Monday, May 17, 2010

Graduating Grandma: From Parallel Play to true Social Gaming

I've never understood where the phrase Social Gaming originated. It's a meaningless buzzword of a phrase that engulfs everything around it and hides meaning deep within, like a scrum. And yet it's here and pervasive and we have to deal with it. But what does it really mean? Supposedly games played on social networks. But are these games truly social? What exactly is social play?

In my own head, Social Gaming means interactive, i.e. playing directly with, or against, other players. (Perhaps competitive/cooperative is a better term.) For me Social Gaming also entails synchronous play, or playing with others in real-time. MMOs fall directly in this category. Does anything on Facebook? Surely. Poker fits neatly into this category. However, Poker is perhaps the only successful interactive synchronous game on Facebook (currently). Also, to be fair, real-time is a bit stringent. We could certainly just as well go with turn-based games. Which leads us to Scrabble-like games. (Remember Scrabulous, er, Lexulous?) Note, too, that Scrabble-like game games usually monetize on ad revenue --- not virtual goods, as is the current trend --- and teeter on the edge between turn-based and asynchronous play.

But how are most games played on social networks? Via Parallel Play, as opposed to interactive play. And asynchronous, as opposed to synchronous play. Then why are these games called "social"? You know, other than the social networking part? Many reasons, but mainly two: Because we share our progress with our friends, and because we invite our friends to play alongside us. And of course, via these actions, by sharing and inviting, we unwittingly (at first) and then willingly (when we leave the cave) become free advertising vectors for game developers.

Not all successful Facebook games are strictly non-interactive. Take My Empire. We ask for help from our friends to build things, making these games Parallel Play + Light Interaction. Other games take interaction a bit further, like Mafia Wars, where you are part of a clan that you build with your friends and fight against others. But you're stuck in an asynchronous universe with multiple instances. It doesn't feel truly interactive. In general, most Facebook games are very limited in their social aspects.

Is there room for an interactive, synchronous game on Facebook, one with more mature, satisfying social elements? I should hope so, because we're running out of themes in the God Game genre. Nearly every skin --- from farm to fish to city to medieval --- has been released. I feel, too, that for a very large portion of the Facebook gaming audience, FarmVille or a similar God Game was their first online game. Ever. (An overstatement, but it's certainly the first game many people played every day, the first game to which they were committed. ) It makes sense that these games were the earliest successful games on Facebook, because they're easy, addictive, and casual. They don't feel like gamer games, because they're not. This gave grandma permission to play. Now it's time to graduate grandma.

What genre of game will grandma play next? Probably not FIFA soccer (though this move by EA makes perfect sense considering 70% of the Facebook audience is non-USA). Graduating grandma will come in baby steps. So probably not City of Eternals either. I suspect it will come in the manner of a simple MMO in an accessible skin that requires group play to complete missions. I'm biased, but it feels like Puzzle Pirates could be a winner here.

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