Ouch My Face Hurts! A Facebook Social Games Deep Dive.

Mochi Game Developer’s Fund Chronicles #2:   Ouch My Face Hurts! A Facebook Social Games Deep Dive

So I’ve never really played a “social” game on Facebook before today.  Since those types of games were propped-up by some as the “second coming” at FGS, and because the Mochi Game Developer Fund is looking for “social” games, I decided to experience these amazing monetary achievements for myself and see what I’ve been missing.  I’m not talking about successful Flash games with truly addictive game play that have been made to work with Facebook (i.e. Desktop Tower Defense),  I’m talking about the holy grail according to the four social games panelists at FGS: ones that have been built with Facebook in-mind from the ground-up.

Taking a cue from that very same Social Games Panel at FGS, I went to visit one of the “ladder owners”,  Zynga,  to see what games they advertise on their web site. I clicked on a game that I’ve never heard anyone talk about, Coaster Kingdom (sorry, I refuse to link to it).  I’m a huge fan of Roller Coaster Tycoon, and I thought this would be right-up my alley.

However, when I got to the “game”, my “deep dive” knocked me into reality as my head smacked the very bottom of this wading pool rather quickly and  it still hurts from the shock of it all.  What I found was really not a game at all,  just a fancy disguise on-top of the Facebook friends, awards and payments system

When I started “playing”, every step of the way, I was asked to ping my Facebook friends to continue the “game”.  I started with one crappy ride,  and some awards to send people.   I also got to click on some visitors and invite them to my park.  When I did, they were turned into coins.   Literally, from human to money.  That’s all they did for me.  In a well designed game like Roller Coaster Tycoon, the visitors walk around, ride rides, and enjoy themselves.  You get to feel the joy of entertaining them.  This social “Facebook” game” boiled that entire experience into the most basic, guttural type of transactions:  people show-up to your glittering kingdom, and they are instantly turned into cash.   It’s like you have the “Midas Touch”, where all you feel turns to gold.   I wonder, do the designers of this game understand that they story of “Midas” was a tragedy?   There is no “fun” here to dole out, just a basic, naked transaction.  I was shocked at the lack of respect paid to these in-game avatars.

At the same time I got the sense, while “playing” that the lack of respect the game has for the in-game “customers”, extends to the lack of respect the designers have for the people who play the game itself.  If you think about it, they too are simply designed to “turn into cash”, when they show-up to “play” the “game” .    There is no “joy” here at all.  It’s mechanical, and cynical.  The “game” here is little more than a meta-transaction layer on-top of an existing web site.
To do nearly anything I had to annoy someone living and get them to play.  In many ways, this
is no different from your standard pyramid scheme or multi-level
marketing program where you gain “prestige” based on how many people
are in your network.

Calling this game “social” is a stretch of that very word.  The only thing “social” about it is what makes it kind of “anti-social”:  You must spend your “social capital”  to continue in the game.  This is not unlike the “friendship goodwill” that is destroyed when someone tries to get you involved in a multi-level marketing or pyramid scheme.  When you are asked to join, you smile at first, when they continue, then you try to think of a way to end the conversation. Finally you realize that the only way to end it is to go away from this person  forever (or at least until they come to their senses).

Have you ever had a friend who was into one of these “pyramid” schemes?  Do you recall how their demeanor changed when they talked to you?  Did they go from talking to you about everyday things, to only wanting to talk about this new “business”? Did you get the feeling that every move they made was designed to convince you to try this great new “opportunity”? Were they always trying to get you to go to a “meeting” or a “party” where you would be hounded into buying something you did not want?  If so, are you still friends with that person?  Probably not.   The friendship goodwill was destroyed.

Internet “social capital” is a relatively recent outgrowth of social networks, but it is very similar to this concept of “friendship goodwill”  It’s a measurement of how elastic your patience can be with the updates and pinging you get from your social network friends.  After participating in a social network like Facebook for some time, you get to know who to connect with and who to avoid.  The ones you avoid have most likely, used-up all the “social capital” you are willing to extend to them.  How does it get used-up?  By receiving constant updates, invitations to groups, when they send you unwanted awards and gifts, and also, attempts to ping you into these “social” games like Coaster Kingdom.

There is a very real phenomenon brewing here and it is called named “Facebook Fatigue.”   More and  more stories are appearing use this term to describe how people are starting to tire of this kind of “social network” interaction.  Still, as of yesterday, Facebook is the biggest site on the internet (bigger than Google)…but that might be because they are also now the one of the biggest hosts of internet scams.  This is important to note.  Without the success of Facebook, games like
Coaster Kingdom could not exist.  They rely on ubiquitous,
single-sign-on platform  with millions of users for their systems to work.

The designers of these “social Facebook games” say that the audience for games is changing  and becoming more casual. No, that is not really the case.  Gamers are gamers, and they still like actual games.  The fact is, the internet itself has become more “casual” too, with many more people participating, and that means a much bigger and more diverse population to get wound-up into these types of “social games”.   Many of these new users arrive at Facebook as if it is the only site on the internet.  It’s almost as if Facebook has replaced the old “AOL” as the internet hot spot for “noobs&rubes”.

At the same time , apps like Coaster Kingdom are not really games at all.  They are, like Ryan from Untold Entertainment said at FGS,  “slot machines”.    However, they are slot machines where you spend both money and the social capital you have have created over the past few years. The irony is, it’s a slot machine with only pay-in, but no real pay-out.

To me, games like Coaster Kingdom fall into the realm of P.T. Barnum, “There’s a Sucker Born every Minute” territory of entertainment.  “The Carrot” of playing every day to gain more park “visitors” is like a virtual sign that says “This Way to The Great Egress”.  Players rush through the “game” part to get to what is next.  That’s good, because the game itself has been minimized to the point that there really is nothing there at all.  Roller Coaster Tycoon at it’s heart, was a builder and physics simulation.  Coaster Kingdom has none of that.  In fact, you could easily change the theme to “Auto Parts Kingdom” and the results would be pretty much the same.   However, players don’t need much of a game anyway, because they are always looking for what comes “next”. But, in reality, there is no “next” at all.  Just an empty door that leads to a trash filled-alley way, where they can ponder the validity of what they just saw. They then  discover that  their pockets have been picked, they have no ride home, and no friends left to call for help,after pissing them away by pinging constantly to play some damned Facebook game.

Update:  Uorp (Comment below, clued me into this awesome YouTube parody commercial for Farmville).

Interestingly, Farmville looks like it is MORE elaborate than Coaster Kingdom.

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