Maybe being hardcore is a particularly human talent

I am sure there are people out there who have never been hardcore fans for anything in their lives. They’ve never geeked out about which is the best Pink Floyd album cover, their favourite pylon on the London-North East railway, the optimal way to survive a naked run in Diablo 2, or the best raid composition for the Black Temple (at level, of course).

(Yeah I have known people in my life who were Pink Floyd album cover geeks, and electricity pylon geeks. Envy me!)

But still, it’s these little things which give our lives meaning, and knowing that they’re little things is part of the fun. Will the world end if I don’t get my favourite seat on the 7:24 train from Spinksville Station? Of course not, but it’s still my favourite seat and if you wanted to listen for 5 minutes I could explain precisely why.

I was mulling this over after reading Gevlon’s comments on social gaming. His insight is that casual players usually play casually, won’t get too attached to a social type of game, and will drift off after a short amount of time to something else. This is exactly how I interact with social games, if the short amount of time is less than 10 minutes total. But there are undoubtedly people who, given the chance, will get all hardcore about a game like Farmville.

I don’t understand why. I don’t understand why anyone would pay any money to play that game at all. Why would anyone care about being hardcore on a game that is so obviously casual? And yet, enough people clearly do to bolster some very large companies.

Maybe we just have to put it down to an odd quirk of the human spirit. Maybe it’s that ability to get all hardcore about minor things which made mankind come down from the trees, develop tools, and take over the planet. That strange hardcore geek who had a thing for playing that odd little game with sticks and stones …

Playing Games while you Work/ Play

I did have a chance to sit and listen to a panel yesterday on social games with a mix of people who love them and who don’t. And one of the things I really picked up was that players enjoyed having a game that they could play while doing something else.

And for all people gave the example, “While watching TV,” I was thinking, “So they mean while they are at work.”

A lot of time is wasted at work. Some of this is a management issue and is due to the work having genuinely slow periods (i.e. and management not having any good ideas for how to use this time more productively).

I don’t know how common it is for people to actually play games at work. Certainly there’s no shortage of ways to waste time on the internet, and browsing the news or reading a forum or twitter feed is no less of a time waster than playing Farmville, or even off the internet (i.e long chats around the coffee machine, long lunch breaks). I remember in my MU* days I had friends who claimed to play from work; I think it used to be viewed as a sys-admin’s perk.

I also spoke to people yesterday who were involved in trying to block Facebook games from work. And I can understand why. I’m also sure keen WoW players spend plenty of time browsing forums at work, planning their latest tactics, and otherwise doing non-work-related time wasting. And it’s bound to be true for other hobbies also.

I do doubt how effective blocking Facebook or any Internet access can be when people start playing from their smart phones instead. Or just finding other ways to waste time. But I can see it becoming a bigger issue.

In which my social game test doesn’t even last for one week

I had thought following last week’s post about Farmville and Social/ Facebook Games, that I should really put my money where my mouth is and try one. So I want to talk a bit about that experience. And I’d suggest reading this alongside The Ancient Gaming Noob’s account of his time with Farmville (he had a much happier time with it).

1. Pick Your Game

I had originally intended to go with Farmville, because 80 million people can’t be wrong. But actually what happened was that I logged into Facebook, checked over my feed and saw a couple of game notifications for friends who were playing different games.

So I decided I might as well pick a game that was also played by someone I vaguely know (by this I mean the wife of one of my husband’s old friends from college, who now lives in another continent, and who I haven’t seen for at least a year, plus she really really annoyed one of my gay friends by being a jerk about his boyfriend …. this is what passes for a close friend on Facebook, incidentally*.)

Hence, Zoo World, which is a variation of Theme Park which involves collecting animals in your zoo, together with other attractions (such as food kiosks) and trying to make a profit. You can either buy animals with the local currency or breed them. Plus you can swap animals with your friends, and sometimes lost wandering animals will turn up which you can offer to your friends for adoption.

