of people literally thousands of levels ahead of me who can pound me into the dirt at Internet speed. And the way the game is designed, those with the largest “family” of 501 pretty much always win.

But I return again and again, uppin’ those friggin’ numbers.

It’s the same thing that drives World of Warcraft addiction. Same thing that drives the stock market.

The same single-minded worship of numbers empowers corporate crime… or organized crime, for that matter.

Maybe it’s a guy thing, an analytical thing, a geek thing, perhaps even a core human thing. But in this game, all the numbers you need are laid out right there in the top interface. Upping those numbers is essential. It fills a deep, pathetic, very real need.

And so I play. I almost helplessly watch myself inviting the dregs of my Facebook friends list, kids from elementary school that I haven’t spoken to in thirty years. I hitlist. I read forums for tricks on maximizing the battle algorithm.

I play. I invite. The numbers go up. I play.

I find the game overtaking my very dreamlessness. I wake up fully alert and replay “strategies” in my head to up numbers faster, harder, stronger. I sneak to my laptop… why waste a late nite opportunity to level up?

Everything  about the game is shameful. It was birthed as crappy cloned product of a cloned Apple II game, unembarrassed about copying the very interface, nomenclature, point balancing, and algorithms from the game it ripped off. It inspired a culture of mockingbird copycatters: Mob Wars, Mobsters, Facebook Mafia, The Ultimate MafiaMafia, Mafia Cities, All in Da Family— which came first? who can tell them apart? who cares? Carbon-copying a winning game quickly and usurping more daily actives has seemingly become a badge of pride in Facebook development culture. It makes people feel so badass.

Zynga then went on to clone themselves, applying the same back-end code to ever-so-slightly skinned versions for fashion, car racing, pirates, vampires, special forces, knights and dragons, superheroes. There are various “innovations” in the design in some of these games, but they’re all the same story.

Play. Invite. Spend a bit. Up your numbers. Repeat.

Yeah, these social games do work. And I respect aspects of them. The back-end database stat-crunching is bulletproof, considering the tens of millions of active players per day. I know what it takes to architect and maintain that sort of system, and that’s impressive.

Some of the designs also do a nearly perfect job of balancing numbers and time requirements, making it ludicrous to not invite everyone you can to join in. And so, people recruit each other like gangbusters. Forumfulls of otherwise intelligent players post their e-mail addresses in the open, hoping that you will “friend” them on Facebook for the sole purpose of adding yourself to their mobs.

Zynga’s doing great, milking folks on microtransactions and spam-filled offers. I myself often battle the urge to visit the Godfather and plunk down a few Visa digits so that I don’t have to wait for that next essential number-upping.

Facebook must love the growth these games drive. But looking more closely at the game’s top players and it clearly seems to be strangers and fake accounts, all adding each other via botnets in hopes of maxing out mobs. That’s utterly artificial. That’s noise… It may make metrics sing, but it’s not real.

And it’s the same with most (not all) of these social games. Even if you do limit yourself to playing them with your real-life acquaintances and friends. You may be gunning to beat your friends’ stats. You may be “engaging” with your friends as you one-up their mobs or “help” them out on missions by clicking on that big “Help Friend” button. You may even toss your friends virtual gifts if you’re really feelin’ generous.

But is that social?

Social is Risk or chess or Go Fish or touch football.

These social games succeed at spreading.  They deeply compel you to suck more people in and perpetuate the artless addiction. But is viral the best we can do? Viral is Swine Flu. Chain letters. Zombie infestation.

Much of this “social gaming” phenomenon is anything but. It’s about treating the human beings in your life as multipliers in your spreadsheet. It reduces the social graph to one dimension — turning your connections into a list of slightly less predictable non-player-characters with irrelevant backstories and only marginally interesting faces.

These social games? They’re petty, they’re deadening, they’re devoid of meaning, they’re…

Dehumanizing.

Just numbers.

They’re interesting for now. But they won’t last.

Another “Games As Art” Article! (Not an April Fool’s Joke)

A few months ago I went to Project Horseshoe (by far my favorite conference of any type anywhere) where I met with other geek-minded game designers to discuss the most over-analyzed, utterly cliche, pathetic, hopeless, but still (yes!) highly-relevant problems in game design:

How can games be promoted as art?

