Whenever someone I know mentions Facebook games in front of someone else, a few lines of conversation transpire, during which they agree to agree to that Facebook games are not cool.
Maybe this means I hang out with a lot of people who love going to the theater, or else would rather play Left 4 Dead 2. In short, it might mean that Facebook games are neither high art nor high games. Re: the latter distinction, I'm sure if you mention Facebook games in a Gamestop, the manager pulls a shotgun out from under the register and racks it. (I am too scared to test this theory (absolutely no journalistic integrity).)
What's wrong with Facebook games? I Googled "I hate Facebook games", and I ended up here.
"I Hate Facebook Games." is the title of a Facebook community. A discussion thread on the wall begins with the post "They are boring games", a sentiment which is not punctuated.
"I Hate Facebook Games Likes This", it says beneath the post. "Farmville is not a game," says the chap who purports Facebook games "are boring games". "It is a big series of events."
"Even Harvest Moon on SNES was 1000x better than this..." says the next poster.
Outside of this page, I simply cannot find a more concise, potent summary of the public's general dislike of Facebook games.
Part of the art of criticism is trying to be positive, so I did a Google search for "Top Facebook Games", just to get a good idea of what the public likes. I stumbled onto a list. Of the games on that list I am familiar with, I can say I hate the majority of them.
For the record, none of my real-life in-person friends will admit to enjoying Facebook games. Some of my on-Facebook friends play the games. Still, it stands that I have never knowingly spoken to a person who is stone-cold financially addicted to Farmville or Cityville.
Facebook games are invariably free to play. "Free to play" is a clever little phrase which masks the idea that they are possibly not free to enjoy. Facebook games are "monetized". "Monetize" is a word that didn't exist so prominently in business until recently, until businessmen got the idea to offer people a free experience and then connive a way to get the users to pay anyway. They do this by constructing brain-labyrinths ("engagement wheels") through scary dark tricks of math and psychology. The games aren't about being fun—they're about keeping the player there.
When you look into the numbers, you find that somewhere around five percent of Facebook game players ever spend any money at all on the games. Some of the users spend $10,000 on a single game. The average amount of money a user spends is $1.70, though most users spend nothing. I am one of those "most users".
I have analyzed social games and concluded that the "best" thing about Facebook games is that they are making serious money for some people.
So, the "monetization" system that has emerged is a "good" one because it "works", though it only works on "less than five percent" of users. So, even the psychomathematiconomists employed in making social games could agree with me when I say it is a scientific fact that social games could be better.
In the interest of my chosen science— lolology—I will henceforth tackle, in the tried format of a "top ten" list, the following elephant-sized question: What would make Facebook games great?
I've always thought that Facebook games would be better if they drove re-engagement and improved discovery. Duh. That's what we all think, right?
"Drive re-engagement" means that a lot of people dip their toes into the game and then stop almost immediately. To drive re-engagement, you'd have to make a game people want to play a little bit longer before giving up—and then devise viral wall-posts persuasive enough to get those players to actually play the game again.
"Improve discovery" means that they should devise viral wall-posts persuasive enough to get people who have never played the game to dip their toes into the game.
You know what—we might not even need the rest of the items on the list. If you were going to make Facebook games "better", those are really only the two things you need to do!
Wow—and look at this! I just Googled "how to make Facebook games better", and it turns up an Official Facebook Blog post in which the only two suggestions for making Facebook games "better" are "drive re-engagement" and "improve discovery". I guess "better" isn't as subjective a word as we thought.
Looks like the mathematicians win again!
Right now, every Facebook game uses just the left mouse button. As they all use Java, or Flash, or whatever the brainiacs are calling the latest computer-thing, the right click is hard-wired to open up some kind of voodoo window to change some kind of web-browser settings.
Well, these Facebook-game-makers are smart people. They're so smart, they managed to get tens of millions of people to pay literally billions of dollars for stuff that isn't even real. If they were able to do that, they can probably figure out how to make a game where you can right-click on some stuff.
Imagine if, in addition to left click, you had a right click. That would literally be twice the options. Remember the Nintendo Entertainment System? The controller had two buttons—A and B. The Super Nintendo added X and Y. Now try telling me that Metroid is better than Super Metroid. Super Farmville would be so much better than Farmville.
I'm not going to talk smack about Zynga, I swear. For today, let's not talk about how their games are the electronic equivalent of an unraveled coat-hanger, their collective customers the consumer equivalent of an old Buick in a supermarket parking lot. Let's not even throw around phrases like "computer-engineered pharmaceuticals" or "the ghostification of modern society". Let's be nice. Let's admit that maybe we only think we dislike them, because at the end of the day, they're just a group of people who found something that worked and then made enough money to give Uncle Scrooge's Money Bin penis-envy.
Today, let's stick to the facts.