The game also has a strong achievement list and will walk you through your first few days by telling you at all times what achievement you should aim for next. e.g. Breed stuff, buy more stuff, get X visitors to your zoo, earn X dollars per day in your zoo. This turns out to be a very decent way to organise a tutorial and I rather like it. It’s like a to-do list.

2. Onwards to daily click quests

There is a flash page under Visit Zoo which lets you look around your zoo and see virtual people wandering around, click the trees (each one gives one coin per day) or do other sim type stuff like setting the admission price. When you breed animals, you are given a schedule for when the new baby will be born and how often it needs to be fed.

If the baby is not fed on time, it will get sick. Mine failed to be fed on time a lot because I just don’t care enough, so they spent a lot of time sick. Apparently they don’t actually die though. Whenever you do log on you can spend more game currency to make them better.

I believe the game also posts to your friends list when one of your animals gets sick so that they can make it better for you. So if you are lazy and have a load of animal loving friends, they can pretty much play the time critical elements of the game for you.

zooworld

This was a message in my friends feed from a friend who plays Zoo World. It informs me that her Emerald Tree Boa was born just 16 hours ago. It is cold, lonely and will get sick soon without any food. Baby wants to grow up big and strong some day and just needs a little help getting started.

Well fuck that for the most blatently and pathetically manipulative messaging I had all day. Remember these games are popular with women. Could it say ‘X is a bad mother and so are you if you don’t feed this virtual animal’ any more clearly? Maybe it’s because I don’t have kids that I’m immune to this shtick, but anyone who does will tell you about the constant pressure to be a good mother AND to prove it.

This was where I decided I couldn’t be bothered any more.  I’m all for art affecting me emotionally but I’ll stick to books, films, music, and games that are well written and were made by people who loved them, not over-marketised pap.

3. And by the way, SPEND MORE MONEY

The game also is very keen that you should know that you can spend real money on it. There are ‘deals of the day’, featured items, rare animals (ultra rare blue elephant, only $1.99!!!), as well as special offers when you buy wildlife points in bulk.

It is easy enough to click away the pop up windows. I don’t imagine that it’s essential to buy stuff, at least not at the early stages, but presumably it will help a lot when you get to higher level achievements.

Similarly, if you enjoy breeding animals, watch out. The first few animals you get to breed are cheap and easy to collect. After that, they start with the more expensive ones. And presumably later on, animals that require you to spend real money. So the free and easy achievements are sweeteners, leading directly into goals which will cost you either more time and effort, or cash.

Plus of course, the inevitable tied offers.

zoopoints

4. And stuff for your friends

While you are on the games’ site, you will also occasionally get pop up windows with offers for your friends. All you have to do is agree to post the offer to your wall or friends list. I’m neutral to this (although it is a bit spammy) – if you have a lot of friends who play then it’s probably terrific.

Summary: It’s really not the great satan of gaming

OK, so to sum up, the game isn’t awful. As a zoo theme park simulation, it works fine. You get to lay out your theme park, buy or breed new animals, set prices and work out how to get more virtual visitors through the door.

It is transparently designed to encourage players to involve others on their friends list and to spend money. Neither of these is compulsory but they will keep asking.

I did notice while playing that it made me think differently about my friends list. I was thinking ‘who might also play this game and want to exchange animals with me?’ – so you kind of feel encouraged to value those friends who will play more highly than the ‘useless ones’ who won’t. (Note: I am a really useless friend for facebook games, since I barely log in at all!)

And just as I was wrapping up, feeling that I’d understood some of the appeal but was put off by the sheer blatency of the whole thing, plus my lack of caring enough to log on religiously every few hours to feed baby virtual animals, I took another look at my friends list.

warmetal

A game where I get to help someone activate a nuke?! Now that’s more like it!!

* I did not make this up.

Why I hate Farmville, and where is social gaming taking us?

Hate is such a strong word. Let’s go instead with ‘dislike’, as Cuppy did in her post about Why do traditional gamers dislike Farmville?

