The Future for Dummies
It's easy to deride Farmville and its players - but the lessons of social gaming are relevant to the whole industry
The existence of a book in the near-ubiquitous "for Dummies" series called "Farmville for Dummies" isn't exactly news, nor is it actually all that surprising given the game's enormous popularity with an audience who aren't remotely familiar with videogames or their conventions. Neither of these factors, however, prevented the re-emergence of this tome in a handful of blog posts this week from being greeted with howls and snorts of derision across the Internet.
To lay my cards on the table - I have never seen a copy of Farmville for Dummies, let alone read one, and I have no idea whether its content is full of sparkling insights and strategies for one of the world's most popular online games, or genuinely in the realms of the banal cash-in book. Then again, I'll wager that none of the book's detractors actually have that insight either.
What they're attacking and deriding, after all, isn't the book - it's the game it's based on, and more importantly, it's the players who choose to spend their time (and in many cases, money) on that game.
The chain of logic is simple - Farmville, as a casual, social game with its roots in Facebook, is below the attention of the "true" gamer. Thus, by extension, it must be utterly facile, to the point of being insultingly simple - and anyone who needs to buy a book explaining how to play such a simple game is clearly an idiot. Although, of course, they're already idiots for playing Farmville in the first place, so the so-called logic contains a fairly glaring truism.
If this were merely the viewpoint of a handful of internet forum "usual suspects", it would be easy to dismiss. The Internet is the most wonderful communication tool mankind has ever developed, but its regular users are familiar with its unfortunate side-effects of acting as an echo chamber for unpleasantness and of providing idiots who would once have individually blighted a village somewhere with a community of like-minded fools who embrace and share their daft ideas.
The reason that the aggressive reaction to Farmville for Dummies has stayed in my mind, however, is because it echoes - albeit in a rather less civilised way - a cognitive bias which I've come across not just in gamers, but in a great many people working in the games industry as well. It's a bias rooted in two basic ideas - firstly, that social games, since they run largely on web platforms and boast no complex graphics or sound, are simple. Secondly, that the largely non-gamer audience who plays these games are, perhaps through inexperience, easy to satisfy.
Neither of these (rather fundamentally connected) assumptions could be further from the truth. They are founded, presumably, in the same logical fallacy which leads many people to defend the complexity of their own field of expertise while deriding those of others as being "simple" - the fallacy that arises from the fact that the further you stand from something, the less detail you see and the less easily you comprehend its complexity. Those who have never made a successful social game look at Farmville and think, "I could have done that" - just as those who have never made a successful FPS game can't see how making a 3D shooting gallery can be all that hard.
In reality, successful social games offer complexity on a number of levels. The complexity of their development process is extraordinary - an iterative process based on multiple feedback loops and constant live testing, quite unlike anything else the games industry does, with intensely fine-grained attention being paid to the most fundamental aspects of interface design and game balance throughout the process. It's an entirely different skill-set from that which is required to make console games, or indeed any other kind of games.