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Farmville

Soren Johnson on “Fear and Loathing in Farmville”

I didn’t attend GDC this year, and I was glad to be able to see this post. I found it most useful to explore why, aside from the business angle, so many developers are enthusiastic about social media games. The “dinosaur panel” sounds like it’s something I should like to have seen. The four points at the end that describe things social media games have that are genuinely exciting — true friends list, free-to-play business model, persistent asynchronous play, and metrics-based iteration — very true, I admire those things in social media games. However, I also agree with virtually every criticism given of social media games in the post, comments, and links.

In my Freshman year at DigiPen, Christopher Erhardt said something to the effect that everyone in the room (all programmers) would have a choice between those who will consume player’s lives with additive games like MMOs, or settle for less money with less intrusive games. Since then the choice seems to have become more stark.

I didn’t choose to become a programmer, or game designer, to make things that customers would spend time playing. I chose this career because I wanted to make things that would improve people’s lives and give them something that they would take joy in. As much as I like that social media games engage players in games against their real world friends and have the potential to be low-impact and enjoyable diversions, the inclusion of mechanics like crop rot are the result of what seems like a perverse incentive system for designers. AAA may be a clunky and high risk business model by comparison, but at least it doesn’t involve compromising the principles that drew me into game development.

I have two further take-aways from reflecting on this debate. First, I’m heartened to see the moral backlash against Zynga and social media games in general building in intensity. I have strong feelings about this and I’m glad I’m not alone here. Second, through this lens my respect for Blizzard’s new Battlenet 2.0 system (to be fully introduced with Starcraft 2) is increased: They are combining real friends and social space tools, persistent asynchronous play through meaningful scores and ladders, and metrics-based iteration as demonstrated through their current closed beta process. The beta is also free-to-play, for now, and they’re helping players to invite friends to the beta so they will be able to play with others they know. They’re cracking a lot of the benefits that Soren Johnson ascribes to social media games in a AAA title, without selling their souls in the process.

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