My personal main reason for disliking it is that I actually have never been fond of farming games – I never liked farming berries in Pokemon, or farming anything in LOTRO, and I got bored of Harvest Moon fairly quickly too.

Other reasons are:

  • it’s on Facebook
  • a large part of their business plan is to do with selling advertising, so they design the game to give best value to the advertisers
  • and  their game design is rather cynical

Yup, Facebook is a turnoff for me. I’ve heard advocates of social gaming argue (convincingly) that casual gamers don’t want the hassle of logging into a special game client whenever they want to play. That’s what Facebook is like for me, it’s just not a website I’d tend to have open on a regular basis.

This means that I am not the target for Facebook games.

And since social games are so very very tightly wound in with Facebook’s insanely huge user base, this will make it sound as though I dislike all social games on principle. Which is not actually true, because I’ve rather liked the story based games like Echo Bazaar and even D&D Tiny Adventures.

But still, some Facebook games are terrifically cynical. All that prodding to invite a zillion people you barely know to receive a virtual pig, all the suspect ads, these are things that people put up with because they like the basic game. And just as MMOs evolved to lose more and more of the tedious shit that people put up with because they had no choice, social games will also evolve. I am quite sure that just as modern day MMO players complain about how they were ‘forced to group’ by older games, social gamers will one day complain about how the older games forced them to poke their ‘friends’ for stuff if they wanted to progress faster.

I just hope they do it sooner rather than later.

Advertising vs Subscription

Let’s talk about TV. In the UK we have several channels. We also have to pay an annual TV licence if we want to receive terrestrial channels at  home (it works out about £11 per month, just over a standard MMO sub), which is used to fund the BBC amongst other things.

So the BBC is funded by (mandated) subscription. Commercial channels are funded by advertising. Which one do you think produces the best quality programmes? And which produces the more popular programmes?

The BBC is generally higher quality, but the ratings war is far more evenly divided. Commercial channels are very motivated to produce content that will attract eyeballs for their advertisers, so they’re very smart at digging into pop culture. The cost of the pop culture fans getting the content they want is that they’re actually forced to subsidise the BBC which they may rarely use – but they get their fave programmes for free so they’ll never really notice. It’s an odd model, but arguably, no news network as good as the BBCs could have evolved without it.

So, enough about TV, how does this relate to gaming?

Well, you could imagine the ‘traditional’ gaming model where a company produces something that gamers want and then they pay for it, as being like the BBC. And then social games, with their emphasis towards gathering eyeballs for advertisers, being more like the commercial channels. All of these guys want your money, but the social games will settle for your eyeballs instead if that’s all they can get. And advertisers consider the spend worthwhile because they know that X% of people who watch ads buy product. Of course, social games don’t just monetize off advertising (in fact, I’m not even sure it’s the primary funder). But they know, like advertisers, that X% of players will also pay for virtual goods. So the more people they get to play, the more money they get. Even a nil paying customer might have friends who will pay.

The other bonus with current social games is that they have been exceptionally cheap to produce in comparison with traditional AAA games, a fact that is also true of commercial TV content which tends to lean heavily on quizzes, imported American TV,  and reality shows.

And just like commercial channels, social games have a huge future if they can tap into pop culture. And I look forwards to seeing them do exactly this.

Culture Clash, and Gamer Sexism

Another interesting thing that is happening with social gaming and Farmville in particular, is that a new mass market of gamers is working out how its market will work.

In the same way that WoW’s subscription effectively set the bar for how much MMO gamers expect to pay for their subscriptions, Farmville’s F2P model is setting the way social gamers expect to pay. And how much they expect to pay, which for 98% of them is approximately zero. (The figure I have seen before is that about 2% of the playerbase pay, although Zynga’s chief game designer quoted 3-5% in an interview last February – but he was also including people who sign up to any advertiser offer that generates cash for the developer.)

I also am amused by the notion that just as there are MMO gamers who demand that all their games be similar (it must be fantasy with elves, it must have a pet class, it must have an auction house, it must have etc etc etc), there are social gamers who won’t touch anything except a farming game with a suitable subset of activities.

