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Why social games need to take the road less travelled

More impassioned ranting from GDC

During the Game Developers Conference last week, one session took multiple social game creators and gave them the microphone to rant for ten minutes on a simple subject: why social games aren't evil and why the people that create them aren't ruining the industry.

Here's another transcript from that session, from Scott Jon Siegel, once of Zynga and now at Playdom where he was design lead on City of Wonder. Siegel was the youngest member of the panel, but as he pointed out in a special 'bonus rant', actually the most experienced of all.

Best read at break-neck speed with erratic gesticulation for emphasis to get the full effect.

First of all, I want to say how incredibly honoured I am to be up here - this is my favourite panel every year at GDC and it's incredible to be up here with such incredible people who have truly made an impact in my industry, so truly, thank you to all of you.

With that said, my rant this year is titled 'you're doing it wrong' with the subtitle, 'why the last two years have not been awesome enough.'

When I say you, I'm not employing some kind of royal you here, this isn't directed at the esteemed few up here on stage. I mean all of you. Everyone. If you're making social games, or even thinking about making social games, I'm talking to you right now.

I'll be fair - you're doing some things right. You're making money right, you're doing engaging lots of users right, you're doing creating jobs where there weren't jobs before right. But you're just not making great social games. You're making good games but not great games. And by great games I mean game changing games.

And the game needs to change, because it's just not good enough.

These are the faces of people who are getting our games. :)

They are seeing the game at its mechanical finest and appreciating the careful interplay of the game as rules. This is my favourite moment when playing a good game - getting what makes it tick.

And yet when I play a social game I never get this feeling. Instead I get this feeling. :(

Disappointment. I hit the system and it disappoints me. And since social games are my job, and my passion, I feel like this every day. Every day I play a social game, and every day I'm let down. I'm sick of it.

It really bums me out because two years ago, we were doing great. There was a sense that things were showing potential. We were on the right track, we were seeing real glimmers of hope. You'd see games like Parking Wars, way back in 2006. Games like Bejewelled Blitz - a mainstream game, yes, but reinventing itself with subtle rule changes. Games like Mouse Hunt, one of the most compelling and unique titles to ever grace Facebook - and it is criminal if you study this space and have not played and de-constructed this game.

It really bums me out because two years ago, we were doing great. There was a sense that things were showing potential. We were on the right track, we were seeing real glimmers of hope.

But I can't name anything in the last two years of social gaming which was as interesting to me as these titles. And I mean interesting from a critical game design perspective, not a business perspective. Lots of success, sure - massive, yes, but not interesting.

So what the hell happened?

As far as I can tell, this is what happened. One game changed the entire social gaming scene.

That game was FarmTown by Slashkey.

It wasn't made by Playfish, it wasn't made by Zynga, any of the big players at the time, and yet FarmTown rapidly became the biggest game on Facebook and the most influential social game of the next two years. Through a combination of a turn-based mechanic focused around harvesting crops and a deep integration with Facebook's request channel, forcing players to send requests in order to receive gifts and visit their friends farms.

And these features are very common now, they may seem very familiar, but they weren't in January 2009. In most cases FarmTown did it first. It influenced the entire industry to take up the same tropes. And that industry became fixated on success here.

But we weren't good at interpreting success beyond the simplest layer - we saw what worked and we did what came naturally. We started mimicking success, and then we started mimicking the other mimics! Everything became more and more recursive.

Even games which bore no immediate resemblance to FarmTown still retain these same patterns. We created all of these common vocabularies of success and we started repeating them. This formula is just bad habits and creates dangerous assumptions about what success means for social games.

I've seen some amazing developers come in and make Facebook games, and just do it wrong. Because that this formula is a foregone conclusion is one of the great fallacies of social gaming today.

I've seen some amazing developers come in and make Facebook games, and just do it wrong. Because that this formula is a foregone conclusion is one of the great fallacies of social gaming today. And what's worse is that this formula leaves the players with an assumption of the limitations of what a Facebook game can do.

What's even more worse is that it drives away potential new talent from the space, developers who just don't see what more can be done. So the fallacies propagate and spread.

Two years ago we made a hard right turn and we never looked back. We never considered the road less travelled and this needs to change. The best thing we can do now is to strongly rethink the last two years of social game developments, we need to start over. This is our Etch-A-Sketch moment, our chance for a blank slate, to give ourselves the time to think about what works on the platform. These brief and fleeting moments of procrastination we can choose to build and play.

Maybe we can think about how the magic circle plays into these brief moments, and how the best games create the magic circle within the player's mind even when the game is no longer in front of them. Maybe we can take a closer look at those early examples and find something new to iterate on.

Or maybe we can look over at the mobile space, which fills those same, idle moments in our lives through fast burst, low-friction gameplay and yet has seen a great deal more innovation than social games.

But the best thing that we can do is work together. No developer should be an island. If we can figure out how to do this right it will be a win for everyone.

Please, help me take the road less travelled.

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Dan Pearson

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