I find it particularly odd that many web games these days call themselves social games. Equally frustrating is the idea of virtual world games that really don’t have a game component at all – they are merely a way to customize your avatar, decorate your homestead, and chat with your friends in the same ways that folks already communicate via email, IM and text messages.
I realize that a lot of VC investors have sunk TONS of money into these companies and hope to see a great return on their investment. But do these otherwise bright investors think that having a users list is the same thing as retaining users, and finding ways to monetize their interest in playing a game.
I realize that I just used a VERY loaded word when I mention – monetize – as many game designers prefer to pretend to ignore that aspect of our industry. Some may even use the term ‘art’ when referring to game design. I prefer to think of game design as a pursuit. Always looking for new and innovative ways of providing fun. As an entrepreneur I also see game design as a product to be considered when you brand and market intellectual properties. Ultimately, I see game design as achieving value for the players.
So how do we fix this ‘social gaming’ and ‘virtual worlds’ problem. I’m not sure it has to be fixed, per say. It will resolve itself over time, the same as any new idea. Darwinism will win and the weak designs will fall by the wayside and the strong designs will prosper and evolve.
But, before I cop out and claim there is nothing for us to do but wait… we could do some genetic engineering – speed the process of evolution a bit by actually designing the games that will win in these new habitats. As players I can also suggest that you express your intolerance for crappy games that don’t deliver on the idea of social experiences.
So exactly what am I proposing? Well I don’t want to give away all my best secrets just yet, but I will share something about what I mean…
A lot of social companies have games that focus on signing friends up to help a player’s score or power base. Very little is done to allow those friends to play together – but I can read about their individual progress on their achievement or news feeds.
I would like to offer this, hopefully simple, solution – allow the performance of your friends to affect you own performance and to have goals that you will share together. For instance players could be trying to attain a similar goal of mining for resources (in whatever metaphor works for your world). As friends they should be able to pool equipment and work on the same mine – once it has struck pay dirt they will share in the reward. This, very little, idea of cooperation will pay off big time for the players involved.
There are literally dozens of pet games on social networks – why do they almost all lack in the actual game department. If the idea is simply to be a collectible Tamagotchi then all that you have is a fad that will lose players faster than you can figure out ways of monetizing them. I will liken this to the phenomenon of Pokémon verses Nintendogs. Millions of players loved Nintendogs and eagerly bought and played with their virtual pets. But how many of those players are still walking, feeding, and buying toys for those pets? Now consider a goal driven RPG like Pokémon, which has recently announced the newest set of a product that still has millions of loyal players. Many of whom have been playing since they were small kids and now have kids of their own. No other product can claim the staying power and dedication of Pokémon though all of its iterations. There may be a lot of reasons for this – but at least one of them is that the experience of playing Pokémon has a genuine goal – with a rewarding outcome.
So, I will encourage all of you game designers to think hard about what you are offering your players as both a goal to attain and reward to keep them coming back. I will also encourage the game players out there to not get trapped into the games that stopped short of providing those goals and rewards.