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.