In any case, I think F2P  leads to a different type of consumer/ developer relationship. To go back to TV, if you watch subscription TV and see something you don’t like, then you complain. If it’s commercial TV then you turn it off or switch channel. But then, although TV flirts occasionally with ways to become more addictive, it can’t really get its hooks into people in the way that a game can.

One other comment that Cuppy made in her article that caught my eye was:

It’s made for the office receptionist who logs in on her lunch break.  It’s made for moms, teens, non-gamers, grandmas, housewives, and those with little time on their hands.

So she thinks that the playerbase is mostly female, non-professional, and possibly non-economically productive. I’m not so sure, but then I don’t see the numbers.

In any case, if we criticise Farmville, are we being sexist? Is it like people bitching about Twilight or Titanic because they think it’s horrible that mass media aimed at women can be so successful? (ie. how can my wife/girlfriend/mum like that shit? She saw it X times!!!)

I say no. It depends entirely on what grounds you criticise it. Popular media has to be accessible, and whilst some people will complain because they just hate all pop culture and everything to do with it, there’s no reason why a popular book or film can’t be well written AND accessible. No reason why social games have to be grindy, cynical, unimaginitive advert-fests.

And also, ‘traditional’ gamers never did come out of their basements in droves to bitch about minesweeper or solitaire, even though these are probably still the most popular of all computer games, mostly with a female playerbase. They don’t complain about casual friendly games like Bejewelled, or puzzle games like Professor Layton, or even Pokemon. This is because they’re all actually good games.

To be honest, traditional gamers are also derisive of MMOs in general, never mind social games. And with some justification, because they aren’t really well designed as games. People play them for other reasons.

In any case, the proof of the pudding will be in how gamers respond to the new wave of social games. In particular, it will be interesting to see how people feel about Civilisation when that drops onto Facebook later this year. Will people be seduced by a game that does offer gameplay they like?

We’ll see. 60+ million people is not a number that can be easily ignored, and social gaming is transforming the face of the internet, never mind just the face of gaming. And I suspect many other traditional gamers are wondering for how long they’ll keep getting their high production, expensive games when game designers can see a cheaper path to higher profit and a bigger market.

It came from GDC: Are achievements harmful?

Untold Entertainment posts a great roundup of some of the sessions he attended at GDC (Game Developers Conference) yesterday.

I don’t have a lot to add, but I wanted to share this particularly for his coverage of a controversial talk about Achievements. It’s about halfway down the blog post.

Chris Hecker (the speaker) questioned the conventional wisdom that achievements are the future, and wondered whether they’re actually good for games. Or whether it’s just that game developers are leaning too heavily on prodding people into repetitive dull activities via rewards (i.e. Farmville) when they could be using achievements to actually make their games more fun and engaging.

Hecker took on Jesse Schell’s oft-blogged talk from DICE 2010, where he imagined a world where everything around you gave you points – your toothbrush gave you points for brushing, the government gave you points or money for raising your kids well, etc. Hecker suggested that Schell and two other respected colleagues were talking out of their collective asses, because they haven’t looked at the research, which says (among other things) that when you pay a kid for getting good grades, the kid’s grades subsequently drop.

So if you get people into the mindset of doing an activity just to get a reward, they’re less likely to do it afterwards without the reward, or when the reward gets deprecated.

I thought it was a fascinating read, and I bet it was a cool talk also. This is a link to Gamasutra’s coverage of the same talk.

We need bigger links!

