Monday, January 31, 2011

Leveraging social networking for new game experiences

The rise of social networks has largely coincided with the current console generation.  Online networks like LiveJournal and MySpace always had a certain cult following, but it wasn’t until the latter half of the current decade that things really began to take off, especially with the introduction of Facebook and Twitter into the realm of social networking.  The inclusion of development tools for Facebook in particular has led to the emergence to runaway successes of Facebook games, most notably Zynga’s products Mafia Wars and Farmville.

However, while this market has proven itself to be at least successful in the short term for quick, easy to pick up and play games that leverage Facebook’s community features, they have largely been met with critique and scorn by traditional gamers, ostensibly for their lack of depth, as well as their inclusion of extensive advertising and freemium models of play.  While more traditional games, both those distributed digitally by smaller developers and big-budget retail titles, have attempted to integrate social features, these have been pretty mixed in their implementations – everything from posting multiplayer scores to Facebook leaderboards, to sending tweets about achievement progress, to wholly dedicated networks created by publishers, such as EA’s BioWare Social Network, and Ubisoft’s UPlay.

In the following few paragraphs I’d like to propose what could be possible in the future for social network gaming from a design perspective, how existing games can be improved by the inclusion of social networking features, and discuss what I feel will be the ultimate result of this phenomenon, consolidation between retail and web gaming.  This is less a formal article and more a smattering of my own collected thoughts, but comments are appreciated nonetheless.

Facebook doesn’t  just have to be about farming

So far, current social games have been pretty limited as far as their gameplay goes.  Farmville, for instance, is effectively a “lite” management-type game which requires frequent but relatively undemanding investment into the care of one’s farm – players are rewarded for both helping grow their own enterprise, but also by cooperating and getting their friends to join the game (one of its most criticized elements).  Some of the other most popular games available are clones of traditional board games such as Scrabble, classic arcade games like Snake, and branded tie-ins for television shows and other big-budget retail games.  There is nothing wrong with these sorts of games, of course, but they are undeniably experiences that fall within the realm of what was possible on the web before the advent of social networking.

Titles like Scrabulous do not need to be the extent of social network gaming.

While the types of games available on Facebook are effectively limited by Flash and Facebook’s own API, there is a lot of untapped potential for much more complex and full-featured games.  Existing titles have largely taken the route that smartphone games have, by providing play experiences that can be completed within the span of only a few minutes.  Given the ubiquity of web-enabled devices, however, it seems a little silly that the best of Facebook be essentially the most barebones of what web game developers have to offer.  While balancing quick play sessions with lengthy, retail-style storylines and quests could be a difficult proposition, it’s certainly not a challenge developers are incapable of meeting, given how many similar games are available on the likes of Xbox Live Arcade and Steam.

The technical limitations of the web platform mean that the best games to translate over are those which don’t rely so much on fast action, and instead focus on puzzle and turn-based play.  As any Civilization player can attest, the removal of fast reflexes from the equation of a game does not at all mean that the game has to be stripped of depth.  In fact, Facebook is wholly ripe for strategy, role-playing, adventure and puzzle games well on the level which populate handheld gaming systems like the Nintendo DS.  Visuals aside, there is no real downside to developing these sorts of games for web platforms, and providing deep, compelling game experiences to more traditional players could reveal new demographics, or reach gamers who may not have the money to afford game consoles or expensive computer systems.

I just conquered my friends list!

In addition to this, however, the design of traditional games could be altered radically in the wake of social network features.  Online leaderboards are certainly a way of providing integration, but this only scratches the surface of what is possible.  When design becomes informed by what’s possible in the domain of social networking, previously untapped potential is revealed that I think could totally revitalize the way traditional gamers play, especially in the multiplayer realm.  Down the road, the question may not be so much “how can we incorporate social networking into our game?”, and much more along the lines of “in what new and different ways will this game let players interact within their existing social networks?”

Civ World presents one of the first in a wave of new "harcore"
games that are truly built around social networking.