The fact is the characters in Zynga games look like something you'd see in a coloring book used for the part of the therapy where the child is encouraged to show the therapist which things in this barnyard scene he wishes were purple. I feel a little bit older than I probably really am whenever I look at Zynga game characters. When I see them, I am filled with a semi-intense desire to see them suffer. I am a perfectly normal person, so I imagine this is a perfectly normal reaction (also, that no one else reading this has ever worn a pair of new socks more than twice).
The worst part about the Zynga art style is that we live in a world of copycats, copytigers, and copypanthers. Also, the predominant method of thinking among marketers is that if something is popular, every single tiny element of it is greatly responsible for its popularity. So we see similar munchkin bobbleheads popping up in every other Facebook game.
I know we're not going to get triple-A graphics in these things anytime soon, because they need to run in a browser and they need to perform well on everyone's computer for maximum accessibility, et cetera, et cetera. I'm just saying to at least try to make your darn 2D look good. They say "it takes money to make money", and you want to make money, right? I mean, that's why you're making these games. Hire someone famous. Make the characters look like the Powerpuff Girls, or like the Scott Pilgrim comics. Or, make a post-apocalyptic farming simulator with characters who are a precise cross between Scott Pilgrim and Marcus Fenix. Just get those cold, weird ventriloquist-dummy grins off my e-lawn.
Every! God! Darn! Time! Someone auto-posts a social game update on my Facebook wall, it's just full! Of! Exclamation points!
"Hey! I'm having fun in Some Facebook Game!"
"If you joined me we could have more fun! Click here!"
"If you click here you'll get a reward!"
For god's sake! Video games! Stop yelling at me!
Take a lesson from The Nigerian Spanish-Prisoner Spam-Robot, people: set all your soulless ItGetsTheMoney.virus programs to "Dear Friend,".
Of course, the idea of Facebook games is that literally 97% of the world's population has a Facebook account, and that if you get one dollar from each of those people you can literally buy an entire planet and a rocketship to take you there. In order to get that one dollar from every pocket in the world, your game, of course, needs to be this hyper-simplistic thing where everything is beautiful, nothing hurts, no one ever wins, and no one ever loses.
Well, you know what people like? They like Fruit Ninja. What kind of psychopath doesn't like Fruit Ninja? I'll tell you who: I had an uncle once who probably wouldn't have liked Fruit Ninja, if he'd lived long enough to see it.
Fruit Ninja makes money—a modest amount of money (maybe only enough to choke a horse (as opposed to a rhino))—because sometimes Genuinely Cool People get Facebook Credits in their Christmas stockings, and what else are they going to use them on? You play Fruit Ninja because you love cutting fruit, and the fruit loves being cut. You want to get better at it. Numbers go up—you love them going up, and they love going up.
Fruit Ninja and Bejeweled are games that fit on Facebook. They are The Modern Tetris, in that they're as they're simpler and faster-paced—and I'm not being snippy.
When we say "social games", we are usually talking about games that will, following an accidental click on the wrong button, impersonate you, threatening suicide if your friends don't visit your farm Right The Fuck Now.
However, Fruit Ninja is just as much of a social game—and not because it's on Facebook. It's "social" because you're compelled to share your score with your friends. Any game you play with people is "social", I say—though the scientists behind these things would pressure me to point out that "social games" usually require the act of socializing to directly enhance the game experience.
How about this: in Farmville, it costs more money to plant strawberries than it does to plant peanuts (I think), though the act of planting them is committed with the same action: point, and click. In The Sims Social, there's a quest where you have to "Send Libelous Emails", and that's done the exact same way as cooking nachos in a microwave or watching television or having sex in the shower: you point, and you click. Why can't it be, like, you point at something, you click, and then there's a tiny little skill-game?
The web is crawling with little one-click games.
Here, I just opened the first game I saw on Flixel.org, and though it's not very good, it's at least more fun than Farmville, and its controls don't even require a single click. Why can't we have a little something like that every time we go to pick our strawberries, where your minimum score is always guaranteed, even if you fail, and optimal performance gives you a bonus?
Every Facebook game developer I've talked to this year has promised me, in a low voice, swallowing that last bite of hors d'oeuvre and wiping his hands on his thighs, that "Our game will actually feature synchronous play." The game never comes out. The next time I hear from the guy, it's via a Facebook message his mom is sending through his account: they have finally found the car.
Facebook games aren't about actually hanging out with your friends—they're about your friends being your neighbors. You can go over to your friends' houses and . . . look at all the stuff they have. That's about it. It's all just a kind of flimsy ghost story: in The Sims Social, you might be in your friend's house playing guitar in his bedroom while he is taking a shower, and at the exact same time, he might be in your house making waffles in the kitchen while you sit on a Dunkin' Donuts lawn chair outside. Games are, in general, liars. Social games are pathological liars.