The first question to ask, of course, is “Who cares?” Game designers already make good money just playing with play all day. Why be a prima donna whiner and blather about art? Do we really want game designers smashing their laptops on stage, slashing off their ears, or acting (even more) abusive at black tie galas?

The group of us wrote an article about this subject and it was published on Gamasutra on April Fool’s Eve where it has generated some surprisingly earnest comments.  Check it.

Hotel iWin Lives!

roombrowsershot

I can finally crow about something! For the past year or so, I’ve been working on a stealthy little project within my own company, a project neither quite game nor web app. Huddled in the dank corners of our office I worked with a lean but mean world-tossed team and finally… it lives!

It’s a (what else?) casual-game virtual-world social-network insert-your-own-buzzword-here!

And it’s called Hotel iWin.

We decided on a grand luxury hotel as the theme not because we wanted to rip off Habbo (perish the thought), but because we actually talked to tons of people who use our site regularly and noticed a few trends:

  • There is no true virtual world or social network geared primarily for our audience (mostly women from 25 to 65).
  • Our audience is highly social, but there are very few places online they feel comfortable socializing. Facebook is overwhelming. And MySpace is just, like, whoah!
  • People want to escape from their daily lives, but in a mentally and emotionally stimulating way (i.e. not TV).
  • Players enjoy forming intense, open, but fleeting relationships — very similar to ones formed on vacations.

So the idea behind Hotel iWin is to really make folks feel like they’re checking out of the daily grind and checking in to a brief but very relevant vacation.

  1. Play any downloadable casual game on iWin’s site (over 500 of them are free for at least an hour to try, many of them are ad-supported and free forever).
  2. Earn a virtual currency called Opals for every minute of play.
  3. Spend Opals on avatar and hotel room pimpin’, mixing and matching over a thousand common and not-so items, with the ability to drag things anywhere you want and “paint” your own scenes.
  4. Meanwhile, meet other players and maybe even make a few not-so-casual friends.

A tour is here in this lovely 70’s infomercial-esque video.

Much like operating a real-life hotel, building the darn thing is one joyful headache — keeping it actually humming and exciting and populated by happy gamers is a different beast entirely. Can’t wait!

Designing the Ultimate Game of Tag

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The Perfect Terrain for Tag

Whenever you feel like you’re actually skilled at something related to game design, leave it to kids to trump you.

We were at a playground near lovely Avila Beach this past weekend when some kids approached mine for a game of tag. The ages and abilities of the participants varied greatly. As the game progressed, I was impressed at everyone’s communal game design chops. The kids play-tested, discussed, and iterated on the rules until they worked out an optimal experience that was challenging, fun, and fair for everyone involved.

Stage 1: “It” can’t touch wood (brown zones in photo above). In other words, using age-old tag parlance, wood was “base.”

This was okay for a while, but the play structures were big enough to provide several safe zones impossible for “it” to reach, and too many angles where tag-ees could break away far from “it’s” grasp. After realizing that life was too difficult for “it,” a new rule was added.

Stage 2: If anyone other than “it” touched sand, she would lose and immediately become the new “it.” This made things a bit easier for poor “it,” but there were still too many ways for people to evade the tagger.

Stage 3: Nobody except “it” can touch red. After a while, this was deemed too difficult for the tag-ees, since the red spongiform surface was the primary design, creating too many re cul-de-sacs. “It” would keep trapping people in impossible corners and nailing them in no time at all.

Which led to the final innovation:

Stage 4:Only “it” can touch blue or sand (yellow regions). This was perfect! This created a few “choke-points” around the area which had to be leapt or crossed in daring ways, making the terrain nuanced and tactically exciting.

By this point, every kid over the age of five was playing the game.

Unspoken rule: If perched on a wood plank trying to avoid “it,” you had to keep moving after a few beats to not be considered a lame-o. There wasn’t an official time limit, but it was important to try to make mad breaks to another part of the playground to keep the drama going.

What a cool concept!

Anyone up for doing some 3D modeling and coding this into a FPT (first-person-tagger)?