Civilization World is one of the first games that I’ve seen to attempt to bring a truly deep game experience to the realm of social networking.  In addition to providing a similar game experience to what players can get from the full retail titles, Civilization World also leverages the multiplayer potential of social networking by allowing players to form empires and battle against those on their friends list.  Effectively a multiplayer version of Civ that allows players to coordinate beyond the scope of a traditional game, via the inclusion of long-term goals in addition to short-term ones, it also introduces people who just don’t have the ability or will to get too involved in as complex a game as Civ by providing a gateway through friends and family members.  While the game is still in development, features such as custom leaders and civilizations informed by players’ own Facebook profiles could expand the feature-set of the Civilization series in a way that the most recent PC title, Civilization V, could not.

Another game design idea I’ve been batting around lately has been effectively a co-op Facebook role-playing game, one which features party-based, turn-based combat that requires players to coordinate with each other against both AI and human players to progress through the story.  Players will not only be able to create their own characters, but will also be able to effectively play as themselves by importing their profile information into the game (only should they wish it, of course).  Competitive play, as well as additional, serial-style episodes could also keep the game and story going into the future.  Not really an MMO, this sort of game design would hearken back to the CRPG games of the late 90s by BioWare and Black Isle Studios, a genre that has more or less died out today, but still has a sizeable fanbase and community surrounding it.  Technically advanced visuals, for this community, are far less a concern than game mechanics and story are, and thus I find web gaming makes an ideal fit.

Of course, there is nothing preventing traditional retail titles from integrating these sorts of features as well.  However, being able to frag your friends list is only one very limited part of the equation, which leads to…

The consolidation of retail and web gaming

In the near future, I can see social networking games going a couple of different ways.  The first of these is to have more extensive integration of the browser and retail games, with events and accomplishments in one influencing progress in another.  EA have already begun to experiment with their promotional games – the short Dragon Age Journeys web game unlocked some bonus items in the retail version of Dragon Age: Origins.  While Journeys featured a much different combat system inspired by Heroes of Might and Magic, the core Dragon Age experience was left surprisingly intact despite the technical differences between modern gaming PCs/consoles and Flash.  Journeys was never significantly expanded upon after the release of Origins, but the potential is certainly there for greater integration and experimentation… alternate quest outcomes or story events for those who have played or are playing the web version of the game, for instance, with the social networking features effectively being the true platform the game runs on, the glue that holds the experience together.

The second way I see games going, is that existing games will become available on multiple platforms, effectively feature-identical, and progress will be carried between both , for instance, the console version and the online version.  Already titles like Bejeweled are available over Facebook, but once again, this only really scratches the surface of what ‘s possible, especially as web technologies continue to develop.  Once again, it will be the social features that begin to define where a game “lives”, not what console it’s played on or whether it runs on the Unreal Engine or Java.

The pitfall to all of this, of course, is that that social networks are not unified; they are as discrete and separate as the existing gaming platforms are now.  While most individuals are more open to joining multiple social networks than they are to owning multiple gaming platforms, putting the effective ownership, or even meaning, of one’s game data in the hands of a social network, is not something that certain players will want to do.  Combined with the ambitions of publishers themselves to build their own internal communities around games, like the aforementioned UPlay and BioWare Social Network, this results in users needing multiple accounts just to get the full gaming experience.  Figuring out how to bring games into the realm of social networking without placing the functionality of a game in the hands entirely in one or more social networks will be a major challenge in the future.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting discussion.

    As a longtime wannabe game developer I've recently been looking at (and disappointed by) the way "multiplayer" works on various Facebook games.

    For my own game design I aim at something like you describe: "effectively a co-op Facebook role-playing game, one which features party-based, turn-based combat that requires players to coordinate with each other against both AI and human players to progress through the story."

    The real key point I want to target though is an intermeshing of the "casual" and "hardcore" gamer types. Facebook games generally work so well because you don't have to grind for hours upon hours to level up your character. But the players who do want to spend lots of time on them burn out for lack of things to do or limits on the gameplay (most often time limits).

    So in my design (sandbox RPG/strategy/building) there would be both "casual" gameplay and "hardcore" gameplay, and players would be able to advance using either or both sets of mechanics. If a player only wants to log in a few minutes a day they can still make progress. Or if they want to spend hours on it, they can do that too.

    Obviously the biggest issue in this case is balance, something you didn't really touch on. In most multiplayer games, time = power. How to resolve this is going to be a real challenge...but then again, who knows if I'll ever actually develop my game? I have a tiny fragment of engine and gameplay done, other priorities (eg work that pays the bills), and a design document that just grows and grows.

    It's a dream. :)