  1. In a week where Blizzard announced their plans for upgrading Battle.net to support online Starcraft 2 play, RPS asks whether people really want to play online RTS. If you’re a casual player, do you want to be thrown in amongst the hardcore even if the vaunted ‘skill matching’ works as intended? Do you even see them as PvP games, or prefer your strategy to be player vs environment?
  2. Farmville sells its most expensive item, would you spend $42 on a ‘cheat code’?
  3. Would older gamers rather play together than die alone? wired.com asks whether shooters with the associated hyper-competitive online posturing are really a young man/woman’s game. (Note: this is why it could be a mistake for MMOs to drift to more shootery gameplay, do they not know the age of their demographic?)
  4. Tamarind@Righteous Orbs has an unfortunately named alt (but at least people will remember his name!)
  5. Tanking class comparisons? We got ‘em. Big Bear Butt Blogger has been playing both a paladin and druid tank lately and has written a couple of posts comparing them. Shintar has another angle on paladin vs druid tanking – I wonder if she’s more objective because neither is her main. Gameldar also writes about paladin tanking for warriors (ie. if you’re switching), but again he steers clear of actually making any value judgements.
  6. evizaer has been playing and writing about Global Agenda recently and in this post he explains why DPS Medics are a design failure. This will be a familiar argument to anyone who has ever played or whined about healers who don’t heal in PvP.
  7. Nerf the Cat plays through the Dragon Age DLCs, Warden’s Keep and Return to Ostagar.
  8. James Wallis proposes a new standard for distinguishing between games and … non-games (eg. software toys.)
  9. Locke Webster on the MTV blog looks at how Mass Effect changed the way he roleplays. (I have a longer post planned on this.)
  10. We like stories about good vs evil, but what is evil anyway? Jon Evans on the tor.com blog argues that every society has its own, changing notions of evil. And fantasy or futuristic societies even moreso. It’s an interesting thought for roleplayers.
  11. Syp explains why no one cares about Taris, referring to the latest SW:TOR infosnippet. I think the SW:TOR team should hire some cricket commentators, they have plenty of experience in filling airtime with chatter while raid stops play.
  12. And finally Mattel unveils … Computer Engineer Barbie. I’ve heard complaints that the laptop is Bismuth Pink but I think they miss the actual subversive nature of the new career — it shows that computer engineers can be girly too, and that’s the point.

The Morality of Free to Play

Whenever you get something for free, it means that somebody else is paying.

Michael Arrington has an essay on TechCrunch called Scamville: The Social Gaming Ecosystem Of Hell. And he’s asking who actually pays for the massively popular social games that are taking over Facebook. You might think that games like Farmville are free to play with options for players to spend real money on buying extra assets in game if they want. And then the micropayments fund the game. You’d be right, but that’s not the whole story.

There’s also a whole infrastructure of adverts attached to the games, where players are offered in game currency for filling out forms, subscribing to unrelated services, etc. And some of these adverts are actually scams (ie. tricking people into signing up for $10pcm mobile phone subscriptions). One thing’s for sure, there’s a vast amount of money on the line here, and the scammers are likely to pay the game producers at least as well as the legit advertisers if not better. If you read the comments on the article linked above, you’ll see several from people claiming to be involved with either social networking sites or games, who comment that the offers which monetize the best are the ones which scam or trick users.

As gamers, what we really want out of the whole system is fun games. So any payment scheme that motivates devs to produce anything that isn’t a fun game is against our best interests. Still, assuming that scammers will pay well for the opportunity to have their adverts embedded in a game with in-game incentives to sign up for the scam, what does that mean?

  • In subscription MMOs, it’s been said that casual players subsidise the hardcore so devs are motivated to produce content for the casuals.
  • In some types of F2P game, the hardcore players subsidise the casuals, so devs are motivated to produce content for the hardcore.
  • In a game funded by adverts, the advertisers subsidise all the other players so devs are motivated to produce content that drives people towards the adverts.
  • In a game funded by scams, the scammers subsidise the players, and the scammers are subsidised by the gullible/stupid people who fall for the scams. So devs are motivated to produce content for the gullible/ stupid or which helps trick people into the scams. Also, some of those gullible/ stupid people are actually children (who might be expected to be less sophisticated in parsing adverts, especially if they really want the in-game currency.)

Even if you don’t care about other people getting scammed, as a gamer you might not want games to go that route. Because our ideal is always that our games are paid for by people who want exactly the same things as we do. Which probably means us.