I’ve been wondering what it is about social games that bug me – you know those massively addicting games like Farmville, Maffia Wars, and WeRule. There’s something really fascinating about how these interactions have captured the attention of social circles way beyond the web. It seems like everybody knows somebody whose mom is playing Farmville on Facebook. There’s something simultaneously brilliant and insidious going on in these games, and I think there’s a way to tweak the game design to unlock the good and bury the bad.
Most of the social games we’re seeing today are largely about ‘grind and reward’; you have to farm to get a currency (grind) and then you can trade currency for that little special something to show off to your friends (reward). The props are different, but the mechanics are largely the same. The games are really approachable because anyone with enough patience and tenacity can grind out goods, and the experience is satisfying because in some small way, you’re earned for that reward. In a society of complex tasks and relationships its satisfying the same way cleaning your house might be, or working in your yard. From a distance its mockable, but the experience is real. There are millions of people grinding on virtual farms and frontiers even as you read this. The rewards are satisfying too; people pay real money to buy virtual currency to skip grinding out their rewards.
In certain circles, people have a problem with these sorts of games. You see when you have a grinding mechanic in a game and your repeat the same action over and over, it starts to feel like a little bit of an addictive mechanism. Players are sure to go back to their farms everyday to play and earn goods (and the games are designed to promote that). Just like mindlessly dropping tokens in a slot machine, players head back to their farms just after the cyber veggies have ripened to retrieve them and sell them. Zynga is the darling of the startup world because they’ve figured out how to do something no one else has; they’ve got an algorithm that makes people predictable.
Lately, I’ve been wondering if there’s a way to redesign some of these game mechanics. I’ve been wondering if there’s a way to navigate the tension of making the game exciting enough for people to play often, but make it rewarding and diverse enough and get rid of the grinding. I think if the game designers flipped the scarcity model in the game they could unlock something completely new, I’ll explain.
So in Farmville, the scarcity model is based on currency to purchase ‘things’. It takes time to earn this currency and this is where Zynga wins. They’re betting you’ll dump real money in the game so you won’t have to wait to get your reward. I’ve been wondering what it would look like if the game itself was ephemeral. What if every two weeks there was a new and different adventure in Farmville you could play? Like what if every two weeks they added a level? During this adventure, much of the game play could be the same, but you’d be playing because at some point that level will disappear. With the massive adoption of some of these games, you could imagine releasing new levels that would drive the same level of interest as Harry Potter movies. You could imagine developing rich story lines that rival Mad Men. As you push toward a serial model, you create social games that could be truly social events; everyone can celebrate because everyone starts the level at the same time. Now, instead of everyone experiencing Farmville in a sad cyber silo, they can post about the different activities or story lines going on in the level. They will have a reason to connect around content. Then much like Facebook itself, the experience will drive repeat visits, the community will help drive rewards the games can stop treating people like gambling junkies.
Right now social gaming seems to be about taking proven game mechanics and replicate them over many themes to drive growth. But if the beauty of social gaming is an easily deployable platform and a vast audience, why not create stronger communities around the games? Why not give players reasons to connect? Why not have challenges that players have to work together similar to boss fights in massive multiplayer games?
Trust me, this is the way this space will move forward. There is no way your friends mom is going to farm purple cows for the next 5 years. But if social gaming gives her a platform that she can connect with the story the same way she did that last season of Desperate Housewives, lets her connect with her friends about the experience, and walk away with unique badges that help her boast about being part of a community, that is the way forward.