How about a game where players can actually play together? Or how about this? A Facebook game where players have their own home, and they also have a town. They share this town with all of their Facebook friends who are playing the game. In that town, they form circles with their friends, and they build something together—a pyramid or a giant robot or something. I mean, Minecraft is something people like, right? I'm going to stop before I basically hand someone else a billion dollars. If you don't hear from me in a month, it's because I got a job at Zynga.
For a while, I was working with a medium-sized company that had developed one of those (now-many) tools for aggregating statistical data based on your Facebook friends—telling you who likes more of the same things you do than your other friends do, et cetera. They wanted me to "gamify" that data. I devised a thing that would spit out phrases like "Stephen Totilo is The Best Facebooker Among All His Friends! Challenge him!"
It was cute and weird, though it probably wouldn't have worked, firstly because it was insincere (behind its design specifications was a Cow-Clicker-ish smirk, a betting dare that "jerks will love this"). Secondly, it wouldn't have worked because—and this is the fascinating part: people in general just don't want to "win" when it means beating their friends. Backing up that statement would require me to blow your minds, and that wouldn't be nice (you might not all be wearing Protective Hats), so let's move along.
One key to Facebook's success is that it never explicitly tells its users they're better or worse than any other users. Rather, they leave it up to individual users to judge: "Leigh Alexander sure gets a lot more comments and likes on her posts than I do," one might muse. This translates smoothly into Farmville or Cityville or Whathaveyouville: The Sims Social doesn't post on your wall saying, "Fuck you—Amanda Glasser's house sure is cooler than yours." (Mostly it wouldn't do this because my house is objectively cooler than hers.)
Instead, games let the player decide for him or herself when they're not doing as well as their friends: the player visits his friend's constructed environment and thinks, "Wow—he's put a lot of work into this." This leads to a Manufactured Inferiority Complex. That's been the driving force of marketing ("You need this stupid thing now!") since the day the first caveman invented the wheel, the club, the hammer, and marketing (it was a productive day).
The psychologists and mathematicians and police have all sat down in a brain-tank and had a deep think about it, and the conclusion is that it's A Huge Financial Gamble to make a Facebook game that players can win (because: then they'll stop playing), and an Astronomical Financial Gamble to make a Facebook game that a player can beat his friends at.
Still: we need more competitive multiplayer Facebook games. How about you make it possible to lose marginal amounts of in-game assets to other players as a result of consensual multiplayer duels?
Let's make a Facebook game as tightly designed as Magic: The Gathering.
Seriously: Magic: The Gathering is a brilliant thing, and it's basically already a Facebook game. It's a card game that encourages collection via small payments (booster packs). It's designed from the ground up so that its math and rules are infinitely expandable.
Let's make it so that players can lose "cards" or "units" to friends who beat them in duels. Make it so that you get a free "card" (or two, or three) every day, and that you can pay a tiny fee- $0.10?—for an additional card. Maybe each "card" would only be usable a certain number of times: the "monster" the card spawns can be spawned and killed a set number of times before the card is destroyed.
There you go. Let's see something like that. (Not that I would want to play something that resembled Magic: The Gathering, because I'm so cool. (Ladies, call me; I swear my only obsessive hobbies involve writing 16,000-word reviews of video games in the first person.))
Somebody could just rip off Diablo—very tenaciously, with fair math—and there you have it. Players are allowed five lives a day. They can pay $0.25 for each additional life. Corpses stay where they fell for six hours. There you go: Zynga: The Arcade Game. Item drops include seeds or whatever—you can plant a little farm in your hub town.
$0.25 a life wouldn't be as lucrative as Zynga's ingenious "energy" mechanic, though hey—it would probably allow for a better game.
Zynga's Words With Friends does drag in a heck-ton of money. It's a "Scrabble" clone. You may know this game as "the only game your hip big sister has on her iPhone". It's incredibly addictive and fascinating thanks to its chess-in-a-bottle-style asynchronous play. Hey, guys, let's think of more board-game-y games. Let's get Rampart on Facebook, at least. Or Risk! Scrabble is cool. Now rip off some more cool stuff and Facebook it.
The Sims Social is creepy. It's a love letter from a computer virus. I don't want to play a game about sitting around at home and buying IKEA furniture. That's fucked up. You might as well make a game about washing dishes or brushing your teeth. If you're going to make a game about the yayness of having your own place, give it some personality. Animal Crossing did that. Someone should try that on Facebook. It's not rocket science (just computer programming).
Oh, hey, Age of Empires Online exists. I keep forgetting. It's not a Facebook game, though it might be relevant to this discussion. Let me finally get around to taking a look at it.
FIVE MINUTES LATER
Oh. Hey. I'll talk to you guys later!
For more I've written (very recently!) on social gaming, see this review of The Sims Social on my personal site Action Button Dot Net, and this feature about my experience as a social game designer on Insert Credit Dot Com.