Social Game Smackdown

So I’ve been struggling with my love for MyTribe and the way it’s been spamming up recently. I logged on the other day, and was immediately harassed for not playing.

I dislike this on a couple of levels. First, if the game’s any good, I’ll make time to play it. Trust me, I can find the time to play games I like, I don’t need to be punished or bribed into playing. Penalties like this turn gameplay into an obligation for me.

Second, I dislike the whole daily Tribal Bonus as a game mechanic. Adding the daily reward seems makes a casual Facebook game seem less skill-based and more luck-based. Admittedly there’s not a whole lot of skill in keeping your MyTribe people alive and well, but there are lots of individual choices. Adding a daily checkin creates a click-reward sequence that’s less like solving a puzzle or playing pretend, and more like a rat in an experiment.

I see so much potential in social Facebook games, that I’m frustrated when actual gameplay falls short. (Translation: Why isn’t the real world as awesome as my imagination?)

I’ve written before about the anonymous, automatic nature of virtual free gifting, but virtual trading doesn’t have to be so thoughtlessly spammish. What if we traded finite resources instead of blasting our social networks with free virtual goods? In MyTribe, that would be seeds, recipes and crafted items, as well as swapping salvage with friends to complete collections.

To see the appeal of trading for virtual items, just look at any MMO’s auction house, shopping in Big Fish-style casual games, and I even remember trading with NPCs at certain stops on the green-and-black Oregon Trail.  Instead of offering open borders (Don’t do it. Montezuma’s a jerk.) or weapon enchantment, a casual game tradescreen would offer players the chance to trade for new seeds or give surplus stock to new players. With so many possibilities for trading in Facebook games, it seems like a waste to be stuck on socially spamming free gifts.

Virtually trading an item from your own inventory has inherently more weight than giving twenty friends a free gift. You don’t have that cow or stork feather when you click on friends to receive your gift, so you’re not invested in the exchange. Collectibles, which I’ve recently learned are the lifeblood of social games, could still exist with finite resources. An example for MyTribe might be rare plants that require maintanence to grow and only produce a limited number of sharable seedlings. Or tiered items, crops that are required to unlock other, cooler recipes.

There would still be the option to brag about your resources on your wall, and since acquisition would be skill-based (based on a combination of trading, high agriculture stats and crop-tending), I’d probably be more inclined to do that than to let everyone know I’d received a random drop in a salvage crate.

Since the goal of many social games is to produce increasing numbers of clicks, a virtual auctionhouse would be successful there. Many WoW players have auctionhouse alts or check back at specific times to see how their sales are going. Not that I ever play Facebook games when I should be working, but if I did, I might check in now and then to see what was new on the AH. And an automated alert that my chuckberries had sold or that the recipe for cadmium blue dye was available might pull me back into a game.

Monetization would be easier, too, since a gooseberry seed with a high auction house price has more inherent value.  A player’s choice would now be between trading a virtually valuable item or paying a real dime to get the item they want. And a real-money price, even for players who haven’t invested Facebook credits or MyTribe pearls, could also add to the perceived value of items when players trade that item or seedlings produced from that item. I’ve also been in a lot of conversation at work about virtual currencies and the possibility of cashing out one’s virtual goods and services for real cash.

The social aspects to Facebook trading are even more interesting. What if you need that chuckberry or gooseberry for a dye recipe, but the only way to get it is by trading for it? Would we be helpful neighbors, offering our seedlings and salvage to our friends, or hoarders, making sure we were the only island with purple dye? And what would that do to our Facebook priorities? “Yeah, I know Sarah posts a lot of  pictures of her cats, but she is my only source for cadmium yellow dye…”

(Large portions of these were directly inspired by Darius’ awesome post over on Tiny Subversions about Spelunky as a Facebook game. Read it for an awesome blend of hilarious and thought-provoking.)

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0 Responses to Social Game Smackdown

  1. Tamar says:

    Gameplay as an obligation has been the driving force for quite a while. Unfortunately, many social game developers are now convinced that this is the way to keep players coming back to the game and, in effect, makes them money. I don’t think they’ll take time to consider other options unless someone attempts to explore what other methods work. This would *probably* have to be someone who has the energy and time to maintain such an endeavor and is not hell-bent on making a large profit from it.

  2. Meg says:

    I just see so many ways social games could generate clicks and microtransaction cash. Sure, it would be a lot more time-consuming to build, instead o fmaking another Farmville or Vampires clone, but creative games with better social exchanges would have a lot more staying power.

  3. Tamar says:

    Trust me, it wouldn’t be time consuming to build; it’d take a few months at the longest. It’s just that the companies find it safer to use proven techniques to generate the cash faster. However, at this point in the game, very few of the top social gaming companies are going to change their formula until someone else proves that a new concept it works first. Hopefully this will change now that more prominent figures in the traditional gaming industry are entering the social games scene. That and we need someone like Ian Bogost to create a game that isn’t an interactive satire 🙂

  4. Franklin says:

    I agree with you 100% Meg. My own experience on WOW (2 months while I wasn’t working) was overall pretty good. But to me the best part was the socio-economic part. Being able to quest out to gather a resource worth selling on the TH for a profit was one of the things that kept me in the game for as long as it did.
    I tried the farmville for a couple of months, but in the end found it was too much a “rat in the maze” experience…

  5. Meg says:

    @Tamar — But that’s just it: adding more value would improve the longevity of the game, and hopefully keep the micropayments coming in longer! Plus casual FB games would be a getter gateway drug into the hardcore games world.

    @Franklin — Been thinking about getting back into WoW, actually. There are some things I miss.

    My new job is actually for a social MMO where crafting, trading and exploration are more of the focus than questing. Pretty excited about it, since that’s what I liked best about WoW (and, if it doesn’t date me too much, EQ2).

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