A few months back I started playing through all of the main (free) Social Games available – I went through most of the games by the two major figures in the space, Playfish and Zynga, and a handful of the offerings from other competitors. I’m hoping to turn this into a series of posts on my observations through these games.
Why can’t you play nicely with the others?
One thing that struck me about these Social Games is how little social interaction actually occurs. Mafia Wars, the most popular social game, puts you in the position of a mafia boss. Friends of yours who also subscribe to the game comprise your mafia. You are able to request assistance on specific jobs from your friends, give them gifts and swap special ‘collectible’ items with them – but participation goes no further than this. All that distinguishes one friend from another is their name, avatar and experience level.
In fact, for a price, you are able to enlist random strangers into your ranks, who behave no differently to your peers. Equally, you are treated in an identical manner – your name used as a largely meaningless token in your friend’s Mafia engagements.
To an extent, this is an inevitable part of gaming – if I create a game-world with a limited complexity of representation, some features of my personality will be rendered irrelevant. The fact that I like long walks on the beach is likely to be insignificant in a game about intergalactic space battles, just as my intergalactic space tactics are likely to be unimportant in a game about long walks on the beach. In Mafia wars, though, not even my views on the Mafia make the cut – not so much as a D&D-style moral alignment or request to sacrifice progress toward one goal for another. Likewise, any charitable acts I engage in – sending out an “Energy Pack” or giving a gift to my peers – carries no consequence to me. The items are not available to me in the first place other than to give to others. Without any opportunity cost there is no decision for me to make, and no way to make my mark or distinguish myself from other players. When I play, no aspect of how you play has any impact on my game’s representation of you, and vice versa.
How it normally works
Most multiplayer games have been based on either symmetrical (largely turn-based) or synchronous play. Symmetrical games like Chess require that for every move that you make, I make one too. Synchronous games like Warcraft 3 and Halo rely on the fact that we are both given the same opportunity to act – they assume that every player is giving the game their full attention, so that any difference in impact comes down to a difference in skill. It’s not possible to rely solely on these techniques for creating a multiplayer experience in the social space – I may rack up ten times the average play-time of my friends in a week. A symmetrical, round-robin approach would mean that nine-tenths of my time in the game would be spent waiting for others to catch up, while a synchronous model would require that I be online at the exact same time as my friends in order to collaborate.
These traditional methods for creating a multi-player experience may fail in a larger social context, but they were also designed for a different quantity of players. Chess requires exactly two players to allow a game to proceed, and games like Warcraft or Halo require between 2 and 16 players. A typical social game has players in the thousands – Mafia Wars has membership in the tens of millions.
The second difference is in the length of engagement. A Counterstrike match is generally around 35 minutes, and a game of Warcraft 3 can last between 30 and 120 minutes. Mafia Wars and Pet Society offer a single, persistent game experience which lasts indefinitely, often with players racking up 30 minutes or more every day of the week.
The differences between normal videogames and “Social Games” do close off some possibilities for how to establish a shared experience, so while we can’t rely on symmetrical play patterns from a core set of players, we can make use of much longer time-scales and a vastly larger pool of players to draw on.
Rather than a single, one-to-one sequence of interaction, social games can make use of the wider network of contacts – engaging in multiple parallel ‘quests’, each one requiring roughly equal participation from its members, where the number of quests allows the player to scale their level of involvement. If I play 2 hours a week, I might participate in 3 quests, where someone who spends 10 hours will join 20.
Another approach is to let the game play itself – or at least to for friends to interact with a simulated version of the player, which is refined over the course of their play-time. Say I’m predictably good-aligned in most games (I am.) – If a friend of mine requests my assistance on a mission which requires some morally dubious action, It should be possible for my approximated self to decline any requests to participate. If it is necessary at some later date to request the services of a character with such dull and unflinching moral fortitude, My virtual character may offer his services up (or at least ask me directly whether to do so).
While breaking the convention of a game following a single, coherent thread, or providing a simulated copy of me and my behaviours sound like strange approaches, this is essentially already happening in these social games. Many avid “Social gamers” are registered in several services – and often several accounts – suggesting that thy feel that the maximum level of engagement available under a single game / account is insufficient. Likewise, any time a character bearing my name, experience level and portrait appears in a social game, it is effectively a simulation of me. It just so happens that the simulation is so poor that no two characters with the same level of experience can be considered behaviourally distinct.
What do we get out of this?
Using either (or both) of these approaches, we can come closer to having an actual social game experience. By relaxing the requirements for symmetrical participation, we can play alongside a number of friends – and be playing with them, rather the poor approximation we have now. By relaxing the requirement for synchronous play through improving that approximation, we open up new opportunities for participation.